Magazine article The Spectator

Something's Fishy

Magazine article The Spectator

Something's Fishy

Article excerpt

Hydroelectric power is bad for the taxpayer and bad for the environment? Why does no one say so?

Which is the best, most eco-friendly form of renewable energy? Most of us would probably guess hydroelectric. Unlike wind it doesn't blight views, chop up birds or drive neighbours mad with humming; unlike solar, hydro installations do not appear so dependent on massive public subsidy. Plus, of course, we live in a land of rivers and rain so it makes sense to harness The Environment Agency certainly thinks so. Out of 26,000 possible in- river sites around the country, it has listed 4,000 as ideally suited to hydro power development, and is licensing up to three a week. Already, around 17 per cent of the world's electricity and 90 per cent of renewable power comes from hydro. What reasons could there be not to join this green energy revolution?

Quite a few, actually. Besides being at least as unpredictable and costly as solar, within our small island hydro power turns out to be every bit as environmentally damaging as wind. It kills and mutilates fish, trashes historic spawning grounds and wipes out dependent ecosystems.

As with wind power, property rights are ignored. And all this at the taxpayer's expense.

It all started with such good intentions.

In 1890 a group of Benedictine monks built a hydro turbine in Fort Augustus abbey in the Scottish Highlands, powering the local village. Similar projects expanded on a bigger scale, and when electricity was nationalised dozens of massive plants were built. In the 1960s children were told that, one day, electricity would be free thanks to the new turbines whirring away under new dams and lochs. This may have seemed plausible in the Highlands, but extending this policy to flatter, dryer parts of England is causing mayhem.

Consider the case of Nottingham Angling Club, which in 1982 paid £150,000 for one and a half miles of fishing rights immediately below Gunthorpe weir on the River Trent.

For a working men's organisation this was a considerable outlay, but funds had accrued from its large membership and popular fishing competitions.

hydro turbine. The evidence from continental Europe - where some similar schemes in place for over a decade are now being ripped out - suggests that hydro power can damage the ecology of rivers and cause fish stocks to plummet.

This is not, of course, something you'll read in the promotional literature of the hydro power industry. 'Good for energy production. . . Good for climate change. . . Good for biodiversity, ' boasts the website of the Small Hydro Company, which is developing Gunthorpe Weir.

It claims: 'Far from harming biodiversity, our hydroelectric installations will actually be good for the biodiversity of navigable rivers. While screens deflect fish away from the electricity-producing turbines to ensure that migrating fish are not entrapped, entrained or impinged, the installation of fish passes at weirs will remove a barrier that has impeded migrating fish and eels since the rivers were made navigable in the 18th and 19th centuries. There should be an increase in both the number of species and the total number of fish due to these new fish passes.'

So much for the theory. In practice, research by Mark Lloyd of the Angling Trust suggests that the 'passes' and 'screens' (the escape routes for fish) are not efficient. Salmon, sea trout, eels, barbel, carp, chub, dace, roach, perch, bream and pike all move up and down rivers to feed and breed. Turbines disrupt this process, first by slicing and dicing those fish unfortunate enough to swim into their blades; second by blocking migratory pathways; and third - because water flow slows in the turbine - by causing weirs to silt up and become under-oxygenated, which harms small species and invertebrates.

At Gunthorpe, most of the river's flow will be directed through the turbines, slowing it from 45 cubic metres per second to under 12 at the exit. …

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