Mark Cropper, managing director of Ellergreen Hydro, sets the standard for micro-hydro in the hill farms of the Lake District, tapping into locally available energy resources with a 15kW generator.
Whether it is the fascinating ingenuity of the ancient Egyptian irrigation systems or bucolic images of rickety watermills that resonates, there is a certain romance attached to harnessing the power of water. For Good Energy customer and Homegrown ambassador Mark Cropper it is the enduring simplicity of hydro power that he finds so “utterly compelling.” Having spent a decade working in the “rather exotic, high-tech” world of fuel cell development and renewable energy finance, Mark made the jump into hydro in 2005. “It’s so proven, so durable – the technology has hardly changed in a hundred years,” Mark says. “With a fuel cell there is no guarantee that it will last any time at all. But with hydro there are turbines that were installed back in the 1880s still operating today. It’s incredible.”
Hydro power has become, by Mark’s own admission, an obsession. He set up his company Ellergreen Hydro - named after a family home in the Lake District – whilst working in The City. He started looking at the possibilities for more run-of-river hydro to be built in the Lake District and soon found out that there was huge potential. In 2008, “after a few false starts,” he really got his teeth into it and took up running Ellergreen Hydro full-time. The development at Docker Nook farm – a 15kW hydro generator - was his ‘test run’ when he inherited the remote, 300 acre, hill sheep farm. “It was with this little project that I educated myself about the realities of consenting and financing a hydro scheme,” Mark says. But it hasn’t been easy. “The barriers to entry are high as there are a lot of consent obstacles that can get in the way,” says Mark. “You have to be very passionate to make it happen. The fact is, very few schemes like this have been built in recent times, which can make all those involved in issuing consents and monitoring the potential impacts nervous. But once there are one or two projects leading the way, they set the parameters that can then be followed by others.”
It is this final point that Mark feels particularly passionate about. Options for diversification for hill farms like Docker Nook are limited, but for them to remain financially viable other forms of income are urgently required. “Installing hydro is one of the best options to consider. It has been absolutely key to securing the future of Docker Nook,” says Mark. “It ensures an income regardless of how the farm performs and means that I have the finances to reinvest in preservation and conservation – maintaining traditional stone walls and SSSI woodland, as well as bringing back heather and other wildlife.”
Three years in gestation, and costing £85,000 – covered by a loan from the Agricultural Mortgage Corporation – Docker Nook’s hydro generator started spinning in February 2010. It has a life span of around 50 years and, thanks to Good Energy’s SmartGen Feed-in Tariff scheme, Mark plans to earn around £12,000 a year from the surplus electricity exported. This means he should be able to pay off the loan in around 8 to ten years. The installation also saves the farm around £250-£350 in electricity bills a year – the farm also receives the Feed-in Tariff generation payments. When the hydro scheme isn’t running – around 30% of the year – Mark imports electricity from Good Energy and provides it to the farm for free. He also pays the resident farmer for any time tending to the turbine. But thanks to some high-tech additions, Mark’s scheme demands minimal maintenance. The intake is a self-cleaning Coanda screen, and after installing a broadband BT line Mark can monitor the generator’s performance remotely. A weather station, also connected to the internet, means Mark knows when the turbine should and shouldn’t be generating electricity. As Mark remarked on several occasions: “It’s just so simple once everything is in place. All you have to do is wait for rain!”
However, installing modern technologies in an environment as natural, aesthetic and rugged as the Lake District – an area that relies on tourism for much of its income – could be a concern. But, says Mark, “you can see almost nothing of the equipment.” Usually tucked up inaccessible hillsides, the concrete intakes are rarely visible from any distance. At Docker Nook, 200m of buried pipeline fall a total of 30m leading to the holding shed, which Mark has taken pains to match with the surrounding buildings. The doors are solid oak, made from a tree that came down on the farm in the gales of 2005.
And it’s not just the doors that are locally produced. The whole Docker Nook project has a decidedly neighbourly feel to it. Mark has built up his very own ‘D.I.Y hydro team’ from skilled local residents who have now moved on to working on his next project – another hill farm hydro just a few fields north of Docker Nook. The project manager is a gamekeeper who grew up in the valley, Longsleddale, and brother of the Docker Nook farmer. The pipelines were laid by a farmer from a nearby valley and the technical side of the installation was put in by local company, Gilkes, based a few miles away in Kendal.
“The Ellergreen Hydro message,” says Mark, “is that hydro really is worth looking at on farms. You need to be patient and passionate but things will get easier in time.” And now that Mark has left his, albeit well hidden, mark on the Lake District energy scene, he is shifting his focus to Yorkshire where he is in the process of getting consent for a project in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. “It’s the first projects of its type there,” says Mark. “It’s great to have the opportunity to set the standard that others can follow.”
Thanks to dedicated Homegrown energy entrepreneurs like Mark tapping into locally sourced resources, our vision of a 100% renewable UK gets ever closer to becoming a reality.