Power to the People: Saddleworth hydro project is an example of a nationwide movement to make Britain greener.


At the start of Community Energy Fortnight (10 June), NFLA Secretary Richard Outram travelled to picturesque Dovestones Reservoir to visit his nearest community owned hydro project.

Saddleworth Community Hydro was holding a public open day to mark the start of Community Energy Fortnight 2023, a nationwide campaign organised by Community Energy England.

Saddleworth Community Hydro started in 2014, commencing operations in September of that year. It was the first high head project in England to generate power from the waters of a reservoir. At a cost of £500,000, it was financed almost equally by grants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and by the sale of shares to around 200 members, and subsequent upgrades have been funded by local supporters.

The dam height of 31 metres allows the project to utilise the compensation water that flows from the reservoir to nearby Chew Brook to generate enough electricity to power about 100 homes via the national grid. The turbine has 51KW capacity, with generation saving an estimated 170 tons in CO2 emissions annually.

Richard Outram purposefully took the bus to Greenfield and hiked to the site on a glorious Spring Saturday. On hand to welcome him, and other curious passers-by, were volunteer guides and project members Alison, David, Tony, and Andrew, who conducted a short tour and chatted.

Commenting Richard said: “Not only is Dovestones in Saddleworth, in my native borough of Oldham, Greater Manchester, a very beautiful spot in which to walk or cycle, or otherwise watch the world go by, but nestling beneath the dam is this wonderful community-owned project that is doing its bit, with the support of local people, to make our world a greener place. This really is power by, for and of the people.”

Saddleworth Community Hydro is a Community Benefit Society. One distinguishing feature that marks out not-for-profit ventures like these from commercial operators is that, by law, they may only pay out small amounts of interest to members with the remaining profits being used for community benefit. And with electricity prices being at an all-time high, the community benefit is considerable.

Richard said: “Members receive only a modest rate of return on their investment in renewable energy generation, but they are happy this is so as their motivation in investing is to do good by the planet and do good in their community, rather than corporate greed! Most of the surplus profit generated is recycled into the local community in the form of grants to local groups.”

Saddleworth Community Hydro operates a Hydro Sustainability Fund to support renewable energy and carbon reduction projects in Oldham and surrounding areas. Grants are available at a range of different levels up to about £20,000 and applications are particularly welcome from local organisations working with young people on renewable energy activities or for projects that will reduce carbon emissions, improve biodiversity, tackle climate change, or repair, and recycle household items.

One recent recipient has been St Barnabas’s Church in Clarksfield, which operates a food co-operative. The Church was keen to reduce its bills and carbon footprint by using electricity from a renewable source to keep food items chilled in its fridges, and it turned to Saddleworth Community Hydro for help. A grant from the project agreed last week will enable the Church to install roof-mounted solar panels to power refrigeration - truly manna from heaven.

Community-owned energy is not small beer. According to the 2022 Community Energy England ‘State of the Sector’ report, 495 community-owned projects operate in England, with 58,000 members and 644 full-time equivalent paid staff. 271 of these projects were directly involved in the production of electricity from renewable sources, with the remainder engaged in the provision of community transport or the take-up of energy efficiency measures. The 271 generating co-operatives have collectively 331 MW of installed capacity, generating 506 GWh of electricity. Together their endeavours save a whopping 143,000 tons of CO2 annually!

Commenting Richard said: “Saddleworth Community Hydro may not be the biggest renewable energy project in the UK, but it is certainly one of the most innovative. In Alison, David, Tony and Andrew, their passion to do good by our environment and their pride in this project was all too evident, and I hope that many more people will be able to visit this project and be inspired by their example to act themselves.”

Although the sector is still growing, progress has been slowed considerably with 68 MW of stalled generating capacity. This has been attributed recently by a House of Commons committee to the lack of capacity to connect new projects to the National Grid and the campaign group Power for People is also championing clauses in the government-sponsored Energy Bill to allow renewable energy cooperatives easier and fairer access to the energy market.

Exasperated, Councillor Lawrence O’Neill, Chair of the UK / Ireland NFLAs, wrote recently to the co-chairs of the government’s new Solar Taskforce, Energy Minister Graham Stuart and Chris Hewett, Chief Executive of Solar Energy UK, calling on them to recognise the contribution made by community energy co-operatives and to offer them real support and finance.

Councillor O’Neill also asked the Minister and Mr Hewett to ensure the required clauses in the Energy Bill were passed, and to make the development by the National Grid of new line capacity ‘an absolute top priority’ calling the current 10-15 year wait to connect some projects ‘crazy’.

The letter to the Solar Taskforce can be found here.