United Kingdom

United Kingdom


Last month an outraged European public brought giant Shell to its knees over the company's plans to sink a disused oil platform in the Atlantic. This lesson in consumer power is one the wind movement could learn from, particularly in the UK where there is a rising tide of opinion against wind farms. If public opposition to wind farms were turned into support for them, the wind industry would never look back. But such support will only ever be forthcoming if ordinary people are encouraged to take an active part in harnessing wind energy. At the moment in the UK the market structure, as shaped by the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO), divorces people from the opportunity of owning wind turbines and generating their own power. Is it not time for NFFO to be pensioned off and replaced with a more equitable form of market stimulation?

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Last month mighty petroleum giant Shell was brought to its knees by an outraged European public. Whether its plan to sink the deceased Brent Spar oil platform in the Atlantic Ocean would have caused irreparable damage to the environment is now a moot point. The public spoke and Shell -- facing a potential loss of at least 20% of its business on the European continent -- caved in and announced that its infamous platform would be dismantled on shore. As a demonstration of the enormous power wielded by the humble consumer, the case of the Brent Spar was a formidable display. It is one the wind community should learn from.

Public acceptance of wind power continues to be the biggest thorn in the side of the industry, particularly in the crowded corners of northern Europe. Nowhere is this more so than in the United Kingdom where wind power development is spearheaded by big business and large wind projects on distant sites. Yet the very essence of the concept of wind power is its ability to provide power locally from a resource available to everybody. It is thus a strange anomaly that politicians in the UK have devised a piece of legislation -- the Non Fossil Fuel Obligation (NFFO) -- which effectively divorces the consumer from installing and operating wind turbines (pages 25-31). Not only that, NFFO's fixation on low costs is restricting developers to the windiest sites when a widespread use of the country's resource would be far more sensible. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that the tide of opinion against wind power in the UK is steadily rising, even though people living near wind farms are generally supportive of them.

Concern about the shortcomings of NFFO is not being expressed by outsiders, but among the rank and file of the wind business. For an industry which has gained 160 MW of completed contracts out of the UK's renewables market it should be worrying that so many of its members can express so much dissatisfaction. Of even more concern, though, is the unwillingness of worried members to stand up and be counted. The few that do, timidly advance mild versions of their complaints, as if the grand high priest of electricity regulation will descend upon their bids for contracts and turn them into pumpkins.

There are other ways of getting wind turbines installed than within the confines of NFFO and people should not be afraid to say so. Given the right encouragement, local communities could become electricity generators -- producing power for their own use. This might sound like dreamy-eyed socialist theory, championing a principle unworkable in practice, were it not for the impressive spread of wind power in Germany, Denmark, and Holland. Here thousands of wind turbines are erected by the people for the people -- and it is good capitalist principles which stimulate them to do so. Local ownership of wind plant is encouraged by making it profitable. True, wind costs more in these countries than in the UK, but this is by government choice (to catalyse the market), not because it is more expensive by nature.

It would be a mistake to believe, though, that what can work on the continent can work in Britain. Cultural differences here play their part. The population of the UK is nowhere near so homogeneous as that, say, of Denmark and getting a local community to co-operatively invest in a wind project would be expecting the unlikely. But there are other forms of common ownership which are widespread in Britain. Investment in stocks and shares -- capital ownership rather than co-operative ownership -- is commonplace. As Robert Tudway suggests (page 30), grouping several small projects under the sponsorship of one wind farm developer would allow people to put their capital to work usefully as well as lucratively.

Unlike the case of the Brent Spar, the arguments for and against wind energy are not easy to grasp; there is no towering edifice of pollution to concentrate the rage of green minded citizens. Understanding why not using wind energy is dangerously shortsighted requires an interest (involvement) in the subject. Public support is necessary because, unlike other power plant that can be put out of sight (though not out of harm's way), wind is highly visible and does its job best when installed locally.

The UK electricity market is being set totally free in 1998 and community wind power could thrive in open competition -- after NFFO-3, wind is one of the cheapest energy options in the UK. But to continue with NFFO until then, with all its associated problems, would be shortsighted in the extreme. Provided projects thrive financially on their bid prices, the ruthless tendering process of the NFFO structure will be vindicated. NFFO will have achieved its aim. So has the time not come to pension it off and let all technologies compete based on their total costs of generation, including external costs? Two more rounds of contracts under the present system will ensure that a few get rich while the volume of public outcry reaches unheard levels. And when the public is riled, not even Shell can withstand its force.

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