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What makes a good hydro site?

A good hydro site is a valuable asset

You could write a book what makes a good hydro site, but in summary:

  • Good head
  • Good flow
  • Simple site layout with main parts close together
  • Good grid connection
  • Good site access
  • Single ownership of the site, or cooperative neighbours
  • Not too many environmental sensitivities

Good head

Head is probably the most important factor in haveing a good hydro site, provided all of the other parameters are satisfactory. The power, and therefore energy output from a site is proportional to head. The cost of a hydro system is to a large degree determined by the physical size of the civil engineering structures and the turbine, so as heads get lower and water volumes increase (because the pressure and therefore velocities decrease), the system gets more expensive. The opposite is true as the head increases; the system gets physically smaller and costs less while at the same time the power and energy production increases, making the return on investment higher. This doesn’t mean that low head sites are bad – at the end of the day the head you have is what you have – but it does mean that all things been equal, higher head sites are better than lower head sites. It also means that for any site it is always worth doing whatever you can to increase the head and reduce head losses, which can all be done by good hydropower design.

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Good flow

You can’t do anything without sufficient flow, so this is also important. Generally speaking, low head sites tend to have higher flow rates because they are in the lower-end of a river’s catchment in lowland areas, and therefore have a large catchment upstream with lots of tributaries. Higher head sites are usually higher in the catchment where the land is steeper (hence the higher heads possible), but also the catchment is smaller, so flow rates tend to be less.

This is no ‘right’ flow rate, it is just a matter of calculating how much energy you can generate and deciding whether it will be economically viable.

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Simple site layout with main parts close together

This is mainly in relation to construction and installation works. The perfect site from a construction perspective is a green field, with no constraints. As complications arise such as historic structures, public rights of way, historic machinery and natural features (like cliffs, bed-rock, waterfalls, springs etc.) the project gets more complicated and therefore expensive. Very few projects are ‘perfect green field sites’, so don’t worry if you have some of the constraints listed above, but be aware that more constraints means more construction cost.

It is also beneficial if the intake, turbine location and discharge are all reasonably close together. On lower-head sites this ensures that the civil engineering (i.e. concrete) structures are relatively small, hence lower cost. On higher-head system it means the penstock-pipe is reasonably short, which is important because this is often the most expensive part of a high-head hydropower system.

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Good grid connection

You may have a cracking hydropower site, but it is no good if you can’t sell the power because there is no grid connection! You not only need a physical grid connection, but it also needs to be ‘strong’ enough to take all of the power you will generate. Generally you will need a three-phase 11,000 volt supply either on-site or nearby. Ideally you would already have a suitable on-site transformer or substation so you can connect on the low-voltage (LV) side.

Very small systems (<25 kW) may be able to connect to a single-phase supply, and in some cases you can connect up to around 80 kW using a special ‘split-phase’ transformer.

It isn’t possible to tell how ‘strong’ a three-phase 11 kV supply is without formally asking the Distribution Network Operator (DNO). Renewables First can make grid connections applications on your behalf and obtain quotes for any grid upgrade works required. See here for more details.

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Good site access

For the construction stage, and to a lesser degree for on-going maintenance, the site will need access for construction equipment, delivery vehicles, and for large systems, cranes. Hence narrow lanes, tight corners, soft ground and obstructions caused by buildings can all cause problems which in the worst case would prevent the project progressing, and in the best case may just mean additional cost. These issues would all be considered when the hydro feasibility study was carried out.

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Single ownership of the site, or cooperative neighbours

In a perfect world the entire site would be owned by a single landowner. This not only makes the environmental consenting easier, but also means that commercial agreements between landowners are not required, which if they are usually means sharing a percentage the revenue. It is surprising how often such commercial agreements cannot be concluded because of irrational greed from one party, so it is well-worth discussing the project and how all stakeholders would be compensated at an early stage and getting the appropriate legal agreements signed before proceeding with the expensive consenting and design stages.

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Not too many environmental sensitivities

As discussed in more detail on the consenting pages, the process of getting environmental consents from the Environment Agency in England and Wales is bureaucratic and slow, though it is slightly better under SEPA in Scotland.

In all regions the more ecologically-sensitive a site is, the longer and more expensive the consenting process will be. In general terms hydropower systems can be safely incorporated into all but the most sensitive environments, and will always be designed to have no negative impact, and will often provide a net improvement, particularly for fish passage.

So environmental sensitivities (like migratory fish, fish spawning, protected species etc.) are not show-stoppers, but do slow the consenting process down and make it more expensive.

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Are you considering a hydropower project ?

Renewables First have considerable experience as a hydro consultant and have a full project capability, from initial feasibility study through to system design and installation.

The first step to develop any hydropower site is to conduct a full feasibility study.

Contact us about a feasibility study today!

Once complete, you will understand the site potential and be guided through the next steps to develop your project. You can read more about hydropower in our Hydro Learning Centre.

Minimise manual cleaning of your intake screen, maximise the financial return of you hydropower system and protect fish and eels, with GoFlo Travelling Screens. Find out more here.

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