United Kingdom

United Kingdom

Scotland shows the way on community ownership

UK: Public opinion is largely in favour of wind energy in Germany and Denmark -- arguably Europe's original wind powerhouses.

The US has more than 2GW of operating community-based wind projects
The US has more than 2GW of operating community-based wind projects

This social acceptance is driven by a high ownership of projects by communities since the 1980s. Nearly half of the total wind capacity in Germany is owned by farmers or cooperatives, while in Denmark, the figure is 88%.

Indeed, in Germany, the public has embraced the idea so wholeheartedly that in some parts of the country it is generally accepted that the only people who can build a wind farm are those living in that area and such projects are expected to be virtually immune to legal challenge.

On the other side of the North Sea, however, such involvement by communities in wind farm development is almost unheard of. When plans for a wind farm are unveiled in the UK, most of the action tends to come from those in opposition, while those in favour often remain silent. Permitting rates by project dropped to 54% in the UK in 2011. If involvement by communities has had such positive benefits in Germany and Denmark, why has it not taken off in the UK?

Increasingly, there are signs of a new movement stirring into action. The bulk of activity is in Scotland, which began with a community-owned wind project in 2004 when a group in Fintry secured ownership of a 2.5MW turbine at the 35MW Earlsburn wind farm. This came online in 2008 and at the time was the biggest community-owned renewable-energy asset in the UK.

Today, 56.58MW of community-owned projects exist in Scotland, according to the government-funded advisory body the Energy Saving Trust. Another 21MW is under construction, approximately 260MW approved and 154MW going through the permitting process. So, by 2020, there could be almost 500MW of community wind.

Small and large

Projects vary from single small turbines to Viking Energy's consented 370MW project in Shetland, 50% of which is owned by the community. Ownership and finance models are equally varied — smaller projects are often wholly-owned by the community, while at least one developer has been promoting community ownership of parts of its commercial-scale projects.

Community ownership offers much more than the benefit programmes offered by most developers. Such programmes pay a town or village near the wind farm a set amount per megawatt-hour of energy the wind farm produces. RenewableUK recommends that this is at least £1,000 (€1,239) per megawatt-hour, but rates are usually higher in Scotland, up to £5,000/MW.

Yet, if the Shetland project were entirely developer owned, for example, the community benefit would need to be set at £26,700/MWh to achieve the same benefits for the economy as under the community-ownership model, says a University of Strathclyde study.

Nicholas Gubbins, chief executive of advisory body Community Energy Scotland, thinks that the benefits of locally owned energy generation are hard to overestimate. "Community ownership provides more local control of the project, many more times the funds for local benefit and greatly increased confidence and learning within communities,"he says.

Mutual benefit

While the benefits to communities are obvious, many developers may not see what is in it for them. But this would be mistaken, according to proponents of community wind. Martin Turner was one of the two men involved in securing the deal for Fintry and is now director of Frost Free, which acts as a go-between for communities and developers of wind projects. He says that full or part ownership of a wind project completely alters the way that communities see the wind farm. "Rather than being seen as an imposition, it becomes an asset," he says.

"A couple of the developers we've worked with have been shocked and surprised about how stress-free their lives have been," Turner adds. "The difference between doing [community wind] and business as usual is the difference between feeling you can pop into the local pub and actually chat to folk as opposed to running for your life. So the whole tone changes."

There is also a huge financial benefit to developers. Turner reports an 80% success rate for construction-consent applications for community wind schemes. This contrasts dramatically with the permitting approval rate of only 38% for standard wind projects in Scotland last year.

"We've had a couple of cases where the recommendation of the planning officers has been overturned by councillors because of pressure from the communities working on the project. When you can say you can raise the success rate, you're derisking the project," Turner says.

Independent wind developer West Coast Energy has been actively promoting wind projects to communities over the last two years. The thinking behind this is that as feasibility and development grants dry up through funding cuts, communities who want to become partners in wind projects will rely more on established developers for project management and finance. And having worked with the Fintry Renewable Energy Enterprise Group on the Earlsburn project, West Coast Energy has early experience with community wind. The community was able to secure ownership of one of the 14 turbines without making any initial cash outlay as West Coast Energy was able to organise the funding.

The developer is involved in three community wind projects in Scotland: the 22.5MW Cairnborrow project in Aberdeenshire, the 17.5MW project in Corse Hill in Angus and the 32.5MW Daviot project in the Highlands. It is still too early to say for certain whether there is less opposition to the wind farms as all of them are currently going through the permitting process. But Steve Salt, West Coast Energy's planning and development director, notes: "Where we are promoting the community turbines or partnerships, we're finding that people are standing up and speaking on behalf of this idea."

Gubbins believes that the potential for these types of project is significant. "A supportive developer who wishes to work with a community, a confident community and a favourable attitude from government will increase the number and scale of wind projects built in the coming years," he says.

West Coast Energy wants to roll the model out to projects in England and Wales, where so far, community ownership has not made inroads.

Community wind schemes in the UK are so far almost entirely located in Scotland, mainly due to a variety of geographical and cultural reasons. Remote communities such as those on the Scottish islands tend to be more aware of energy security. Combined with the fact that these are the areas with the highest wind resource, it can be no surprise that there is a high proportion of community wind schemes on the islands. There is also a culture of negotiating for community benefits from development — the Shetland Islands received payments from the oil industry long before wind turbines arrived.

The Scottish government has actively encouraged this thinking and has a target for 500MW of renewable energy to be community-owned by 2020. It also part-funds Community Energy Scotland, advises communities on involvement in energy projects and manages government grant payments. In April, the Scottish government launched the community and renewable-energy loan scheme. This is designed to support projects ahead of the permit application stage when they are still considered too high a risk for commercial loans.

A total of £23.5 million is available — individual projects can receive loans of up to £150,000 to cover 95% of agreed costs. Free advice is also provided. Such political support is a big driver for West Coast Energy's work in Scotland. "I think in England we will have the same enthusiasm from communities, but I'm not sure it's there in the ethos of central government," says Salt.

Activity is picking up in England, with a smattering of small projects announced this year. These include the 15MW Roseland Community Energy Trust in central England and six 2MW turbines being built by turkey-farming company Bernard Matthews on its sites in the east of England.

Big impression

The answer could come from a more grass-roots approach. Earlier this year, non-profit organisation Forum for the Future set up the Community Energy Coalition, with representatives from almost 20 national organisations, representing 12 million members. Leaders from the organisations visited Germany to see first hand how community wind works there.

One of the signatories of the coalition is the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), which frequently opposes wind farms due to their perceived impact on the landscape. But, the visit to Germany seems to have left an impression with the organisation. In a report in May it even went so far as to recommend a move away from community benefits towards community ownership. "Ownership of a projects is an important consideration which needs to be taken seriously. More work is needed to inform communities about how to get involved in this approach," the report states.

Seeking consent

CPRE chief executive Shaun Spiers stresses that community ownership of a project would not automatically remove the campaign's objections if it believed the landscape was under threat. However, he says: "If people feel they have ownership of decisions instead of feeling like they've been imposed on them, then you're more likely to get consent."

Working in partnership with a community rather than merely consulting them could lead to communities becoming far more engaged in their relationship of energy. "Ideally, communities should know the renewable potential around them," says Turner. "They could potentially put that resource out to tender to developers and that would completely change the dynamic as to where the money is going. The whole control and ownership of the project would be completely different."

This may sound like a utopian dream to those familiar with England's consenting battles, but this is effectively what the community of Shetland did.

"Given the right environment and available and appropriate finance, I think there's definitely appetite out there in the communities," says Giles Bristow, head of energy at Forum for the Future.

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