Everything you could want to ask about Reading Hydro, answered. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, do get in touch. Or if you want to help us answer questions like these, why not get involved?
What is a hydroelectricity project?
Wherever water falls a decent distance there’s an opportunity to generate power. In centuries past, waterwheels would turn machinery to mill flour. Nowadays Archimedes screws and other hydro technologies have replaced waterwheels and electricity generators have replaced millstones.
How did Reading Hydro start?
In 2013 different ideas for community energy projects were being kicked around Transition Town Reading’s Energy Group. In early 2014, after discussing these ideas with the Greater Reading Environment Network, they came together and The Reading Sustainability Centre (TRSC) was formed. TRSC started the development of a hydroelectric project on Caversham Weir. The project became Reading Hydro CBS Limited, and by a happy mutual agreement legally separated from TRSC in 2017.
What is a Community Benefit Society (CBS)?
Reading Hydro is a Community Benefit Society (CBS). This means that we’re a democratic co-operative that benefits our community and returns profits to it. You can find out more about community benefit societies here and here.
Has this been tried before elsewhere?
There are already plenty of other community hydro schemes across the UK. Upstream on the Thames there are Osney Lock Hydro in Oxford and Sandford Hydro, and downstream there’s Sonning Hydro. Across the country there’s plenty to be inspired by: Whalley Hydro in Lancashire, Rumbling Bridge in Kinross, Callander Community Hydro near Loch Lomond and many more.
An example of a community hydro
Who runs Reading Hydro?
Reading Hydro is a Community Benefit Society – a cooperative business run democratically by its members.
Our members elect directors, all of them volunteers, who take legal responsibility for the project and make sure it meets its aims. Currently our directors are Sophie Paul, Anne Wheldon, Michael Beavan, Andy Tunstall, David Whipple and Tony Cowling. We also have co-opted several members with specialist expertise as voluntary advisers to the Reading Hydro board – find out more about them here.
When did we get planning permission?
Where’s the money coming from?
In 2015, The Reading Sustainability Centre was awarded a DECC grant to carry out preparatory surveys, start applying for permissions and undertake the public engagement work needed to the project off the ground. A Pioneer share offer and a grant from the Reach Fund in 2018 enabled us to commission preliminary designs, and prepare the business plan, documentation and publicity for the main share offer.
The main share offer and follow-up offer in 2020 raised the £980,000 needed to finalise the design and build the scheme. Much of this came from individual investors, mostly local, and we also received institutional investment from Co-ops UK.
How can people invest in the project?
Our community share offers have raised all the core funding needed to finalise the design and build the scheme. However we still welcome donations and small grants towards environmental work associated with the scheme, like improvements on View Island and a mural on the side of the turbine house, and to support future educational activities. Ideas and contributions welcome!
What are the potential risks of investing?
As with all investments, you’ll be putting your money at risk. We publish detailed plans explaining how we’ll make sure things will work and keep working on our Share Offer pages. You’ll need to read them and understand the risks before investing. If things go wrong, you could lose some or all of your money.
Other community hydro projects are doing well, generating stable returns for their investors. Whilst that is no guide to how this one will do, it certainly shows what is possible and has been achieved in this way.
When will construction begin?
Whilst COVID restrictions delayed the start of construction, Reading Hydro volunteers, with COVID procedures in place,were able to begin clearing undergrowth and rubbish on View Island during the summer of 2020. Land & Water, our civil engineering contractors, started on site at the beginning of October 2020 and are making great progress with building the concrete structure. Volunteers continue to clear the ground for the natural fish pass on View Island.
When will the turbine start generating?
The turbines are currently being manufactured by Spaans-Babcock and are due for delivery and installation in Spring 2021. We hope that the system will be fully commissioned in Summer 2021.
How long will the hydro scheme last?
The scheme is designed to keep generating for 40 years. Some components will need to be replaced during that time.
What happens in a flood or a drought?
In flood conditions the river may be nearly as high below the weir as above, so the turbines will generate little electricity. Our agreement with the Environment Agency means that, for safety, we may have to shut down altogether at such times. Generation may also have to stop during drought conditions if the Environment Agency requires us to stop taking water.
We took both of these factors into account when estimating the output from the scheme, by using historic data to model the system performance.
Who has designed the hydro scheme?
Early plans were drawn up by a local hydro engineer. We commissioned the outline and final designs from specialist consultants Renewables First, who worked closely with our civil engineering contractors, Land & Water.
