Locally owned wind power is common on the continent. Half of all wind power capacity in Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands is locally owned, either by local farmers or co-operatives. These countries source a much higher proportion of their electricity from wind power than the UK. What's more, locally owned projects, generally speaking, generate much less planning controversy than proposals associated with the big corporate players.
There are no real technical or economic reasons why locally owned wind power cannot proliferate in the UK. In fact the incentives available under the UK’s Renewable Obligation actually favour co-operative developments financially, compared both to the existing arrangements in places like Germany and the sort of schemes put up by mainstream developers in the UK. This is because the UK's ‘renewable obligation certificates’ system allows co-operatives to make share offers that can generate good levels of income. Added to this, there is a healthy public demand for ethical investment in this country.
The Co-operative movement is very keen to help community-oriented schemes and is sympathetic to farmers starting their own renewable energy schemes. As the number of farmers taking this route increases, so the high-street banks will shape their services to help them; at least, this is what has happened in Europe.
But first we need some pioneers, some idealists, some activists who are prepared to put time and effort into campaigning for clean energy, a cause that desperately needs support in this country, and across the planet for that matter. The wind power industry projects a disastrous image of people solely concerned with making money. Now, we have to have schemes that are economically viable, and in an industry money has to be a key objective. But innovation in this sphere of activity needs to begin as a cause. Otherwise, in a politically sensitive planning environment that is much of the UK, capacity targets will be missed and the support for wind power may become politically destabilised.
We should not be against mainstream developers; they have a key role to play. But there is no doubt that most of them could be a lot more community-oriented in their planning strategies, in the amounts of money they offer local parish councils, and over whether they offer shareholdings to local people. Moreover, turning back to the key point of this article, an on-shore wind industry that consists solely of corporate-backed developers who have no connection with, and who do nothing for the localities where they propose their schemes, is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term.
Even if the mainstream developers improve their act, there will still be a need for a large proportion of locally owned schemes. These will be essential if we are to convert the widespread general good will for wind power into active support and enthusiasm.
There are a lot of opportunities for local people and farmers to start up their own wind power schemes in the West Midlands. Already a few farmers and co-operatives are starting in other parts of the country. We need to make an effort to start schemes ourselves, and get local authorities actively fostering and encouraging community wind power. Local authorities could organise a well-promoted series of events to explain to local farmers and community groups how they can organise wind power schemes.
There are already some good examples of quite respectably sized wind power schemes in the UK. For example, at Watchmill, Oxfordshire farmer Adam Twine has gained planning permission for five 850KW machines, which will generate a total of 4.25MW. This project is supported by the Co-operative Bank and will be financed by a public share offer (with preference given to local people) organised by ‘Energy4All’, a sister company of Baywind Co-operative, owners of the UK’s first co-operative wind farm project in Cumbria.
Wind power technology has advanced to the point that, under the Renewable Obligation, there are quite a few potential and economically viable sites in the West Midlands, and even in Birmingham itself. The only barriers preventing this sort of development are a lack of expertise and a lack of volunteers. Can you jump into the breech to save the planet from fossil fuel-induced overheating?
If you would like to be involved in community wind power then please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David Toke is a Lecturer in Environmental Policy at the University of Birmingham. He is currently employed to act as a Research Fellow in wind power under a project financed by the Economic and Social Research Council. He was Birmingham Friends of the Earth's energy campaigner 1988-1990 and national energy spokesman for the Green Party 1999-2003.