UK Community Develops Windfarm Without Government Help

Community groups are seeing the value of clean energy and are increasingly investing in its development with or without government subsidies.
Published: Thu 10 Mar 2016

The UK county of Cornwall, a pioneer in community energy groups, is back in the news. Two years ago, we wrote about how the Cornish town of Wadebridge set up a community energy initiative [WREN – A Community Energy Town In The Making] and how the Smart Cornwall initiative aims to develop the UK’s first mainland smart energy ecosystem by giving communities control of their own energy. [Smart Cornwall – Towards A Local Smart Energy Ecosystem].

Now, a £30 million onshore windfarm is about to be built in Cornwall, UK and without government subsidy. The development will be partly financed by the local community.

The Big Field farm (near Bude), consisting of 11 turbines each measuring 125m in height to the tip of the blade, will power 22,000 homes.

Subsidy cuts shelve windfarm development

The UK has around 8.2GW of onshore wind currently, according to the industry trade association, RenewableUK. In 2014 onshore wind received subsidies of over £800 million and generated 5% of the UK’s total electricity.

The UK government announced its intention to end subsidies for new onshore wind under the Renewable Obligation from 1 April 2016 alongside a plan to put decisions on any new developments in the hands of local communities. The government’s reason for the cuts was because it felt that wind energy targets had been sufficiently met and that it was “appropriate to curtail further deployment of onshore wind…”

The cuts were (and still are) highly controversial in the clean energy industry. RenewableUK urged the government to think carefully before it implemented the cuts in financial support to onshore wind, stating the announcement would leave thousands of British jobs and millions of pounds worth of investment hanging in the balance.

Already, a number of wind farms have been cancelled or shelved as a result of the government’s scrapping of incentives for onshore wind.

Subsidy cuts are empowering communities

Big Field Farm was also shelved as a result of the subsidy cuts. An initial application for planning permission for the windfarm was filed under the previous subsidy regime. However, that was blocked, and with the withdrawal of government support for onshore wind, the plan needed an alternate source of finance. [UK Onshore Windfarm Subsidies Take A Cut].

So, Big Field Farm project planner, green power company Good Energy, decided to approach the local community for financial support and the response was positive.

The revised scheme will only go ahead if planning permission is granted, but the company is hopeful that the support of local residents in agreeing to co-finance the project will help to tip the balance. The inquiry will start in April and, if the green light is given, the windfarm could be operational in 2018. Good Energy revived its prospects with a new project that would use the same number of turbines, of the same size, but with 50% more generation capability, because of changes to the turbine technology.

The growth of community energy

According to the developer, the local residents are excited about investing in their own energy development. By giving local people the chance to invest in the project would mean the community will see even more of the benefit over time.

Juliet Davenport , chief executive of Good Energy, said: “The benefits of the Big Field wind farm are too great for it not to go ahead just because subsidies are being withdrawn. Being community-owned will ensure that the economic benefit of the wind farm can be retained locally and re-invested in Cornwall.”

Good Energy said it was too early to decide how much of its own money and how much the local community would be expected to put into the project, or what returns investors could expect. However, if successful, it hopes this could provide a new blueprint for small onshore wind farms.

Community energy schemes are attracting much interest in UK since the first one, the Baywind wind farm in Morecambe Bay, was launched in 1997. Now there are more than 460 community energy schemes whose installed capacity is equivalent to powering about 60,000 homes.

In Scotland there are currently forty community groups that are taking forward renewable energy projects. Last year’s figures reveal that 775 organisations have bought generating equipment in a bid to distance themselves from escalating energy costs and instead make money by selling their surplus power to the grid. [Communities Driving Wind Power in Scotland with £8.8m In Benefits].

The figure rose from 509 in 2013, according to a report from Smartest Energy, a buyer of energy generated by the UK’s independent sector. Every week last year, over £1.5 million was invested in the sector. [Scotland’s Private Power Up By 52%]

Iain Robertson, Glasgow-based Head of Generation for SmartestEnergy, said the latest figures highlighted the significance of the sector in Scotland. He adds that the figures prove the sector’s resilience to political uncertainty, changes to renewable subsidies and the decrease in wholesale power prices.

Ramsay Dunning at Co-operative Energy  believes that if the UK is to move forward apace with its much-needed energy transition, UK citizens need to be put front and centre of the rollout of renewable energy. He adds: “Community energy projects have the potential to revolutionise the energy market, moving it away from large, fossil fuel generators toward locally owned, cleaner electricity generation sites.”