The benefits of community energy projects cannot be overstated, so why do so many fail to get off the ground? Paul Burrell from Machynlleth based Anemos Renewables shows how some Welsh communities are tackling – and overcoming – the obstacles. This article orginally appears in the CAT membership magazine Clean Slate
If we are to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change, we need a rapid transition to a clean, efficient, renewables-based energy system. Community energy projects have a huge role to play in delivering an equitable and fair energy system. In Denmark, for example, over 100 wind turbine co-operatives have a combined ownership of three quarters of the country’s turbines. The price per kWh for electricity from the community-owned wind parks is competitive with conventional power production.
Community energy is the natural tonic to commercial renewable energy developments, which are largely owned and operated by corporations. Utility companies and large development companies are often based financially outside of the UK. Current planning guidance only requires commercial projects to give a small percentage of this revenue to the local community, whilst the lion’s share is funnelled out to commercial shareholders.
In contrast, a community-scale energy project places ownership of the power generator, either wholly or in part, within the local community, and the net revenue accumulated during the lifespan of the project is distributed to local people and projects. These projects ensure that members of the local community retain some control over their power generation options, which then reduces reliance on imported power and, in the longer term, reduces carbon emissions.
Community energy development within Wales, particularly in the case of wind energy schemes, are supported by national planning policy that recommends planning departments support projects owned and operated by local communities. Furthermore, there are grant funds available for community energy development (Ynni’r fro is one example). A well-sited renewable energy scheme is a valuable long-term asset, particularly with rising power costs and strong UK incentives for generation. Wales also has an extensive network of established communities which, until fairly recently, still operated a large number of hydroelectric projects and are therefore used to being in control of their power generation.
A well-sited renewable energy scheme is a valuable long-term asset.
This all sounds good so far, especially when you factor in the excellent wind and water resources that Wales possesses in abundance across a large percentage of the country. Yet despite the factors in their favour, community energy schemes across Wales are being held up by lengthy planning processes and local opposition.
In the South Wales Valleys economic cuts are biting, and opportunities for communities to generate extra revenue are limited. To combat these negative factors a local arts-based organisation decided that a windblown hilltop in Ferndale village would be the perfect place for a community-owned wind energy scheme of significant scale. The group approached the local landowner and quickly developed an idea to deliver a cluster of commercial-scale turbines that would then generate revenue for the community, to be used in improving access to art facilities for all. The site itself was commercially viable and able to technically accommodate the wind energy scheme, and so the planning application was prepared, submitted and, after some time, approved by the local planning authority. By then, however, delays during the planning process meant that the legal agreement between the landowner and the group had expired. Meanwhile a commercial developer had approached the landowner and placed a better offer on the table than that from the community group. The landowner signed with the commercial developer, who subsequently developed the wind energy scheme, retaining all ongoing profits. The local group now have the pleasure of watching the turbines spin whilst receiving almost none of the revenue produced. The group are still working on developing another community renewable energy scheme.
Further north, in the Black Mountains, another community group has set up a community development trust with the aim of improving opportunities within the locale. Awel AmanTawe (AAT) had approached a local landowner (as in Ferndale) and agreed a deal to deliver a small cluster of commercial-scale turbines across the site area. The majority of the revenue from the scheme was to be routed back into the community, with many expected benefits to the economic situation. That was over ten years ago. Since then, despite the site finally gaining planning consent after an extended and expensive battle with the planning authority, the turbines are yet to be installed. The reason for the delay is a combination of local opposition to the scheme and the council planning department obstructing the commission and construction of the site. Visit the proposed site today and you are unlikely to find a more suitable wind site in Wales. It is, in fact, only the ongoing commitment of AAT that has kept the scheme and local hopes alive, and the group is now working towards an installation date of 2016. Having spent 10 years developing the project with nothing yet on the ground, the organisation has discovered just how costly and time-sapping this process can be.
Over in Pembrokeshire two other community schemes have been threatened by council policies. Both schemes are for medium-scale turbines and located in areas where planning consent should be achievable. The projects were undertaken using EU grant money, with volunteers and employed consultants working on development.
