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Generating all the energy we need is a question of balance

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 11, 2012

The weir on the River Walkham near Huckworthy Bridge which is at the centre of a row over hydroelectric plans

The weir on the River Walkham near Huckworthy Bridge which is at the centre of a row over hydroelectric plans

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Battle lines are being drawn on Dartmoor regarding a proposed hydroelectric scheme, causing Martin Hesp to consider the whole thorny issue of power generation.

A row brewing on Dartmoor represents the region's first large-scale protest over hydroelectric-generation. We've had plenty of mass objections to wind farms in the past few years – now we're witnessing dissent over something which, on the face of it, doesn't have anywhere near the impact as tall turbines with turning blades.

At the same time another corner of the region is preparing itself for years of mass protest when it comes to the same thorny issue of power generation. If EDF does go ahead with its bid to build a new nuclear reactor at Hinkley Point then we can be guaranteed endless newspaper pages and broadcast minutes devoted to the ensuing arguments.

The WMN has reported on the Huckworthy Weir debacle on Dartmoor – but basically the story goes like this: the national park's planning committee originally turned down a landowner's bid to replace a 434-year old weir with a new scheme which would involve a hydroelectric generation project. The applicant appealed, successfully, having produced evidence claiming the old weir was falling down and that the feature in the Walkham Valley had no archaeological merit.

Cue: rage on Dartmoor. There's a local petition against the scheme, there are letters to the local government ombudsman, and the influential Dartmoor Preservation Association (DPA) has waded in to the fray describing claims made on behalf of the scheme as "palpable nonsense".

Those were the words used by DPA chief executive James Paxman when he told me: "We've objected consistently to this scheme from the start. We say it's the wrong scheme in the wrong place.

"You are balancing any scheme like this against the cost to the natural environment – and in our view the cost here is far too high."

In a way this statement outlines a fundamental point in the great power generation argument. Deciding on plans for any installation should always be a matter of seeking this balance.

And so, on one hand, we have a small project on Dartmoor which may, or may not, be capable of feeding electricity to 100 homes (its detractors insist it will be more like 30).

On the other hand, the region might soon be playing host to a giant generation project capable of supplying power to hundreds of thousands of homes.

Its supporters say the nuclear option is safe and clean – the people who loathe the idea talk about it leaving an inheritance of toxic waste for countless generations to come – and they worry about accidents.

When it comes to Hinkley Point, there is still a lot of balancing to be done – and someone somewhere is going to have to do it. Because the bottom line is this: we need power – and so far no one has come up with a way of generating large amounts of usable energy in a clean, 100 per cent safe, non-intrusive and sustainable way.

Until they do, we're in the business of balancing need against despoilment, damage and risk. Despoilment: in the form of spinning wonders on the tops of our hills. Potential damage: in the form of hydroelectric schemes in the wrong locations. Risk: in the form of atom-smashing reactors.

Where do we begin? Well, maybe we ought to go back to something else Mr Paxman said about the Huckworthy Weir scheme being the wrong project in the wrong place.

His organisation claims the particular corner of the Walkham Valley is too flat for such a project – which is why the scheme will require almost a kilometre of piping to take water out of the river and feed it down to a turbine. Hydroelectric schemes are dependent on the head, or fall, of water – if you have a stream on a steep mountainside then you don't need a lengthy head to muster the power to turn your turbine.

If this is true – and I don't have the contour figures in front of me – then I can see his point.

The same would go for giant wind-farms atop some of the Westcountry's many hills and ridges. They are monumental eyesores – moreover they are located long distances from centres of population, and everyone knows that lengthy power cables "leak" energy.

Some, too, would argue that Hinkley Point is in the daftest place imaginable when it comes to the admittedly freakishly rare chance of being hit by a tsunami.

When I pointed out a couple of years ago in these pages that the Bristol Channel was hit by a suspected tsunami in 1607 (more than 10,000 people perished), the people at EDF were furious with me – and took me around the existing Hinkley plant to show me the many fail-safe systems they've got in place.

Now, I happen to like hydroelectric schemes and wind turbines – in the right place. And so, for example, I believe wind-farms should be built in locations like ugly but power-hungry industrial estates.

As for our region's nuclear option, I cannot understand why we aren't spending similarly vast sums of money looking at the very thing that could, in some freakishly rare event, threaten the reactors. By which I mean the Bristol Channel, which has the second highest tidefall in the world.

Harnessing that power by utilising schemes placed under the waves (systems which have been proposed) would, in my opinion, come closest to that elusive dream of generating energy in a clean, 100 per cent safe, non-intrusive and sustainable way.

Mankind has yet to invent the machine that could come close to pumping all that water in and out of the Bristol Channel twice every day – but it shouldn't be beyond our powers of intellect to find ways of harnessing the big elephant-in-the-room gift which nature has bestowed on this region.

It is a hydroelectric scheme capable of making every other sustainable energy project in the country redundant.

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