Case study: KPT Community Hydro

What is the history of the building, monument or area?

The KPT Community Microhydro is situated just outside Penpont, a village of about 500 people in Dumfriesshire, southwest Scotland.

How did the project begin and what community need(s) was it seeking to address?

The scheme came about for several reasons:

  • Local community councils were receiving thousands of pounds from nearby windfarms as community benefit. This was too little to finance large-scale projects, but could be used as seedcorn funding to attract larger amounts, especially if pooled.
  • People were conscious of rural depopulation (the population of this area has halved in the last 50 years) and thought the windfarm benefit could be used to start large-scale legacy projects to attract people and enterprises into the area and enable residents to stay.

The Penpont Burn microhydro scheme had been proposed to the landowner (Buccleuch Estates Limited – BEL) in 2008. While declining to take it forward then, BEL supported the aim that it should be a developed as a community scheme, and offered to sell and/or lease the necessary land.

So in 2016, three neighbouring communities – Keir, Penpont and Tynron, with a total population of about 1000 – formed a steering group to create the KPT Development Trust. With advice from Development Trusts Association Scotland (DTAS), this was incorporated in 2018, and its first major project was the community microhydro.

The KPT Development Trust’s aim was that the income from the scheme would help fund the large-scale projects that the Trust was envisaging, while at the same time utilising local landscape features, reducing carbon emissions, and providing a useful educational example of how water can provide electricity.

How did you source funding and support for the project?

A professional community consultation held in 2016 showed that the three communities were in favour of this project.

In January 2019, KPT Development Trust applied for a grant from the Green Economy Fund, offered by Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN) to cover most of the costs of the project: £181,259. SPEN awarded this amount at the end of March 2019.

The initial cost of consultancy, grid connection (not eligible for SPEN grant support) and surveys, amounting to about £20,000, was provided by windfarm money held by the KPT Joint Community Benefit Fund.

Volunteers in the community contributed over 2000 hours of work throughout the project in design, management and construction assistance, avoiding the need for costly external services.

How did the project progress from inception to delivery? What obstacles did you overcome and what were the major milestones?

A few local residents provided the main driving force of the project (‘the hydro team’). They had their own private microhydros as well as knowledge and experience of scoping and building such schemes.

The first major obstacle was that microhydro proposals in the area had been turned down for grid connection, because the whole of Dumfries & Galloway’s electricity network was overloaded with windpower generation. However, in considering the Penpont Burn proposal, Scottish Power said that as the generated electricity could be fed directly into a 3-phase cable distributing electricity to a number of local houses, there would be no overloading on the rest of the network, and this proposal could be allowed.

A second problem was that Penpont Community Council had asked for a CARES-funded feasibility study of the scheme, which had determined that the rainfall catchment area was not sufficient to produce enough electricity to make a viable return on investment, and the slope of the scheme was not steep enough to satisfy the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). On closer examination, it appeared that the study had omitted an area of rainfall catchment, had understated the output that could be produced, and had made an excessive installation cost estimate. The hydro team were fairly certain that the installation costs would be lower than the study suggested. In addition, a closer look at SEPA’s conditions showed that the slope of the scheme, although borderline acceptable to SEPA, could be deemed “Acceptable” on two conditions: if the hydro were a community scheme (which it was), and if the income from the scheme would be used to improve conditions in a community that suffered from a low score on the Geographic Access to Services measure on the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD). Although this area is relatively well-heeled, it did indeed score low on Geographic Access to Services, so this made it eligible for SEPA licensing.

The project began in earnest in September 2018: this was six months before the closing date (31 March 2019) of the government’s Feed-in Tariff (FiT), a subsidy that would approximately double the income from such a scheme for the first 20 years of operation (from an estimated £6,000pa at then current electricity prices to ~£12,000pa). The third major obstacle was to complete the necessary paperwork for the FiT in time. Preliminary FiT accreditation needed three permissions: ecological approval from SEPA; planning permission from the local authority; and a grid connection offer from Scottish Power. Any of these could take three months from submitting an application.

Before submitting applications, there was much work to do. Wildlife surveys had to be completed; we were right at the end of the season for surveying, but kind surveyors managed to fit them in. Details of the construction work had to be finalised and advertised, and tenders obtained. This was another potential obstacle: there are very few microhydro installers. We were lucky to get three tenders. All were viable, but after rigorous scrutiny one was selected and accepted the job. By mid-December 2018 the applications (for grid connection; to SEPA; and for planning permission) were submitted. All three were granted in mid-March: we had made the deadline for FiT pre-accreditation. Additionally, we had the funding for construction. It should all have been “Go!” at this point.

