Western Mail Profiles: Dr John Gallagher

John Gallagher is a researcher at Bangor University and is examining the technical, environmental and organisational challenges associated with the deployment of micro-hydropower in water infrastructure.

The price of our drinking water is on the rise. As electricity prices increase, the knock-on effect is that Welsh customers must bear the additional costs of treating and pumping our water. So what is being done to control the cost associated with providing our most basic and essential natural resource?

I am part of the Hydro-BPT project team, and we aim to help water companies identify opportunities to recover energy by installing micro-hydropower in their water distribution networks. The work explores potential sites where pressure exists and is in excess of requirements. A single micro-hydropower site may only generate a small amount of electricity and may not have a significant impact, but multiple installations on a regional scale could make it worthwhile.

The €1 million ERDF Ireland-Wales Programme (INTERREG IV) funded project is made up of researchers from Bangor University and Trinity College Dublin in Ireland. We are a multi-disciplinary team of experts in engineering, environmental science and business, working closely with an extended steering committee of water companies and industry partners.

So what is driving the need for this project? Well, the water industry is the fourth most energy-intensive industry in the UK. In addition, water companies have made commitments to halve their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Renewable energy is one potential opportunity that can help them become more sustainable.

My research focuses on two areas: identifying the most suitable energy recovery sites in Wales (e.g. reservoirs, pipes, valves, wastewater outflows) and calculating the environmental impact of these micro-hydropower installations.

This involves digitally mapping potential sites and identifying the opportunities and barriers, such as distance of power grid connections for exporting electricity generated. Our results to date have identified 50 suitable sites in Wales that have the potential to generate enough electricity to supply over 4,000 homes. This could save 4,300 tonnes of CO2 from fossil-fuel sources and save water companies almost £1 million per year. However, significant investment is needed to fund these projects, so the most cost-effective way to implementing micro-hydropower needs to be firstly ascertained.

Calculating the carbon footprint considers the environmental impact attributed to the concrete, steel and other materials required for constructing a micro-hydropower project. My work has shown that whilst a micro-hydropower project may have an economic payback of three to eight years, the carbon payback may be only several months; i.e. these installations can repay their environmental and economic cost in a reasonable time, offering a win-win technology for the water industry.

The project has drawn considerable interest from across the world and I’m fortunate to be part of a real impact project. Our findings could have real economic benefits to Wales and further afield, whilst also having positive impacts on the environment.

John may be contacted at j.gallagher@bangor.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail on 24th November 2014, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.