How much electricity will it generate?
We estimate that the scheme will generate, on average, 320 MWh of electricity a year. This figure comes from modelling the performance of the system using 16 years of historic data on the height and flow of the river Thames at Caversham weir.
To put this in context, that’s enough to supply all the electricity for about 90 households consuming the UK average of 3,800 kWh a year.
Will the project change how the weir looks?
The hydro scheme will be a small new feature of the existing large man-made construction that is Caversham Weir. Much of it will be underwater. There will be a small turbine house, built using block construction and we plan to have a mural on this to make an interesting addition to the riverside.
How will we protect wildlife?
Obstructions like weirs prevent fish from moving up a river, and thus disrupt their life cycle. Fish passes can help, but the design of the current fish pass next to Caversham weir is such that only the most sprightly fish can navigate it. As part of the Reading Hydro scheme, a new, more natural-style fish pass will be created through View Island. This will help a range of fish and also eels move up stream, as well as creating habitats for fish to spawn and wild flowers to grow.
Reading Hydro volunteers have cleared a lot of rubbish from View Island, which will boost the natural ecosystem. Bird- and bat-boxes have been installed to actively encourage more species to stay on the island.
Why's hydro a good way to generate electricity?
Hydro schemes cut the emission of greenhouse gases and other pollutants by displacing fossil-fuel generated electricity from the grid. Hydro schemes produce no emissions during operation, and those associated with manufacture and installation are minimal compared to fossil-fuel generation, averaged over the lifetime of a scheme. Using UK government figures, we estimate that Reading Hydro will save about 5,600 tonnes of CO2 during its 40-year operating life.
Reading Hydro will also help the national electricity supply. Our performance modelling predicts that the output will be highest in winter and spring which is, conveniently, when the demand for electricity is highest in the UK. And the hydro scheme will keep generating at night, when solar PV schemes stop
Who else is involved in the project?
Reading Borough Council granted us planning permission and the Environment Agency have granted us licences to use the river. We’ve had strong links with the Reading Sustainability Centre from the start, as well as with Transition Town Reading and the Greater Reading Environment Network. We’ve had help from Low Carbon Hub and we’re a member of Community Energy England and Co-operatives UK.
How will we involve everyone in Reading?
We’ve had fantastic support from the people of Reading. Before COVID restriction, we regularly took part in local events to talk to people and encourage them to become members. We were thrilled by the local media interest in our share offer, and local people who bought shares sent messages of encouragement as well as their money. The hydro site is close to the town centre and many people walk past every day and get interested – some people who are now active site volunteers found us by being passers-by!
In coming months, when the practical work nears completion, we’ll do more to open the project up to everyone in Reading. We hope that COVID restrictions will allow us to have a live launch event, but if not, there will be a video-conference. We want to be able to offer presentations to schools, community groups, local businesses and others. Our open data will allow people to follow the performance of the system.
Is it going to be noisy?
We’re confident that any noise from the turbines will be masked by the noise of the river as it goes over the weir. We’ve had an initial noise assessment as part of the Environment Agency requirements, and it will be repeated when the turbines are operating to confirm that noise is not a significant. Our site is much further away from houses than Osney Lock Hydro is and they are not having any problems with noise.
Is it going to harm fish or newts?
We’re a group of local people committed to our community and to our environment. Because of that we’re taking extra care in how we design the hydro project to protect wildlife.
The natural fish pass we’re creating will enhance biodiversity, by allowing fish and eels to travel upstream more easily. It will also provide areas for fish to spawn, wild flowers to grow and butterflies to feed. Our surveys have established that there are currently no great crested newts on View Island, and we hope that the shallow ponds associated with the fish pass will inspire them to take up residence. Birds and bats will be also be encouraged by the nest boxes which have been installed.
We’ve carried out newt surveys, and aim to enhance rather than harm local habitat.
Why local energy?
Local renewable energy projects are great for several reasons. They harness free local natural resources, helping to reduce our area’s carbon emissions and combat climate change.
There’s a high demand for electricity in Reading. By generating some of this electricity close to where it is used, we help cut losses in transmission and distribution – which currently waste seven percent of UK generation.
Local projects also inspire people by making renewable energy a local, tangible option – not distant or even offshore. They’re a fantastic educational tool, demonstrating sustainability right on our doorstep.
Where can I find Reading Hydro's accounts and society rules?