New hydroelectric power plants to transform and preserve some of the country’s historic watermills are being destroyed by a huge hike in application fees, energy campaigners warn.
Some watermills have already installed turbines to generate clean electricity, but campaigners say there are hundreds more across the UK that could be converted to hydropower to sustain the sites and power the nation.
The Environment Agency is now facing criticism for discouraging small hydroelectric power stations that can be installed in watermills after the application cost in England was raised on April 1 from £1,500 to between £6,110 and £13,392 – in some cases an increase of 790%. A decade ago the application fee for a hydropower scheme was just £135.
Money is non-refundable for an unsuccessful application, meaning many potential programs are likely to be unaffordable.
Sir Jonathon Porritt, environmental activist and former director of Friends of the Earth, said: “At a time when we should all be doing everything we can to promote sustainable renewable electricity, the fact that the Environment Agency has become the biggest threat to conservation and the restoration of traditional watermills is truly shocking.
“There has to be a change of heart before this reckless vandalism does any further damage.”
Watermills were built in Britain in Roman times and by the 11th century there were over 6,000 nationwide. Most mills were used to grind corn, and in the second half of the 18th century many were built to power the mechanized cotton industry.
In the 19th century there were over 20,000 watermills in Britain, adapted for a range of uses from powering blacksmith’s hammers to making paper and grinding bone for fertiliser. Many were later abandoned and fell into disrepair.
In recent years attempts have been made to convert watermill sites into hydroelectric power plants, with many successful projects across the country. Rupert Armstrong Evans, 72, an engineer who lives at the 600-year-old Trecarrell Mill on the River Inny near Launceston in Cornwall, said he wanted a new hydroelectric system to replace a previously outdated facility but encountered numerous obstacles the Environment Agency.
Armstrong Evans has advised on several potential plans at watermill sites and said it would now be almost impossible for them to proceed because of the new charges, including his own plan. The application fees for a small hydroelectric system and a water heat pump in a typical mill would be more than £19,000, he said
“That makes working watermills a thing of the past as there is no way for mill owners to bear the costs or negotiate the bureaucracy involved,” he said. “The ability to repurpose mills to generate domestic green electricity is being lost, as are the weirs and millstreams that were a feature of the British landscape even before the Norman Conquest.”
Members of the Wyre Mill Club, a social and boating club based in a former watermill on the River Avon near Pershore in Worcestershire, hoped to use the energy in the culverts beneath the mills for a hydroelectric scheme but say the new application fees are disproportionate .
Wyre Mill Club committee chair David Stanford said: “That actually makes it impossible. We’re accountable to members for how we spend their money and paying £15,000 just for signup fees is ridiculous. We hope that the government will change its mind on this.”
There are around 1,560 hydroelectric power stations in the UK. The minimum cost of a scheme is around £35,000 and the government says in its impact assessment that the increased fees could be a ‘disincentive’ for small hydropower schemes, but there have been only a small number of applications in recent years.
The agency said its staff costs for water abstraction applications are around £100 an hour and it wants to increase charges to reflect the costs. The new charging framework is said to protect the environment and England’s long-term water supply.
Simon Hamlyn, Chief Executive of the British Hydropower Association (BHA), said: “The concept of restoring hundreds of old mills back to pristine condition is an attractive proposition, but the Environment Agency has put the final nail in the coffin of hydropower’s new England .”
Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA), a group of councils committed to promoting renewable energy, has written to Environment Secretary Rebecca Pow asking for small hydroelectric plants to be exempted from fees. NFLA Chairman David Blackburn said, “This raise is outrageous and illogical.”
A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “We support sustainable growth and the contribution of renewable energy, but this must be done in a way that continues to protect the environment. The change to [hydroelectric power] Application fees reflect the fact that identifying a license is complex and time consuming due to significant and widespread environmental risks.”