But there were further obstacles: legal arrangements for the lease and purchase of land took the next eleven months to complete; despite constant communication there was no way of speeding up this process, but eventually it was resolved. Then COVID happened, and lockdown began just as our hydro constructors were ready to start work. The solution to that was for the hydro team to live as a bubble, and as they were working outside they were not coming into contact with anyone; so they were able to begin construction in early June 2020. Then there was a timing problem: the farmers needed the work in the fields finished by the end of July. This involved excavating the trench for laying a mile-long pipeline, welding and laying the pipe, and refilling the trench.

But the weather was kind, most of the ground was easy to excavate, and the work was completed, astonishingly, by mid-July. By mid-September the two intake dams had been constructed; the pipe connected up; the turbine house was built, and the turbine, generator and controller had been installed in it. Finishing the work, trialling and snagging took another month, and the scheme was commissioned in early October 2020. 

How did you involve the community in your project?

The community was involved at all stages:

  • Residents were consulted about the positioning of the turbine house and the location of the grid connection.
  • Local contractors undertook the work of digging the trench and re-seeding it, and of clearing space at the turbine house site.
  • Several people living near the turbine house were worried about turbine noise; meetings were held and acoustic studies demonstrated that noise was unlikely to be a problem and so it has proved: the design of the turbine house and the tailrace reduce noise, and the sound of the burn masks it; no complaints have been received.
  • Farmers were worried that the roadworks needed for creating the grid connection would prevent beasts getting to market at the proper time, but with lots of diversions, communication and forbearance these problems were resolved.
What has been the impact of the project on the community? 

The scheme is now producing the anticipated income (or rather more than that owing to the rise in electricity prices) and its performance is better than expected. It was originally estimated to produce 112 MWhrs of electricity per annum, but has been producing 125 MWhrs pa.

The hydro turbine site itself is proving to be a good space, with a bench, for rest and contemplation of natural beauty. An interpretation board describes how the hydro works and what it does, in a manner designed to be understood by schoolchildren and other visitors to the site. Oftentimes dog walkers pause for a while to watch the monitor in the turbine house window clocking up electricity generation. The site also has a herb spiral, and two raised beds growing vegetables for all to help themselves. 

The Trust has also made great strides. We’ve:

  • Established a community café and a community garden, both promoting wellbeing and socialising, an increase in tourism and spending in the local economy.
  • Founded a hub for local businesses, encouraging the local economy.
  • Cleared and restored local footpaths, which are appealing to both local walkers and visitors and increase the appreciation of local scenery.
  • Purchased nine e-bikes for local and visitor use, with a view to enhancing leisure and reducing the carbon footprint of local travel.
What’s next for your project? 

Carbon reduction is a priority for many local people and Trust members. We’re working on this by:

  • Considering the installation of an electric vehicle charging point at the turbine house, where a conduit has been placed to take an electricity cable from the turbine to the parking area.
  • Establishing an active travel path between Penpont and the nearest town, Thornhill, which will result in more people, including schoolchildren, biking and walking to Thornhill.
  • Exploring further community transport options.
  • Encouraging local schools and colleges to visit the hydro and study the project with a view to stimulating interest in this clean electrical energy generation. COVID has hindered this process, but it is just beginning.
  • Planning a project to improve the insulation of local homes, many of which are old and stone-built. To this end, a survey of houses and heating types was conducted in 2020, but COVID has prevented progress on this.
  • Looking into providing sustainable, local affordable housing for both young people and the elderly. We will ensure that the affordable housing plans are of ‘passivhaus’ construction, thus reducing carbon use.
  • Expanding the community garden project in order to reduce food miles and increase the wellbeing and social benefits that gardening promotes. The Community Garden Group is in contact with Propagate, a similar (but more advanced) sustainable food organisation based in nearby Balmaclellan. A neighbouring community, Auldgirth, is developing plans for a similar food-growing project.
  • Liaising with Network 76 in Motion, a community project started in December 2021 and aiming to develop sustainable transport solutions and networks with and for a partnership of community trusts connected by, or near to, the A76.
To learn more about KPT Development Trust, check out their YouTube channel.