Water Powers on after 700 years

OVER THE centuries the ancient waterwheel at Gants Mill has turned to grind corn, help process wool and produce silk.

Today the building, which was fully restored in 1995 by its current owners to become a visitor attraction, is still carrying out its original task – the making of animal feed for the farm – but with an added role: it also makes and sells electricity.

 The mill, which dates back in part to the 1200s, is owned by Brian and Alison Shingler, whose family have farmed the site at Bruton since 1949.

Brian is the group secretary of The South Somerset Hydropower Group, which was formed in 2001 by 10 mill owners in the region to explore the viability of producing environmentally-friendly energy, via their age-old mills. i

Into the Grid

 Brian”s mill is the first to become operative, feeding about 40,000kWh per year back into the local grid – the equivalent of 10 normal household”s average consumption per year. It is hoped the other nine mills will be on line during 2005.

 “We have not done this to make money, in fact it will take many years to recoup the outlay for the turbine and generating installation. The water flow was not really working to its full potential, this way we can keep the mill operating which will justify it being there,” says Brian.

 “When the whole scheme is up and running, the group”s combined efforts will generate 600,000kWh of electricity per year, sufficient to power 150 normal sized homes.

There will also be the added benefit of saving 260t of fossil fuel carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere – so it makes a lot of sense in the long term, both economically and from an environmental point of view.

“There are around 40,000 historic mill sites in the UK, where small-scale hydro electric generation would be viable. Imagine the effect this would have if they were all converted to produce renewable sources of energy.”

The hydropower group engaged Devon-based consultants Hydro Generation to conduct a feasibility study for their scheme and the company also negotiated the various extraction licences needed by the Environment Agency. This, coupled with the backing of the South Somerset District Council, brought grants from the Energy Saving Trust and South Western Electricity Board, making it possible for the group to launch their ambitious venture.

Just a mile away from the Shingler farm, conversion work is in the final stages at Cole Mill, the home of Richard and Diana Scott.

Long-Term

 “It will probably be 15-20 years before we see a return on our expenditure – our motive is very much ecological and any little bit that can be done to reduce the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere has to be good,” said Richard as he recently watched the final touches being applied to his new turbine. “With that end in view, we are eager to see the mill contributing to the scheme.”

 Back at Gants Mill, Brian and Alison – who run 150 breeding ewes and offer B&B – were preparing for the weekend influx of guests who make up the 3000-4000 visitors who annually descend on the mill and gardens.

Now, not only are they able to view a splendid working example of a Victorian mill in action, they can also – at the flick of a switch – experience its valuable new role in modern-day Britain. Inquiries: 01749 812393.