Elan Valley Hydro – Victorian engineering at it’s finest

Last weekend I had a short break in the Radnor area of Wales – a part of the country that I’ve only ever passed through before. I was a bit skeptical about what there could be to do there but I was pleasantly surprised. It is beautiful countryside and in places has a real remote and unspoiled feel  to it. On the advice of the campsite manager we took a trip to the nearby Elan Valley, one of the main attractions in the area. There are 4 large reservoirs over two valley systems that were created to supply Birmingham with water. At first I think my family were a bit reluctant to “go and look at some dams”, but when we had had a good look around I think they were converted. The upper reaches are stunning and very peaceful (until a boy racer decides to rally over the mountain), the pictures below don’t really do it justice.

I was really struck by the craft that had gone into the construction – particularly the upper dam at Craig Coch. This was completed in 1952, and was opened by QEII as one of her first engagements as monarch. To quote the famous phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. That probably makes me sound really old, but I think it’s true that you don’t get that kind of flair in building these days.

Upper dam at Craig Coch

One of the other highlights of the trip was to see some quality “chunky engineering”. One of the first things you see as you approach the visitor centre is a retired hydro turbine – a combination of a Pelton wheel and a Francis turbine. I’ve not see this before -perhaps the Pelton wheel is used to bring the RPMs up to a suitable speed for the Francis? Maybe someone can correct me on this? This turbine was rated at 247 BHP or roughly 185kW.

Retired Pelton/Francis turbine

The replacement turbine is rated at 800kW. Each of the dams has its own turbines and there is also a submersed turbine on the water outflow. The combined peak output of the scheme is 4.2MW. Not bad as a by-product of a water supply to a major city.

New turbine in the turbine house at Caban Coch – doesn’t have the smooth line of the original Gilkes machine

Craig Coch dam and reservoir


World’s largest bathtub

Craig Coch dam – the “plughole”

Wild countryside above Craig Coch

Unusual weather vane





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EcoVert Solutions – sustainable and sympathetic developments

I recently met up with Tim Hulse from EcoVert solutions – a company that provides “House extensions, barn conversions and loft conversions which are in keeping with the original, and which, based on Passivhaus standards, go well beyond those built simply to current building standards in terms of energy saving and comfort”.

The company is less than a year old and is based in Chester so I asked Tim if we could meet up and discuss the possibility of me getting involved in his projects as I am keen to learn about sustainable building. The business also implement renewable energy tech where appropriate, and this is something I am also really interested in.

Tim invited me to the  “Home, Restoration and Salvage Show ” at Cheshire showground last weekend to catch up and have a look at some of the materials he uses in his developments. As we sheltered from the rain he gave me a run down of the products on display.

Tim Hulse – reluctant model

See the pictures below for some samples of the materials Tim uses in his developments. He has a clear passion for historic buildings and using appropriate materials in their restoration. It’s an approach I can appreciate and I look forward to following the progress of the company as it grows and (hopefully) getting involved myself.

Hemp chips, as used in hempcrete

Pavatex wood fibre board with lime render finish

Rainwater harvesting equipment

Samples from Ty-Mawr, suppliers of sustainable and traditional building materials





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Pedal Powered Party!

On Saturday 9th September, as part of the Cultural Olympiad, and coinciding with the closing ceremony of the Paralympic games, there will be a pedal powered party in Derby, UK. This will use the bicycle generators that were built by me and the other volunteers back in June and is the culmination of a series of events called ‘on your bike’ – a collaboration between Sustrans, Charity Shop DJ, Electric Pedals and Derby council It promises to be a great do with the generators powering sound systems for live bands and DJs as well as other performances. I might even take along my own generator to add to the power!

Info here:


Promo vid here:


Come along if you’re in the area!

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On a roll(er)

An update on the pedal power project – the generator is now up and running thanks to a friend of mine who generously helped me out with some metal fabrication, using the metal workshop at his workplace. These parts are namely the roller that connects to the shaft of the motor on which the rear wheel rests, and a metal bracket to connect the motor to the frame.

Close up of generator

The generator is held against the wheel by two springs that I salvaged from a washing machine – this could do with refining slightly, but it will do for now. Component with the three prongs is a Schottky diode, which controls the flow of current in one direction only – to the battery. If this were not present, the charge in the battery would reverse the current flow and cause the motor to turn as in it’s normal operation. In my excitement at getting the system running I neglected to allow for the heating effect of the diode and melted two of them! The diode is now connected to the metal mounting plate, which acts as a heat sink and dissipates the heat energy to the air.

Stripping down and checking the motor (hammer wasn’t required!)

So far I have used the system to charge my phone, inflate an airbed using 12v pump and tested it using 12v halogen bulbs:


I have also bought an inverter (converts 12v DC to 240v AC). This seems to be slightly faulty, but I have managed to use it to power a radio. The system now needs a bit of refinement to improve the quality but it is showing a lot of promise. I hope to rig up a small solar panel at home and combine it with this system to provide a trickle feed to the battery, then my garage will be off the grid!


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Tune-able LED bulbs?

LED bulbs are very much on the agenda for the National Trust at the moment due to the significant energy saving they can provide, and with the larger properties containing many hundreds of bulbs the savings soon add up.

With this in mind I was interested to read an article in the New Scientist recently about how differing light colours can affect our mood and energy levels, and that there is still some way to go to produce the ideal LED bulb. The colour level of a standard bulb of any kind is fixed throughout the day, whereas natural light changes between dawn and dusk, and this is used by animals to regulate sleeping patterns. This means that in the evening, when natural light levels are preparing us for sleep, artificial light sources are telling us that it is still midday and overriding this natural effect. For the same reason it is advised not turn off TVs and computers before bedtime to allow the body to get ready for rest.

