Making hydropower a sustainable option

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Large hydrpower scheme

Making sustainable choices when planning developments is crucial to the fight against climate change, but it is also important to ensure that developers can implement these sustainable choices.

Hydropower schemes are one such sustainable choice. Widely viewed as a renewable, efficient and reliable source of energy, hydropower does not directly emit greenhouse gasses or other air pollutants and can be scheduled to produce power as needed. This sounds like a great thing but, as with any action that impacts the environment, it needs to be managed in the right way.

SEPA and our partners, Scottish Natural Heritage and Scottish Renewables, recently identified that the environmental guidance for the construction of hydropower schemes was complicated and potentially off putting for those considering the development of hydropower schemes. We decided that we needed to change that perception.

Sustainable choice

While operational hydropower schemes are a sustainable energy source, the building of them can cause pollution to the water that will produce the energy required. Large scale construction projects can cause long term pollution problems if they are not managed well. The three main areas of risk in constructing hydropower schemes are:

  • abstractions (removing water from the environment) – it is important to make sure that everyone has enough water;
  • impounding works (structures that changes the water flow or level) – this can affect all watercourses and construction firms need to manage the risk;
  • pollution during construction – mitigation measures to protect the water environment and surrounding habitat must be in place.

Due to the issues that can arise, permission to build must be sought from the local planning authority and an environmental licence must be obtained from SEPA.

Relevant guidance

In an attempt to help the construction industry understand the requirement to protect the environment, we worked with Scottish Renewables, SNH, Scottish Government and the construction industry itself to create a hydropower guidance document specifically for the construction industry.

We wanted to make an easy-to-follow and relevant document that pointed the user to the appropriate parts of the existing guidance without repeating the details. We did this by breaking it into small sections – including pre-construction considerations, surface water management, and restoration – highlighting the salient points of each.

The guide is designed to be an index of issues and solutions. It aims to reduce the time-consuming process of trawling through existing documents. It should prevent developers having to face further delays and costs to their project because, from the very beginning, they’ll know what we need from them.

In addition, referring to the guide during pre-construction discussions should save SEPA staff time in explaining our concerns. The preference for plans and maps over lengthy construction method statements, again detailed in the guide, also reflects its purpose of being less onerous and easier to follow.

Award winning

We cemented the success of this approach by winning the Scottish Green Energy Awards Sustainable Development Award in November 2015.

Having the guide nominated in these awards was a real achievement and representatives from all three organisations were there to accept the award.

Award for hydropower construction guidance

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