Thursday, 25 March 2010

Windfarms are stricken by the British refusal to share

If every windfarm company pledged 10% of its income to the local community, many more would be approved

Listening to the radio yesterday, I remembered something I've been meaning to get off my chest. The PM programme carried a report from Westray in the Orkney islands, where a 900kW wind turbine was approved without a single planning objection (BBC News of Ten has more). Given that it stands 67m high on a mostly flat island, how did this happen?
It's simple: the turbine is owned by the residents. They raised £1.5m in loans and grants. Once the bank has been paid off, they'll be making £200,000 a year.
I first came across the concept of community windfarms a few years ago, when I met a man in Scotland wearing a wind turbine lapel badge. I told him it was a sight I didn't often see.
"Lots of people in my village wear them. We love our turbines."
He explained that, though the local windfarm was built by a commercial developer, the firm had done a deal with them, pledging a proportion of the profits to the community. Every year the village received between £100,000 and £150,000 and was able to finance its entire wishlist of community projects, without any of the usual struggles for lottery money or council grants. The money could be spent one year on building a youth club, the next on refurbishing the library, the year after that on rescuing the public toilets. His village had, in effect, been insulated from the budget cuts blighting so many rural communities. The villagers decided between them how the money should be spent.
One word explains the massive difference between the deployment of wind power in the UK and in Denmark: ownership. The public acceptance of windfarms in Denmark is largely due to the fact that most of them are owned by communities or co-operatives. The contrast to the UK could scarcely be greater, where communities fight tooth and nail against them, and planning objections are the major reason why the UK is struggling to meet its renewables targets.
There's a handful of community schemes already running in the UK and a few dozen in the pipeline, but the uptake here has been very slow. The problem is that we just don't do co-operation in the UK. We subscribe to the hyper-capitalist myth that nothing beats individual enterprise. The Danes don't, which is why we eat Danish bacon and Lurpak butter in the UK. Long ago, the farmers there decided to work together. They sold their produce through co-operatives, which gave them advantages of scale and reduced the costs of marketing. The same goes for horticulture in the Netherlands, which is why the UK has never been able to compete on that field either. Our farmers are perennially held back by the British refusal to share. Windfarm developers in the UK are stricken by the same disease.
One of the few benefits of the UK's extortionate feed-in tariffs is that they might encourage communities to set up their own large wind developments. Unfortunately the government expects that most of the money being extracted from our electricity bills will instead be spent on largely-useless rooftop solar PV. This is partly because most people in this country don't live in places where they could build a windfarm (or where there are useful ambient energy resources of any kind) and partly because, suffering from the British disease, we'd rather wholly own an inefficient technology than share ownership of an efficient one. I wouldn't have fought the feed-in tariffs if they had been reserved for projects like Westray's.
But even accounting for British culture, there is surely scope for partial community ownership wherever a windfarm is proposed. I suspect that if every time a company applied to build one it pledged 10 or 20% of the income to the local community, a heck of a lot more would get approved. The meanness of the developers has been their undoing. Determined to keep all the profits to themselves, they give local people no incentive to welcome their proposals and every incentive to oppose them. So instead of getting 90% they get nothing, and the UK remains stuck in the fossil fuel age.