Gordon Black, Glasgow

Human beings have long been looking for innovative ways to harness the power of water. Over 150 years ago, its revolutionary application to the generation of electricity witnessed the birth of a hydropower industry that continues to flourish in Scotland.

Gordon Black is proud to be a part of Scotland’s current hydropower renaissance as increasing numbers of new – typically smaller – schemes are developed to create sustainable, commercially viable sources of low carbon energy. An Electrical and Electronic Engineering graduate with an MBA, Gordon spent most of his career in the Telecoms sector before becoming a founding Director of babyHydro Ltd in 2008. In addition to co-delivering hydropower training courses for the British Hydrological Association, he currently provides consultancy and advice on the development of small-scale hydropower schemes throughout Scotland.

“Hydropower has been in use for centuries and it really came into its own with the discovery of electricity”, says Gordon. Hydropower is now a well-established sector, with proven technologies tapping into one of Scotland’s most abundant natural resources. Today, Scotland is home to 1.5 gigawatts of hydropower capacity, enough to power more than 900,000 homes. At the end of 2013, this represented almost 23% of Scotland’s total renewable electricity generation capacity.

On a day-to-day basis, Gordon deals with the earlier stages of the process of establishing new hydropower schemes. “Typically, I will be working with the landowner in response to an enquiry,” explains Gordon, “undertaking a pre-feasibility study and making an assessment.” Not all locations are appropriate, however. “It needs to be physically possible and commercially viable,” he says. “As a rule of thumb, the bigger the scheme, the more likely it is to be commercially viable.”

Gordon illustrates the scale of the micro and small-scale hydropower schemes: “We are focused on run-of-river schemes, working on anything from 10kW (and given that a kettle is 3kW that gives enough energy to run 3 kettles!) to 500kW”. He explains: “With the ‘run-of-river’ schemes, there is no dam and no storage – you take water out of the river when there’s sufficient to create electricity; and when there isn’t, you don’t.”

As a natural resource, water is paramount to Gordon: “It’s everything in our business – we convert water flow to electricity.” He believes that the negative impact of run-of-rivers schemes upon the river and surrounding environment is minimal: “We take the water out, we run it through a pipe (down the side of a hill) through a turbine and we return it to the river. This creates a depleted reach – a length of river that has less water than it would naturally have – and the volumes are all specified by SEPA. We always leave water in the river – which we call the ‘hands-off flow’ – and on a wet day you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.”

The development of each hydropower scheme presents its own unique challenges, but there is one consistent theme: “If we’re going to design a scheme, it’s got to work in different conditions of rainfall, so that variability presents a challenge.” Poor design could allow silt to pour into a river, killing the fish and other species. “We’ve got to put protection methods in place to ensure that we avoid any negative environmental impacts”, says Gordon. He is keen to emphasise that compliance with current regulations helps to preserve our water environment and the aquatic wildlife that depend upon it: “All of the ecological and environmental considerations have to be considered as part of the planning permission and license conditions.”

“Our relationship with water is symbiotic, so it is vital that we look after our water resource and we should make as much use of it as we can”, urges Gordon. “It’s there as a natural resource and there is a significant opportunity to create lots of renewable, green energy.”

Understandably, as a small scheme specialist, Gordon favours the development of smaller hydropower schemes which can provide a long term return on investment: “Now we have a choice – we can build a few big dams and fill the glens or we can create a thousand small schemes in appropriate sites with good design standards”.

Gordon believes that smaller locally-funded schemes will have a greater benefit for the Scottish economy: “If we minimise the impact of each hydro scheme on the environment, more will get developed, creating a local economic benefit. The landowner gets the income and, in my experience, they tend to spend it on something else on the estate.” By contrast, he explains: “For the really large schemes, developers will typically borrow money, and that money tends to come from London or overseas – therefore all the benefit goes to London or overseas. The beauty of the smaller schemes is that the more local you can make it, the more the money – the capital investment – tends to be local and therefore the investment tends to stick.”

Hydropower is one important element in the Scottish Government’s commitment to make Scotland a “Hydro Nation”. Gordon explains that, in more recent times, the introduction of supportive government policies has had a significant impact on the levels of investment in hydropower and has recently been a catalyst for the recent growth in applications for small schemes: “With the pressures of global warming and the need to reduce our carbon emissions, hydropower is now experiencing a renaissance as a genuinely sustainable source of energy”.

By instigating small local hydropower schemes, businesses, local communities and individuals are able to become involved and play their part in in the fight against climate change whilst contributing to the local economy.

Read more about hydropower and the environment.