Until the 1950s many towns and villages generated electricity using water wheels. Most were disconnected with the post-war expansion of the national grid, but there are still 20,000 sites in the UK that could be used to harness river and stream power to help to meet Government renewable energy targets.
When the writer visited Sarehole Mill, in Hall Green years ago, she met the miller who was grinding flour.
She admired the setting and the building. The huge water-wheel, mill gears and grinding stones and bakehouse were an impressive sight.
It was a great pleasure to read this month that – with a grant of £50,000 from Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery Development Trust – work will be done on the mill’s waterwheel so that it can be connected to a motor and generate hydroelectric power for nearby houses.
Other work is needed: three broken sluice gates must be replaced and the mill pond desilted, but other projects around the country show that with determination this one also could be successful.
In 2010, the Government’s Feed In Tariff was extended to domestically generated hydro-electric power and there are loans from several organisations, such as the Energy Saving Trust, enabling householders to borrow money to install a turbine or water wheel.
Some years ago the writer met Paul Lysley, a farmer who wanted to restore the old mill leat to produce electricity at Colham Mill in Wiltshire and also spoke to a member of the South Somerset Hydropower Group which is dedicated to bringing back mills into working condition.
With help from the local district council and part-funded by the Energy Saving Trust, this group has been installing new turbines, restoring blocked water-courses and repairing sluice gates in order to generate electricity.
The first community-owned micro-hydropower project (2009) now provides half the electricity needed in Derbyshire Co-operative Group’s food store. store, using the River Goyt’s fast flow. Grants were made by the Co-operative Fund and the Co-operative Bank. The Co-op plans to extend this support to other micro-hydro schemes across the country.
The Co-operative’s Yorkshire project at Bridge End Weir in Settle will use a modernised version of a 2,000-year-old Greek invention – the Archimedes screw, which easily pumps water to higher level – to generate electricity.
Hydro-electric projects have advantages over wind power, generating electricity whatever the weather. In October 2010, Climate Change Minister Greg Barker explained: ‘Our ambition is to have local communities, families and households generating their own energy and one of the most overlooked sources is water.’
David Timms, Friends of the Earth, said the scheme ‘means we can use part of our industrial and pre-industrial heritage to create a low-carbon economy for the 21st century’.