A serious blow

A serious blow

Plans for England’s first truly community-owned wind farm are under threat as commercial developers muscle in on renewables

Terry Slavin
Wednesday April 25, 2007
The Guardian

It may be a pristine spring day, but when Adam Twine looks out across his field of dreams in Oxfordshire, he sees dark clouds massing on the horizon. The 46-year-old organic farmer, who raised £4.4m from 2,000 investors last year to build England’s first truly community-owned wind farm, fears that the project could be scrapped – and with it, the nascent community wind farm movement.

The threat is not from Paddy McNally, the multimillionaire entrepreneur who has a £7m estate – previously owned by James Bond creator Ian Fleming – across the road from Twine’s farm near the Wiltshire border. McNally took Vale of White Horse district council to the high court in an unsuccessful bid to overturn planning permission for the wind farm.

This time, Twine and the members of his Westmill Wind Farm Co-operative (WWFC) are up against the global market place. A spike in demand for wind turbines, particularly in the US, which recently introduced new tax breaks, has sent global prices up by 40% over the last two years. According to Ben Warren, assistant director of Ernst & Young’s renewable energy group, it has also led to big manufacturers gobbling up small ones, and just before the close of the WWFC share offer last February, Bonus, the Danish company that Westmill had been dealing with, was bought out by German manufacturer Siemens. After a series of delays in supplying the five 1.3MW turbines, the price has now gone up by 30%.

Twine had to go back to the existing 2,000 Westmill members and reopen the co-op to new members in a bid to raise another £850,000. And he has only another week to do it, although almost £600,000 had come in by the end of last week. If he misses the deadline to sign the contract it will be at least two years before WWFC has any hope of seeing the great silver blades pinwheeling in Twine’s field. And that, he says, will strain the patience of the co-op’s members – the farmers, activists and academics who stumped up a minimum of £250 to buy into the community wind farm dream.

The irony, he says, is that if he had let a commercial developer put up a wind farm on his 500 acres of land after he finally got the planning permission in 2005, the turbines would be up and running by now. Even if Westmill manages to place the order, it will be almost a year before the turbines will be turning.

‘From a short-term carbon perspective, I made the wrong choice,’ he says. ‘But if it does work, in the long term, it will have been the right choice because it increases the potential for it [community wind farms] to happen in other places.’ For Energy4All, a company that promotes community wind farms across the UK and is managing the Westmill project, success in Oxfordshire is crucial. Angela Duigan, the company’s development director says: ‘Westmill is a trailblazer, the first of, hopefully, many. ‘

She said many groups across the country had proposals for community wind turbines at various stages in the planning system and were hoping to follow in Westmill’s footsteps. But while she is confident that Westmill will raise the money to go ahead, the future for other grassroots projects is far from certain.

She says Westmill is extremely lucky that Siemens is willing to do a deal at any price. ‘Manufacturers don’t even respond to tenders, they are so busy responding to the US market,’ she said. ‘If you have a choice between putting 10 turbines into the middle of nowhere in Scotland or 50 in California, what are you going to choose?’

Big developers have also been affected by the price hikes, but they have long-term contracts with wind turbine manufacturers and can put down hefty deposits to secure supply. Community wind farms have no such luxury. ‘You can’t raise the money [for a deposit] without getting planning permission first,’ she said. ‘We’ve got loads of people trying to develop single wind turbines. They’ll have such a shock when they get through the planning battle and try to buy them.’

Energy4All has, over the last couple of years, focused on communities purchasing stakes in commercial projects rather than trying to go it on their own. In Lincolnshire, the Fenland Green Power Co-operative is looking to raise £4.4m from local investors to buy two units of an eight-turbine wind farm.

Patrick Devine-Wright, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester’s school of environment and development, is part of a team that has recently completed a study on community renewables. There has been a handful of successful community-led wind projects in remote parts of Wales and Scotland, he says, but if Westmill succeeds, it will break new ground in England. ‘Community wind farms take a long time, are difficult to fund, and success depends a lot on the social dynamics of the local residents,’ he said. ‘Most communities won’t be able to attract millions of pounds of capital to be able to be part of what is an industrial-scale venture.’

Given the huge barriers, he believes that hybrids, like the Fenland co-op, may be the only way that local people will be able to reap the benefits of wind farms in their back yards. His team surveyed people living locally to community projects and found they were far more positive than where there was no local involvement. ‘Community projects are more participatory in terms of process, and the benefits are local and collective rather than distant and private,’ Twine says.

Despite this, he says, community involvement seems to have no impact on whether a wind farm gets planning permission. Twine laments that the arguments for his wind farm were won on visual issues rather than the fact he had large numbers of the local community behind him. But had he not done it this way, he would have given up long ago.

‘I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own,’ he says. ‘I was only able to sustain the effort because other people were piling in behind me at critical times.’

At the agm last month, he looked out at the sea of faces and felt a surge of energy. He says: ‘It occurred to me that, a few years ago, there was just the two of us. Then, during the campaigning, it was 20 people sitting around the kitchen table. Now here were 200 people in an Oxford University lecture theatre with this strong desire for the project to succeed. That’s how social change happens.’

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