Many developers already provide community benefits when proposing onshore wind farms, but the approach has been inconsistent. For this reason, trade body RenewableUK launched its Community Benefit Protocol in February.
The voluntary system applies to onshore wind farms with an installed capacity of 5MW or more. It proposes that the developer or operator makes contributions of a minimum of £1,000 (EUR1,138) a year for every megawatt of capacity, with the payments linked to inflation. The contributions are to be made throughout the projected life of the wind farm, beginning within 12 months of the project starting to generate power.
The protocol is being introduced in England only at this stage, with similar arrangements for Wales and Northern Ireland likely to begin soon. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on its own proposals for community benefit payments.
Simon Power, associate director of engineering consultancy Arup, believes that the protocol will not make wind farms any more attractive to local communities. His developer clients have always offered funds to benefit locals who are affected but, in his experience, it is communities 3-4 kilometres away that are most aggrieved.
"A village a few kilometres away may have a clear view of the wind farm but is not deemed to be affected and therefore sees no benefit. But if developers had to distribute funds in accordance with the distribution of impacts - either audible or visual - then the money would be spread so thinly that it would be negligible," he says.
The UK government is also hoping that, by allowing the local council to keep the business rates for the first six years of the wind farm's operation, communities will be encouraged to host wind farms. The move comes as construction consent for wind projects in the UK dropped to 41% in 2010 - a 21% fall from 2009.
"Right now, all too often, communities can see the wind farms but not the windfall," says energy secretary Chris Huhne. "We'll all benefit in the long run, and moves to help local people feel more immediate benefits of hosting a wind farm are crucial."
Coriolis Energy development director Cath Ibbotson welcomes the protocol as a sign of the industry's commitment to community benefits, especially in the current economic climate.
However, she points out that the payment does not have to be considered by the council when judging the application to build. "The jury is out on whether it will help get planning permission," she says.
Community benefits have a special role to play, says RenewableUK chief executive Maria McCaffery, as they are distributed according to the wishes of the local community itself.
What typically happens now is that a charitable trust representing both the community and wind farm owner is set up in each area to decide each application for funds. The wind farm owner will then provide money for whatever the trust decides to award funding to - for example, sports equipment.
The protocol lays down responsibilities for wind farm developers. RenewableUK claims that it was devised with the full input from the organisation's members and so represents a commitment to best practice, which will convince local communities that developers are reputable and will meet their commitments. The only sanction for those who do not comply, however, is removal from the protocol agreement.
McCaffery insists the protocol will make a difference. "Our ongoing study of the economic benefits of onshore wind clearly indicates that the local and regional economy gains over £1 million per megawatt during the development and operational cycle of a wind farm," she says.
Arup's Power believes that education about the need for more wind power is key to winning communities' support for wind projects. Most people think that there is always somewhere else for a wind farm to go, but large areas of land in England have specific designations to protect them, he explains. "England has a land-capacity problem, so there needs to be more give and take and people need to be more accepting of wind farms," he says.