The planning applications clearly illustrated that revenue from the installed wind turbines would be retained by local groups and that any visual impact of the turbines would be offset by the positive effects of local ownership. However, Pembrokeshire Council ruled that both schemes were in conflict with landscape protection policies, and both schemes were refused at planning committee level. At this stage, resource-limited community groups face two options: to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, which incurs further costs and volunteer time, or to hold back on the project. In this particular case both groups appealed, one of them successfully. The Planning Inspectorate acknowledged the community benefit package as offering mitigation to the potential landscape impact from the installed turbine, whilst in the other case they did not. The refused project continues to forge ahead with a redesigned scheme and hopes to resubmit planning in the near future, while the consented project is aiming for installation in the near future.
It is vital we enable communities to reap the benefits of decarbonisation.
The last example of a community energy project in Wales that is struggling to get off the ground is in Ceredigion, an area with some of the best wind resources in Wales. An enthusiastic community group wanted to install a single medium-sized wind turbine that could power up to 300 homes. A deal was made with a local farmer and planning work was commissioned. The local golf club argued that the wind turbine would cause the golf club to lose money, potentially causing a flickering shadow on the golf course. The objection was upheld and the landowner stepped quietly away from the project. Ceredigion Fair Wind has now found other wind energy sites and is working towards a further planning submission – speaking volumes about their indomitable spirit, something which is proving critical in delivering these kinds of projects.
The future – energy democracy
Climate change is not going away; power demand is rising and our reliance on imported fuel is growing. Meanwhile millions are struggling to pay the extortionate fuel bills from the Big Six energy companies, with over 2.28 million people in the UK living in ‘fuel poverty’.
Small energy co-ops show how we can build a sustainable and affordable energy future and offer hope to communities that are desperately trying to source extra income to keep public services and opportunities open to all. There are a great many positive examples of community energy schemes in action, but many of them have only come about through hard- fought battles with outdated council planning rules as well as prejudice against renewable energy.
2014 closed with a stark warning from UN climate scientists that we must take action now to quickly and rapidly reduce carbon emissions. It is vital that in doing so we empower and enable communities to reap the benefits of that decarbonisation. The Welsh Government continues to support such schemes via the excellent Ynni’r fro and by improving policy to help planners give favourable weight to community energy applications. Financial incentives continue to support renewable energy schemes, and the wind and rain continue to batter Wales, providing an excellent sustainable resource to be exploited. In many areas there is local ambition and, despite the challenges that community groups face, it is apparent that victories are starting to emerge. As such projects become widespread and the benefits become clear there is substantial reason to believe that Wales can vastly improve its network of community energy projects – providing hope and inspiration to future generations facing the ever-increasing challenges of climate change.
About the author
Paul Burrrell lives and works in Machynlleth, Powys, having completed an MSc in Advanced Architecture and Environmental Studies at the Centre for Alternative Technology in 2008. He currently works for the Severn Wye Energy Agency alongside Ecodyfi on the Ynni’r Fro Scheme, which supports communities who wish to install their own large-scale renewable energy systems. Paul works in both Ceredigion and Gwynedd as the Ynni’r Fro technical development officer, assisting groups from the initial contact and site assessment (feasibility) stages, then providing on-going technical support throughout the development phases of the wind, hydro or anaerobic digestion projects. He coordinates funding applications that are required at each key stage from the funding body, and can assist groups to legally constitute (if required) and to facilitate community liaison events.
Making the most of the skills he gained studying at CAT, Paul is now co-director of Anemos Renewables (set up in 2011), an independent company that works with local farmers and landowners to develop small to medium scale wind energy schemes. The company’s MCS-accredited installers offer services including a full ‘Turnkey’ service for the installation of MCS-certified Evance 5kW R9000, Aircon 10S, Winspot 5kW and Tozzi Nord TM535 wind turbines. They also offer consultancy services for the development of small and medium (<500kW) wind turbine projects, including feasibility studies, preparation of planning applications, system design, grid connection and project management of the installation. For further information see www.anemos.org.uk or contact Paul Burrell at firstname.lastname@example.org