Large container ship at Blyth, Northumberland

Does the UK need Norwegian hydropower?

By 2021, a subsea cable built across the North Sea from Norway will provide enough power for 750,000 British homes, but with untouched hydro capacity in the UK, is this necessary?

The news that a £1.5bn, 450-mile subsea cable will be built across the North Sea to enable hydropower from Norway to light up the UK has come as something of a shock to the entire UK hydropower sector when over 26,000 sites have been identified as suitable for generating hydropower in England alone.

The UK has been generating energy from hydropower for more than a century; in fact Gilkes Ltd based in Kendal, England, has been manufacturing hydro turbines since 1853 - longer than any other company in the world. Currently almost 4,000GWh of electricity a year is coming from hydropower in the UK and the potential for another 2GW of capacity has been identified. With the right policy approach and investment it could be a major source of clean renewable energy, and by developing the sites already identified, the UK could generate more power than the 1,400MW that will come through from Norway. To put that another way, the cable from Norway will provide enough power for 750,000 homes and the sites we could develop here would power a million.

There's also the fact that this major engineering project will not be completed until 2021, six years from now, when even with the lengthy permissions process that UK hydropower developments have to go through, which takes on average two years, if we got started now then the sites could be up, running and powering a million homes in just three to four years' time.

So it seems difficult to comprehend that under the previous coalition government the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, spent two years working with National Grid to broker this deal with Norway rather than looking at ways to develop the sites identified for home-generated hydropower.

Simon Hamlyn, chief executive of the British Hydropower Association (BHA), says: 'It is a great shame that government isn't working a lot harder to promote the renewable energy potential in the UK rather than relying on imports. There is a significant amount of untapped hydro capacity in the UK that should be developed first.'

A new app being developed by the University of Leicester and High Efficiency Heating UK Ltd in the ISMORTASED project (Identification of Sites for Micro-hydropower On Rivers Through Applied Satellite and Environmental Data) will also make it much easier to explore new hydropower options. Dr Kevin Tansey, reader in remote sensing at the University of Leicester's Department of Geography, who has helped design the app, says: 'We are trying to quantify all of the hydropower potential in the UK and this app helps us to sum up the potential, categorise sites and look at the cost and viability of projects.'

The benefit is that all of this can be done using data that is already available, so in-depth site surveys don't have to be carried out at this stage. This can cut the costs of applying for permission for a hydropower site by up to 90 per cent, as well as making the form-filling easier.

'The challenges in getting new hydropower projects off the ground include the costs, the legislation and the form-filling. Our app can pre-populate much of the information required in the forms automatically without the need for a site visit.'

It does this by using Ordnance Survey data combined with socio-economic data, and its scope is global. Data for anywhere in the world can be fed in and several companies have already shown an interest in using it, including ID Energy in Canada and Silver Hydro in the UK.

But no matter how exciting this development is, and how much potential for hydropower in the UK is being left undeveloped, the contracts have been signed and the Norwegian subsea cable will be built.

Subsea interconnector cables

This latest subsea interconnector project, dubbed the NSN Link, is a joint development between National Grid and its Norwegian equivalent, Statnett. It was recently announced that Italian firm Prysmian and French firm Nexans have been contracted to supply undersea cable for the project while power technology company ABB will deliver the converter stations.

The 740km twin-cable link will run between Blyth, Northumberland, in Britain and Kvilldal in Rogaland, Norway, and is the first direct connection between the two countries' energy systems. The official line is that it will strengthen mutual security of supply and 'reinforce capacity in times of system stress'.

Prysmian will supply and install 950km of submarine and land cables for the UK and Norwegian North Sea sections of the route, while Nexans will supply the fjord, tunnel and lake sections, as well as the onshore connection in Norway. ABB will supply the high voltage direct current converter stations at both the UK and Norwegian ends of the link.

Shortly before the NSN Link announcement, contractors were named for another interconnector project, this time between Great Britain and Belgium. The 140km Nemo Link will be built by Siemens and J-Power Systems, with Siemens supplying the converter stations in Kent and Zeebrugge and J-Power responsible for manufacturing and laying the cable.

But connecting Britain to its neighbours by subsea cables to import, and export, energy is not a new development. There are already four in place with a combined capacity of 4GW: one to Northern Ireland, another to the Republic of Ireland, and one each to France and The Netherlands.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published a report in December 2013, 'Improving Energy Security and Lowering Bills', which states: 'interconnection has the potential to contribute to Government's energy security, affordability and decarbonisation objectives, including through facilitating the single European electricity market. Government supports an appropriate increase in interconnection capacity through projects that efficiently deliver on these objectives.'

But as the Norwegian cable won't be contributing to decarbonising our energy until 2021, it's a long time to wait to realise this benefit, especially when we have significant carbon-reduction goals to meet the year before that.

The BHA's Hamlyn says: 'UK hydropower is a well-established and proven technology which offers long-term generation with an 80-year-plus life. It is also the least environmentally intrusive and best value for money renewable technology. But nobody sat down to discuss the options with us. It's short-sighted of National Grid to have gone ahead with the Norwegian project and a great shame they didn't talk to BHA about the alternatives.'

In response, a spokeswoman for National Grid said: 'We are not allowed to operate or own any electricity generation stations. Our licence is purely as a transmitter, which includes interconnectors.'

So for National Grid it seems this was the right commercial decision to make. The bottom line, though, is that the support and investment for developing the British hydropower industry has to come from government policy and legislation.

Hamlyn argues that this support doesn't seem to be forthcoming and that the subsidy to stimulate investment has actually been reduced as it is deeply flawed, taking into account schemes that have not gone ahead. 'UK Government must support the UK hydropower industry and not rely on imports at a time when there is still so much hydropower opportunity in this country,' he declares.

DECC declined to comment on why it supported this Norwegian deal instead of exploring the options for UK development, saying it wasn't in a position to comment on commercial matters. Even though it had spent a considerable amount of time helping them to go ahead.

Changing perceptions

As is the case with many renewable energy projects, public perception of the turbines used can be one of the biggest challenges to overcome. This is particularly true when it comes to rivers, which have an important place in our landscape and our leisure time.

Tansey, from the ISMORTASED team, says that many people mistakenly believe that developing hydropower in rivers will have a negative effect on the aquatic environment and ruin views. 'But this is not true. The hydropower sector needs to find ways to break down these barriers and challenge the public perception of the use of rivers. The reality is that the micro-turbines that would be used in the suitable sites in the UK, many of which are on urban rivers close to the point of use, would be unobtrusive and would not interrupt the flow of the river.'

The app developed in the project can deliver many long-term benefits and with the right investment we could see the widespread proliferation of 'run-of-river' micro hydropower that will help provide a solution to issues of grid balancing by combining electricity storage with a reliable and constant energy source. It will mean that we can also stop replying on expensive projects to import energy that we already have the power to generate here.

Further information

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