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Abingdon Hydro resubmits controversial planning application

27 October, 2015 0 Comments

Increased size of river scheme threatens greater disruption to local wildlife

Wildlife by the weir

One of the delights of my regular walks and runs across Abingdon weir over the past few years has been to observe the pair of grey wagtails that nest in the vicinity. Despite their name, grey wagtails are pretty, yellow breasted birds that love to be near running water.

I was dismayed, therefore, to see notice of a further planning application for Abingdon Hydro posted by the weir on Wednesday. I had hoped that this idea had been quietly dropped and we would hear no more about it. I sincerely doubt the scheme will ever be a fully operating concern but the team behind it, although very well-meaning in their intentions, have already shown a narrow-sighted disregard for the environmental welfare of this stretch of the river (see the tweet below) and I fear they may cause further damage before the scheme finally folds.
Slash and burn in February

The area around the bridge and the weir is full of wildlife and a delight to both regular walkers and occasional visitors who stop to watch families of swans and other water fowl, the wonderful grey wagtails and the rarer but marvellous blurred blue vision of a kingfisher darting over the water. Quite a lot of otter The area is also home to thriving populations of otter and water vole according to the Abingdon Weir Otter and Water Vole Survey Report of September 2015 which noted a “sharp increase in otter sign, compared to historic records, in the area”.

Due to the high levels of otter activity within the proposed development area, works may potentially have a detrimental impact on otter at the local level unless mitigations are implemented. That is, without mitigation there is the potential to disturb or injure otters, damage or destroy their resting places, and/or obstruct access to their resting or sheltering places. – Abingdon Weir Otter and Water Vole Survey Report September 2015

What do you mean by green?
For those less concerned about the wildlife and the natural beauty of the area, here are a few reminders of why this is a bad scheme irrespective of our grey wagtails, swans and otters.

Construction of the scheme is environmentally costly. Many tonnes of engineered metal would need to be transported by land and most probably sea to bring the turbines to Abingdon where they would be encased in a concrete structure topped by the large, steel-framed turbine building. The relative inaccessibility of the site means that there would be considerable carbon outlay on transport, installation and infrastructure works before the first watt of power is generated.

Will it turn my lights on?

Any power generated would not be for the benefit of the town. None of the electricity from this project would actually go to any particular houses in Abingdon or elsewhere. Any electricity generated by the Abingdon Hydro turbines would feed into the national grid through Scottish and Southern Electricity at the feed-in tariff, a rate determined and subsidised by the government.

No net benefit

Whether we benefit as a nation or as a global community is also unclear. There are big fluctuations in the demand for electricity throughout the day and the grid brings reserves in and out of service to match them. It is difficult to calculate whether the arbitrary trickle from the turbines at Abingdon Hydro, dependent on variable river flow and canoeists, would play a role in this. For it to have any impact on global warming, power generation by Abingdon Hydro needs to cause a reduction in carbon emissions elsewhere in the system and until we are shown that this is the case, we should be sceptical.

Follow the money

Renewable energy has to be a significant part of the way forward in tackling climate change but micro-generation schemes such as Abingdon Hydro only make sense when they are providing direct power to a suitably matched community or business. It is far from sure that they make any genuine contribution if simply plugged into the national grid although they do serve as a means of extracting subsidies from the government. However, even in the short term, it is uncertain that the scheme will generate enough money to pay its shareholders once ongoing costs are taken into account. As well as servicing the large initial debt required to top-up the scheme’s financial shortfall, money will also need to be laid out on ongoing management, maintenance and repair costs (potentially considerable in flood years). What is certain is that in the longer term there will come a time when the government brings to an end its support for projects that are not making a genuine contribution to the nation’s power needs. At that point, there will be no money. My fear is that if the Abingdon Hydro scheme does, against the odds, go ahead, its legacy will be an abandoned eyesore on the Thames, a very visible advertisement for how not to do renewable energy.

You can view and comment on the new planning application on the Vale of White Horse planning website.

Weir along the River Thames (Mat Fascione) / CC BY-SA 2.0
[Grey Wagtail by MortimerCat (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons](
[Otter by Catherine Trigg (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons](

Article first published on The News Hub

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