When it comes to community energy projects, owning your own stake in a major renewable scheme has got to be one of the biggest signals that any neighbourhood can give of its intent to go green.
Large wind energy projects are particularly suitable for promoting community ownership and involvement, and can bring benefits that go some way beyond the issues of energy and the environment.
There are several ways that a community can get involved in large-scale wind energy developments in the locality. Comprehensive information is available in the rather formally titled “Bankable Models which Enable Local Community Wind Farm Ownership” – commissioned for the DTI and now published by BERR, their successor department – but the basic ideas are straightforward.
One of the most common approaches is for the community to be involved as a co-operative, owning a part share in a big commercial project being developed by one of the wind energy companies. Under these kinds of arrangements, typically the members of the co-operative receive an annual payment and the wider area benefits from a community fund.
The money from this fund is often invested in local energy projects, or used to improve the social or environmental facilities in the area, the input in the decision making process coming from the community itself. In some projects, the co-operative actually owns one or more of the wind turbines, while in others the operating company provides a royalty payment based on the performance of the facility.
Alternatively, instead of owning a partial share of a larger commercial wind-farm, community wind energy schemes can go down the route of total ownership, where the entire site is 100 per cent in local hands. This obviously involves raising the finance and going through the usual planning and other legal processes and while it may not be ideal for everyone, for some projects it has worked very successfully indeed.
Members of the local community often become more directly involved with this type of project – and earlier in its development. One of its great strengths is that it can create a very real feeling of ownership. In many such schemes, local construction companies, lawyers, architects and others involved have taken shares, in part or whole payment for their work. This reduces up-front capital costs and helps ensure the viability of the project.
In addition to the environmental and energy gain, the most obvious benefits to the community are both ethical and economic.
Although there is widespread acceptance of the advantages and desirability of renewable energy, especially when it comes to wind turbines, there can often be reluctance to actually host them. Engaging the local community and offering tangible benefits clearly fits the profile of ethical development – where those who put up with the project for the benefit of all also derive some direct benefits themselves.
Aside of the immediate financial return to the co-operative members, the projects can often also make a spin-off contribution to the local economy – which can be a significant factor especially for rural communities.
There can also be less immediately seen benefits, which result from the heightened awareness that the scheme inevitably generates which frequently forms the catalyst for other developments in the local area which in all probability would not otherwise have happened.
The presence of wind turbines often helps promote wider discussions within the community over issues of energy, sustainability and the environment, acting as a spring-board for further community projects on related topics – from energy efficiency to better facilities for recycling. In addition, for any school in the area, a wind project on the doorstep can act as a valuable teaching resource to provide useful educational support on green issues.
With the UK being home to around 40 per cent of Europe’s wind resources, wind turbines have an obvious place in any attempt to increase Britain’s renewable energy usage. Massive wind-farm developments have proven contentious, but the rising popularity – and obvious benefits – of community projects are changing many of the negative perceptions about wind power. For any community minded to go down this route, there are certainly benefits to be had.