This story was told in a story circle at the Learning History workshop in February 2008.
Read a fascinating story of how Mill owners across Somerset were brought together to explore hydropower and how, enabled by funding, several installations took place. As enthusiasm for the idea has blossomed to adjacent areas and new groups have formed, problems with funding are now proving a barrier.
Grist to the mill - Hydropower in South Somerset
A story told in the “Down with Carbon” story circle
When I was working as an environmental projects officer and I was looking for a renewable energy project to facilitate, first of all, I thought it was a big wind project that was going to make a really big difference. So I contacted farmers; I looked through the wind speed map and made lots of contacts. But unfortunately politically, it just did not seem to work. It was very frustrating because it just did not work. And then I hit upon the idea of hydro-powered historic mill sites and I thought that perhaps that might be an idea worth developing.
And then I had a chance conversation with our historic building’s officer..and she said “Well I have all the contact details”. So quite methodically we rang them all them up and said, “Have you ever thought about hydropower?” And most of them said, “Yes, I have thought about it but it is quite difficult. It is expensive. It is difficult to manage and I just feel daunted about doing it,” apart from one mill owner who was actually thinking of developing and who had done a lot of research already.
So then I started visiting these sites. At the first site - Gants Mill – the mill owner was thoroughly involved with milling, understood all the old machinery and was very enthusiastic. Obviously talented, tenacious and he was willing to get involved in a larger project and be a good communicator. And then the second visit: you knew what was going to happen as soon as you pressed the door bells! It is a huge historic Victorian industrial site really - this stone mill. You press the door bell and it is an unlocker. And as soon as you get inside, the whole building is like that, it is really innovative. He has made his own equipment.
So, we got a group together. I held a meeting. We had someone from the environment agency come and talk about licensing. I talked about what the council could do to help. We had a hydropower expert to talk about how a project could be developed. And I offered a hundred pounds for feasibility studies for each site if that was matched by site owners. They all agreed so we had a group together. Then we got £95,000 of money from the Energy Savings Trust (EST) which gave the group a focus on something to discuss. We met at a rotation of each other’s mill sites, about once a month and the group’s been going now for about four years. And we have got six sites with installations and another four sites to go.
And adjacent groups have formed. There’s one in Mendip, one in North Dorset, on in Dartmoor and one in Exmoor. And we realized that there is a strategically significant amount of enthusiasm. There are over 100 site owners actively engaged in developing hydropower at their own sites. Either feasibility study or detailed design and it has really escalated. But the key idea that we have got to now is that the £95,000 for the initial group that was for the first group. But for the rest, they do not have money to actually take the project through. The enthusiasm is there, but the money is not.
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