Comparison of light levels from various sources

Here is the link to the article (needs subsrciption)


If you can’t view the link above, here is a similar article from GE:


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Become a National Trust Volunteer – Spotlight on Tom Eagle

Fame at last!!

Going Green

As I referred to in a recent blog on holiday cottages, The National Trust are lucky to benefit from the extensive knowledge and support of our volunteers. The following offers Tom’s thoughts on being a National Trust volunteer –



Name:  Tom Eagle      

Role Title:  Environmental Practices Assistant 

Overview of Role:   

There are two main tasks at the moment:

  • Carrying out environmental reviews at the Trust’s holiday cottages in Wales
  • Working on a solar generator, to be used at the Royal Welsh Show 

How did you find out about the role? 

I was using twitter and following the NT Wales feed and saw the Environmental Practices Advisors blog around work on hydro projects. I got in touch to see if there were ways I could get involved, and met them on site in Powis. There isn’t a formal role description, but Keith, Paul and I worked…

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Interesting blog about aesthetics of wind turbines that led to a heated debate about their use.

Natalie's Kitchen

This post was “Freshly Pressed” by WordPress on Thursday 28 June 2012, my thanks go out to all who read, liked and commented. It certainly made for a lively debate! 

Love them or hate them, wind turbines are a part of the landscape in many parts of the country now.

Last week I was in East Sussex for a few days, staying in a lovely blue painted clapper board house. To the left of the house there were imposing sand dunes formed of sand so fine and white you could be forgiven for thinking you were on a Caribbean island.   To the right lush green marshland spread out as far as the eye could see dotted with grazing sheep, fence posts, trees and turbines.

As happens when you have a small child away from the familiarity of his own bed, much of the night is spent getting…

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Pedal powered party

Here’s a link to a superb video that explains all about the pedal power workshop I went to a few weeks ago. Unfortunately it was filmed the day after I was there so you don’t get to see me in action!

pedal powered partying

My own project is coming along nicely and I should soon have a prototype up and running as I have roped in a mate to produce some key parts for the pedal power generator. Watch this space for more.

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No pain no gain

I’m a keen rock climber, and since the weather recently has been persisting it down, I’ve been visiting the climbing wall to keep in shape. A new bouldering wall called the Climbing Hangar has opened in Liverpool recently, and along with a multitude of bouldering problems there are several art installations around the building, including this one below, entitled ‘No Pain No Gain’, by Rachel Armstrong, a BA from LJMU (Liverpool John Moores University)

No Pain No Gain art installation

It caught my eye because it parallels closely with my own pedal power project for the National Trust – i.e. that you have to work for your reward, in this case audiovisual feedback through the tv monitor and headphones. The cycle is mounted on a turbo trainer and a light sensor measures the rotation of the rear wheel by sensing when the spokes are passing across it. A laptop is connected to the sensor via a customisable bit of electronics called a Phidget. To begin with the tv and headphones provide a bizarre and inharmonious selection of images and sounds that are gradually replaced by more soothing and pleasant ones, while a progress bar tracks across the screen to tell you how close you are to your goal. It’s an interesting concept and hopefully I will be able to integrate some of these ideas/tech into my own project.

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Hydro haven

Just come back from a long weekend in the lake district and as per usual the weather was a mix of glorious sunshine and biblical downpours. While I was there I managed to get a couple of runs in and also a couple of swims – one length of butter mere and grasmere.

I also took the opportunity to meet up with Garry Sharples, EPA for the northwest region, whom I met a couple of months ago when Keith took me up to the lakes to have a look at some proposed and current hydro schemes. Garry is based at The Hollens in Grasmere, which I think has the best conference room in the country!

Conference room at The Hollens, NT North West HQ

Garry updated me on the projects he is running, including the plethora of possible hydro schemes that have been mapped out on NT land in the Lake District. Many of these sites will undoubtedly be ruled out due to grid connection and other issues, but it just shows how much natural resource is out there.

Prospective hydro sites for part of the lake district

One of the prospective sites, and one of the largest is at Hayeswater. This is the site that Garry took us to see a couple of months ago. An initial estimate of grid connection was around £60k (by an M&E engineer). On submission to Electricity Northwest, the local DNO, this cost was revised to £1.5m – a factor of 25 times the cost! The first figure was based on being able to connect to the grid close by to the scheme, whereas the second is based on connecting to the grid in Ambleside, 14km away, as this is the nearest location that has the capacity to handle the extra electricity.

Garry also told me about Stickle Barn, in Great Langdale,which is an inn that the NT has recently taken in hand. Currently consuming £24k/annum of electricity, the plan is to install micro hydro to power the pub and supply the grid, and biomass boiler to supply hot water to the campsite across the road. I decided to head to the pub and explore the ghyll that will power the hydro. I was pleased to find some existing pipework from a previous hydro scheme (I’m a sucker for some old-school metalwork!), with the intake weir still intact.

Hydro valve

Existing hydro pipework in Stickle Ghyll


Looking back along Langdale

I look forward to returning to the Stickle Barn when I can enjoy some of the real ales – maybe I will have to stay at the campsite sometime and also enjoy the biomass powered hot water!

I also look forward to following Garry’s work in the North West as he gets established and looks to emulate the great work done by the NT team in Wales.

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