In the early 20th century, the United Kingdom had 5,000 to 10,000 mini-hydro schemes, before the national grid became widespread. By the beginning of the 2000s this had fallen to fewer than 300. There is therefore no shortage of potential sites, the majority of which are brownfield. The single largest barrier to widespread take-up of small hydro was considered to be regulatory.
Small hydropower schemes can have complicated environmental impacts, including changing river flows, which in turn can affect fish migration and downstream habitats, as well as introducing flood risk. All new projects therefore require elaborate and costly environmental assessments. As a result the planning procedure was very long and complicated, with a variety of permissions needing to be obtained from several organisations.
The Environmental Agency of England and Wales introduced a more streamlined application process for small hydro projects. This included simplifying the application forms themselves, in addition to a number of other measures.
Firstly, it provided transparent sources of data for developers to support applications.
Through the online sharing of factsheets, the environmental issues that applicants should take into consideration are clearly highlighted. The Environment Agency is also promoting market intelligence by creating maps that highlight areas with high potential, as well as areas with known environmental sensitivity. These open-access online documents are therefore informing developers of whether consent is likely to be granted.
The application procedure now includes a pre-application stage, before a formal application is lodged. This means that weak applications can be removed at the pre-application stage, saving the Agency, and applicants, time and money.
The Environment Agency is also providing consultancy to installers. Up to 15 hours of pre-application support and advice is available free of charge, to help guide applicants through the administrative process. This tailored training is given early in the process, to help developers to produce well-designed, sustainable schemes, thereby promoting sustainable practices.
The Agency was responding to a six-fold increase in the number of hydropower schemes planned in England and Wales since 2008. In 2010, with the new streamlined application process in operation, the Environment Agency granted licences for 65 schemes, compared with 10 in 2008.
The scheme shows the value of offering administrative guidance, support and advice to developers. This is especially important in sectors such as small hydro where developers are more likely to be individuals or SMEs, who may not be well accustomed to the regulatory framework, or permitting processes.
As the success was mostly achieved through administrative changes, and did not require alterations to the complex legal framework around the various permissions, it has a good potential for transfer. It is estimated to be 7 on the GML scale.