This post is by Sarah James, a volunteer and trustee of Westmill Sustainable Energy Trust.
I’ve shown a lot of people around Westmill Wind Farm in Oxfordshire and its neighbouring solar farm. Thousands of people have visited the wind farm for tours and open days in its ten year life, wanting not just to see the wind turbines, but to get up close and touch them, hear them and sometimes even lie under them, watching the blades whirl overhead.
The media and politicians have described onshore wind as controversial and unpopular in the UK. And yet our experience at Westmill is quite the opposite. It is a popular local asset that people like to visit, are curious to understand and view affectionately. Is there some reason that Westmill is unusual?
At a recent event at the House of Commons on onshore wind’s licence to operate, I heard an echo of my own experiences from Lindsay McQuade of Scottish Power Renewables. She described the huge turnout of visitors seen at Whitelee Wind Farm near Glasgow. Westmill is small and community owned but Whitelee is the biggest onshore wind farm in the UK.
Public support is consistently high
Public attitudes to wind farms have been regularly tracked by the government since 2012. During that time public support for them has remained consistently high and, most recently, 76 per cent were found to be in favour of using onshore wind electricity generation with only eight per cent against. So it seems that Westmill’s experience isn’t so unusual after all.
Despite positive public attitudes, new onshore wind development is very difficult in the UK, following changes to planning and markets introduced by the government in 2015. The problem with this is that onshore wind is the cheapest new generation that we can build in the UK and it is also very low carbon. As the IPCC’s recent special report on keeping global warming to 1.5°C made clear, we need to reduce all our carbon emissions by about 45 per cent by 2030 and to zero by 2050. We don’t have the luxury of not using well established, cost effective means to do this.
At the House of Commons event an expert panel and audience discussed how developers and communities could work together on publicly acceptable onshore wind projects, and how to persuade government to reopen a path for new developments.
The very restrictive planning conditions have motivated consultations with local communities that address local needs and views in depth. Panellists had direct experience of local authority area planning, working directly with grassroots, neighbourhood plan groups, and industry led community consultation; all reported that wind energy was a popular outcome. The linking theme was the time and effort spent genuinely listening to people’s concerns, respecting their views and being led by them in planning the location and scale of projects. The rest of the UK could learn from Scotland’s policies which safeguard environmental standards and ensure full community engagement in wind farm plans.
The benefits aren’t just financial
Providing a financial benefit for the community has become the norm for UK onshore wind farms with £5,000 per MW of wind farm capacity generally expected. Ownership of all or part of a wind farm extends this benefit by giving the community control and accountability, allowing them to set their own priorities, which may not always be for maximum financial return.
There is a small but thriving community energy sector in the UK, including the Westmill Wind and Solar Co-ops. I’ve seen how this can bring a wind farm into the heart of a community, providing it with a shared asset for energy generation, financial benefit, education and events.
Making the low carbon energy transition encompasses so much more than just changing our electricity generation sources. New models of ownership by communities and energy end users have the potential to ease this transition in ways that share benefits more widely and spread costs more fairly.
There are excellent models of community consultation and planning allocation finding good public support for new onshore wind. As less than one per cent of onshore wind generation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is owned by community energy groups, there is plenty of room to extend control and ownership opportunities to communities and consumers where they want it.
It’s time the government responded to the ‘quiet majority’ and recognised onshore wind for the cheap and popular energy source it is, giving planning authorities the scope to consult their local communities about where and how they would like to see their energy produced.
The event ‘Onshore wind: licence to operate?’ was developed by Sarah James of Westmill Sustainable Energy Trust (WeSET), and Rebecca Windemer of Cardiff University, as part of the UKERC-funded project ‘Energy Pioneers’, convened by Green Alliance and Dr Rebecca Willis. It was jointly hosted by PRASEG and Green Alliance.