Environment Agency overhauls hydro planning rules

It is seeking to support the boom in mini-hydropower projects by simplifying the application process

The Environment Agency is simplifying the application process for developers and communities seeking to install hydropower schemes.

The move follows a review of permitting procedures, which was published in December. Standards of environmental protection will not drop as a result of the changes, it says.

The agency granted licences to 65 schemes in England and Wales last year, up from just ten in 2008. The growth is due to the introduction of feed-in tariffs (FITs) in April 2010, under which developers are paid a price for the electricity they generate (ENDS Report 421, pp 45-46).

There are now about 250 mini-hydro schemes in the England and Wales. The agency says there is potential for over 4,000 more without damaging fish life and these could generate 580 megawatts of peak capacity electricity.

But Ralph Underhill, the RSPB’s river basin planning officer, questioned these figures. He said they only took account of Natura 2000 sites, excluding sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and Water Framework Directive water-body classifications.

Assessment needs to be on a case-by-case basis and is dependent on the fish and river type, he added.

The legal framework for hydropower development is complex. Projects typically require four separate permissions from the agency: an abstraction licence, an impoundment licence, a flood risk consent and a fish pass approval.

Developers also require planning permission from the local planning authority.

From February, these will all be streamlined into a “unified suite of application forms and guidance” which will be subject to a “single decision process”.

Local account managers will be assigned to applications and will oversee them through to final permit decision.

Developers will be encouraged to consult local communities and contact local planning officers from the outset. This will help avoid later complications and ultimately deliver successful applications, the agency says.

However, opposition remains strong, particularly among angling groups, who have questioned whether the impact on the ecology of rivers and fisheries is worth the cost for the small increase in energy delivered. The agency rejected a number of schemes on environmental grounds last year (ENDS Report 431, pp 15-16).

The agency consulted on the proposed change last March and published a summary of findings in December. It found widespread support for the development of a single decision process, though some green groups expressed concern that this might lower environmental standards.

There was also support for the idea of catchment-level strategies to provide better strategic management of hydropower planning. The agency has committed to developing these as part of the Water Framework Directive River Basin Management Plans.

The RSPB’s Ralph Underhill welcomed the simplified application process and said the strategies would bring a “much needed strategic overview to hydropower development”.

However, as many of the plans will not be developed until December 2012, an interim strategy would be needed to coordinate developments in the meantime, he said.

Meanwhile, the agency is also reviewing its good practice guidance on hydropower, which were only published last October. It expects to consult formally on a revised version in February.

Environmental groups have repeatedly criticised the guidance as being too weak, saying it is not sufficiently evidence-based and that it should adopt a more precautionary approach.

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