This context opens the door for new ways of thinking regarding Energy. On top of the focus on renewable energies to answer climate changes issues, a new trend is emerging regarding decentralized energy. For example, the book names Small Is Profitable, named ‘Book of the Year’ by The Economist magazine, finds that properly accounting for the economic benefits of “distributed” (decentralized) electrical resources typically raises their value by a large factor, perhaps tenfold.

Sharing this belief that decentralized production of energy, especially from renewable sources, can be part of the solution, we decided to explore the possibility of tapping into the unrealized potential for economically feasible and environmentally sustainable small and micro hydropower (SHP) generation that exists in the thousands of historic water wheel, mill and weir sites in the Walloon region of Belgium.

NettoWatt will identify the most relevant sites suitable for refurbishment and subsequently create and support regional cooperatives with a community shares ownership to exploit those sites. Sites can be historical water wheel, mills, weirs and existing lateral river structure sites, and technologies such as waterwheels, turbines, and archimedee screws. Generating sites will have a power between 5 and 80 kW. A non exhaustive identification of old watermills in Belgium reveals more than 4000 sites. More could be identified or created.

The project enables the creation of local energy sources increasing regional energy supply security, gives a boost to the local economy, provides income sources and creates jobs. Repowering abandoned sites increases distributed steady energy production, strengthen the grid and improves environmental conditions resulting in win-win outcomes and contributes to the growth rates of hydropower in the EU.

NettoWatt SPRL will support and foster the creation of regional producers cooperatives by producing a standardized permitting, financing and implementation guide, raise funds tapping into Structural Funds, local investment and conventional financing (reducing the amount of unused SF for renewables, increasing local investment and providing bankable projects), and will manage a multi-modal and targeted communication program to increase awareness and social acceptance of SHP with local, national and EU decision makers, the general public, site owners, investors and other market players (i.e. banks, grid operators, historical and environmental interest groups).

Micro-hydropower run-of-river solutions offer several unique benefits:
• Implemented properly it is environmentally friendly; refurbishment of barriers include fish ladders and allowing up-stream migration, trash screens remove plastic and other man made debris and small mill ponds provide nesting habitat increasing biodiversity
• Generates a steady source of electricity; minimizing grid fluctuation and storage issues: hydro is a steady and predictable source of renewable energy (unlike solar and wind). Decentralized micro hydro contributes to energy independence and can be an important contributor to the smart grid by securing the end of the line
• It uses proven and off-the-shelf technology; the basic technology is literally centuries old, new implementation for generating small hydropower are proven and commercial solutions exist

As a community
Local citizens will be offered a share of the project with co-ownership by creating a cooperative.

This model is perfectly suited to our project. Note also that 2012 will be the year of the cooperatives, proclamed by the United Nations.
Indirect social benefits, such as prestige to the area and ecotourism, have proved to be effective in creating local acceptance as locals will not have to put up with the inconvenience of having a plant in their backyard without also seeing some of the money and direct long term regional benefits derived to their living area. The profit from the sale of the electricity is going to go back into regeneration projects in the community.

And by addressing existing barriers
Non-technical barriers to implementing individual micro hydropower sites are identified as:
• High environmental impact assessment, permit processing and civil and construction implementation barriers due in part to unfamiliarity by local approving authorities and service providers
• Difficulty in financing due to modest return on investment with a relatively high cost for self-funding but too small to be considered bankable (expensive on the part of banks)
• A lack of social acceptance due to environmental and historical preservation concerns and a lack of understanding of the beneficial features of a restored waterway and sites

Hydropower will be brought closer to the people by showing them the original technology and the benefits that it brings to the region. Decentralized power generation increases local security of energy supply meaning shorter transport distances with reduced energy transmission losses. Such decentralization fosters community development by providing income sources and creating jobs locally. We will raise awareness of micro hydropower as a financially viable, environmentally and historically acceptable and beneficial part of renewable sources.