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Local turbines for local people - a discussion on community wind power projects

Wind power is undergoing a massive expansion, with more capacity to be installed this year than in the entire history of the industry.

But although the UK has the best wind resource in Europe it is also a crowded island; as turbines become more common, opposition has grown more vocal.

The country is struggling to meet its target of 10% renewable electricity by 2010, so could giving communities a stake in the turbines planted in their backyards be a way to address both challenges at once?

In the UK the first community-owned wind farm, at Harlock Hill in Cumbria, was only connected to the grid in 1997, and there have been but a handful since.

Largely this is because the Government's subsidy scheme has discriminated against small developers.

By contrast, in Denmark, community wind power is well established and it's clear that people's goodwill can be turned round by financial windfalls from their local turbines.

There are two ways of bestowing such dividends: the 'bottom up' approach sees support given to grassroots wind co-ops of small investors, while the 'top down' model sees big developers allowing locals to invest in, or receive profit shares from, their projects.

A recent survey from the University of Wales Aberystwyth questioned people in the area of a controversial wind farm, Cefn Croes, in Ceredigion, mid Wales.

It found that out of 118 people who were willing to answer questions, 88 (74.6%) supported community based power, while 30 (25.4%) didn't.

However, 78 (40%) of all people approached refused to answer questions.

Painting the turbine - People PowerAccording to the researcher, Matt Wilson, "these people were overwhelmingly Welsh, and I felt it was because I was English".

This contributed to the main conclusion of his work, that "the greatest barrier [to community wind power] is infighting caused by internal politics".

One of the few other such projects in this country is in the shadow of the Centre for Alternative Technology, 25 miles further north of Cefn Croes.

Its management committee is currently planning a second share issue to finance a larger turbine, following the first dividends issued last summer.

Committee member John Williams says that "targeting the Welsh community is very hard - it's all word of mouth, and if they don't spread it, there's only so much we can do." Shareholders in Pantperthog, Wales

Wilson says that reaching inclusion is not just a problem in Wales, however.

"It would be the same anywhere, if outsiders or well-off people attempted to impose structures on a landscape for their own benefit, and excluded others." It's therefore vital, he feels, to get careful management and experienced advisors to help to alleviate this problem.

"Share ownership should be opened as wide as possible and must maintain a minimum investment to ensure a competitive rate of return."

Community co-ops of this nature typically rely on a few informed and highly motivated individuals to start with.

But many specialisms are required to see such a complex projecty through, from project management to accountancy and engineering skills.

"The role of agencies, such as the new Renewable Energy Advice Agencies being rolled out in Energy Advice Centres around the country is therefore very important," argues Andy Rowland, of ecodyfi, the local regeneration body.

the Panthperthog community wind turbine

Wilson says that his survey "indicates a potential market opening for a dedicated wind developer to exclusively support projects of this nature, providing the expertise and benefiting through part ownership".

Money talks, he says.

However, other major barriers exist.

These include the wealth of the community - can they afford it? - fear of major developers and big business riding roughshod of locals' interests, fear of change, fear of visual impact, lack of knowledge, and the need for "fair, open and democratic" structures.

All these must be addressed from the earliest stage.

What if a locality is unlike the "special case" of the vicinity of CAT and has few informed and motivated individuals? Several initiatives are beginning the attempt to encourage them to get involved.

The Scottish Highland Council and Highlands and Islands Enterprise have produced a Community Toolkit entitled "Can Your Community Benefit from Renewable Energy Development?" Councillor Ian Ross, Chairman of The Highland Council?s Sustainable Development Select Committee, said: "There is potential for significant additional renewable developments in the Highlands.

This can have a major impact on our communities and it is essential they are well placed to both fully understand and influence the nature of these developments."

The toolkit says, "Support and advice on community fund-raising is available from Highland Opportunity Ltd (but) to date, developers and communities in the Highlands have not developed this model ... although in at least one case, community ownership options are under consideration."

This is where members of the village of Fintry, Stirlingshire, are collaborating with developers West Coast Energy / RDC to develop a community-owned turbine as part of a proposed commercial windfarm at nearby Earlsburn.

This is an example of community buy-in.

"The potential to undertake this depends to a large extent on the willingness and expertise of the developer and the capacity of the community to raise the necessary capital for investment," says the council.

"It is possible that a developer might agree to a community reinvesting its annual or lumpsum payment to buy-in by degrees to a development." Community-owned stakeholding in renewable energy projects is common elsewhere in Europe, for example Germany.

A small number of developers in the UK have been willing to work with communities to establish community-based funds that can be used to buy-in to a proposed renewable energy development."

The Irish Renewable Energy Partnership (REP) believes that the residents of areas in which wind farms are going to be built should be offered the opportunity to invest in those farms.

Its recent report, 'To Catch the Wind', recommends that "all renewable energy projects below a certain size, and with a high level of community involvement", should be provided with a free grid connection; and that State support should be given "to encourage all those living in areas where wind farm projects are being developed to invest".

The study also advises using the co-operative model for such purposes and that local authorities should encourage community involvement in wind energy projects: "reserving areas for community wind farms in County Development Plans would be one possibility".

In England, The National Energy Foundation is investigating a community wind project in Milton Keynes, and offers support for such projects generally.

A series of community based projects throughout the UK would not significantly affect the Government targets set by the Kyoto protocol.

"However, as well as creating energy security through diversity, an equally important benefit of such projects would be their value as an educational tool...working toward retained support for expansion of large scale energy generation by a diversity of means," concludes Matt Wilson.

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