A turbine for the community

This is the second discussion session I attended at Friday’s Transition Town meeting.
A community wind farm turbine purchase
This session was on the community purchase of a wind turbine in a new development in Fintry (Scotland). A developer approached the community with a plan to build a 14 turbine wind farm; the community proposed an additionality that they would purchase a 15th turbine and receive income from the electricity generated. They found funding and purchased the turbine for £2.5 million (turbine was originally expected to pay itself off in roughly 15 years; however, as electricity prices are increasing, the return on investment time is growing shorter. It will, again depending on electricity prices, generate an income of £50 to £100,000 a year till it is paid off then £400,000 to £500,000 a year for the community).

Fintry is a rural community that is trying to become carbon neutral; they are connected to the national grid but are without a gas mains connexion (and therefore most homes are heated with wood or LPG). They are looking at renewables as a means to achieve this carbon neutral target. David Howell of Fintry Renewable Energy Enterprise led a discussion of the community’s efforts to purchase the turbine and some of the issues and opportunities communities face when considering renewable energy. These are some of the main points of the open session:

  • The community hired a solicitor and wind industry analyst to ensure due diligence through the whole process (to show accountability to investors and make sure the wind farm developers were presenting accurate information to all involved).
  • Are the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) essentially good for renewable development? The argument for is that the government is supporting renewables through this program and encouraging developers to make the necessary investment as well. However, the question arises about the financial sustainability of such programs (if the next government suddenly decides that this is not a plan they want to support, what happens to the viability of renewables). Or, rather than relying on grant support, should renewables be financially viable from the outset (there was no argument that they are viable over the long term). Of course, the nuclear industry is heavily subsidised as well; the fear voiced is what will happen if nuclear energy is classified “renewable”? “It will hoover up all the available funds for wind, solar, and hydro” into large scale centralised solutions.
  • The main objections are aesthetic; however, the stereotypical objector in rural Scottish community is the incomer who wanted a quaint get-away cottage and can afford higher energy bills to begin with. Communities have to balance aesthetic concerns with long-term economic and environmental viability. (Argument is that we can put another coal or nuclear plant somewhere else and pollute the rest of the planet or place our energy generation on the hill outside the village where we can see it and know it’s not doing harm—plus receive an economic benefit rather than depending on the variable prices of carbon fuels).
  • Nothing is completely neutral; yes, a big concrete base is necessary to anchor the turbines and there will be power lines (though the communities can advocate that these be buried rather than on pylons). The important thing is to be completely up front and involve the community in the discussion. Community “buy-in” is primary as the decision to install a wind farm will set the agenda for the next 25 years (the planning licence for a farm); the decision to not install a wind farm will also set an agenda. Discuss and consider the consequences of both; there is not a one size solution.
  • There are opportunities for landowners to bring in income for otherwise sub-optimal land (land not readily usable for agriculture or forestry); however, there is the danger of falling into old power paradigms between communities and landowners.
  • The weak point here (in Scotland) is the lack of grid infrastructure to deliver generated energy in a balanced way (to send wind generated electricity to the places where solar is not generating, solar to the places the wind is not blowing, etc.).
  • The government tends to support large scale centralised projects (because, generally, they are easier to control). However, renewables make more sense as de-centralised locally controlled idea. So rather than having a few gigantic wind, solar, and tidal farms, how can each community have a mix of microgeneration with a small local infrastructure? How can we meet our renewables target by doing less—in a big way?
  • Also, will energy wealth become the central issue with devolution and independence?