Coffee House

Hydropower: the winner of the 2012 Matt Ridley award

2 September 2012

10:26 PM

2 September 2012

10:26 PM

The 2013 Matt Ridley Prize is now open. Click here for more details.

When Matt Ridley offered £8,500 for the best prize essay for environmental heresy, we at The Spectator expected lots of entries. But what took us by surprise was the quality of the submissions. The winner is Pippa Cuckson, whose piece on hydropower is the cover story of this week’s magazine.

The judges had a pretty tough task. There were quite a few brilliant demolitions of environmentalism in general: as Stephen Hawking said at the Paralympic Games opening ceremony, the enemy of knowledge isn’t ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. It could sum up the problem with rational discussion of global warming and related topics. Cuckson’s piece scored because, as well as being a profoundly rational piece, it best rose best to Matt Ridley’s invitation ‘to gore one of the sacred cows of the environmentalist movement’.


Her essay broke new ground: no one has focused much on Hydroelectricity, and she the general problem with taking an energy business model that works for the Highlands and applying it to England’s green and pleasant. She also uncovered a story: the tale of Gunthorpe Weir, and how local anglers were aghast to find that the supposedly fish-friendly turbine had a license to chop up to 100 fish a month (how do you monitor that?) while slowing the river to drought levels. She revealed how British Waterways, a quango, went on to buy a stake in a turbine company and rename itself.

She also tracked down a former Environment Agency executive, who became disillusioned with the hydro spin. His comment to me summed it up: people don’t get angry about the environmental damage inflicted by hyrdo turbines, he said, because no one really understands ecosystems.

Her essay was punchy and original, and had enough new material for a cover story. It’s a brilliant read, and our subscribers can find it here (or sign up from just £1 a week).

But the other entries were also outstanding. We will be publishing a few of them over the next few days on Coffee House. I’d like to thank everyone who entered the 2012 Matt Ridley Prize and made it such an outstanding success. Next year’s one will open on 1 April and close on 30 June.

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Show comments
  • moonrakin

    As the British Hydro Power Association’s response to Ms Cuxson’s piece points out the scheme she chose to highlight was extraordinary as depending on type – turbines are supposed to be scrupulously screened to avoid fish damage.

    That said – the matter is clear – this is a clear fail for the licensing authority – The Environment Agency who have not covered themselves in glory in the hydro licensing game.

    If you want to see how badly hydro licensing is being handled by the Environment Agency – look no further than Avoncliff in Wiltshire here they’ve tipped 500,000+ (and still counting) of public money away messing up a hydro scheme.


    BHA response:

  • Tom

    I am surprised that this article was awarded a prize. The author clearly has no in-depth knowledge of the subject and obviously the judges do not either.
    The article can hardly be described as a balanced appraisal of the subject. It is written by an author obviously prejudiced from the start against the technology, not someone who has taken the evidence and weighed it up on its merits.
    The article is full of generalisations, misrepresentation and does exactly the opposite of what it purports to – to use facts to confront myths, and science to confront pseudo-science. I have nothing to do with the hydropower industry, just have an interest in energy technologies, but even I can see how poor the article is!
    I had previously held Matt Ridley in quite high esteem but the fact that this article has won a prize reflects very badly on both Matt Ridley and the Spectator editor.

    • Juliet Frazer

      well said, glad someone unbiased can see what rubbish this is

  • Ant Graham

    Excellent work. There is a short film readers may be interested in which explores the environmental impacts of a proposed scheme in Sheffield – search ‘Kelham Island Hydro’.

  • Joe Public

    “…. turbine had a license to chop up to 100 fish a month….”

    Has anyone counted the thousands of (dead) fish thrown back into the sea from trawlers, simply because their size or species was outside EU standards?

  • Richard

    Isn’t this basically an environmentalist article?

  • Daniel Maris

    All energy systems involve environmental damage to a greater of lesser degree. Anyone who thought otherwise is rather naive.

    100 fish? You do realise how fish reproduce don’t you? I can’t imagine 3 fish a day would make any difference either way.

    Anyway, I shall have a read of it. It is in the house somewhere!

  • Dan Grover

    A really great article, I enjoyed reading it in the mag – especially the revelation that the body assigned the responsibility of licensing hydro plants had a commercial stake in a hydro-plant company. Pretty sad that it’s tucked away in a few paragraphs of an audience-sourced article of one magazine. This should be prime time news but, as the writer suggested, the body itself appeared not to consider that it was an improper relationship at all.

    • Alan Eastwood

      Is Yeo involved in any way?

      • Dan Grover

        I think it’s all a bit too small-fry for Yeo.

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