Are all wind turbines created equal?
Last October people living around Llanfyrnach will have noticed a new addition to the skyline. In just a single day, all the components of the CARE community wind turbine were assembled to enable a new member to join the family of other turbines in the area. Being there for that day, it was striking how fast the assembly occurred in comparison to the long, long journey that led up to that point (This time lapse film gives an idea of the speed and efficiency of the final construction, whereas this film shows more detail of one of the stages). The start of what turned out to be the marathon which led to the turbine finally rising up can be traced back 15 years to when the project was first conceptualised from a community visioning exercise. Ever since then a group of volunteers have been working to make it happen.
My own involvement started a mere 9 years previous, and I feel very glad not to have had to keep the faith, in the face of the many difficulties, for any longer than this - unlike other volunteers. Some of the challenges of this journey, especially the securing of planning permission, are captured in this clip (warning to those easily disturbed, it features myself in just my underpants). Equally as hard as the wait, for me and the other volunteers, was working to realise a project that a small number of people in the community were unhappy about. The prospect of such a new addition to the landscape does not sit well with everyone and I respect and understand that. I hope since its arrival that those who found it contentious have been able to make some kind of peace with it.
Now that it is finally here I would like to describe what makes this wind turbine different to others and why this should be celebrated. The key thing is that this is the only turbine, among the multitude that can be seen around it, which has been fully steered into being by a community group. Our group has not done this alone and considerable support has come from both the Welsh Government, the UK Government, as well as NGOs. With this wide range of high level support it begs the question as to why so much importance has been placed on this particular turbine being owned by the community? A large part of the answer is that this turbine, with others, is a major attempt to kick start and progress the community renewable energy ownership model.
As mentioned wind turbines bring changes to the landscape and so it is equitable that communities, accepting these changes, benefit. A small number of private renewable projects recognise this and have community funds; and wind turbines owned by local landowners do have benefits to the local economy. But when we get to the, usually bigger, private developments with minimal community funds, owned by outside investors, then the benefits to the local area will usually be increasingly minimal. On this spectrum of benefit to society the best option has to be for these turbines to be owned by the community with all net income being fed back into the community. This is indeed the case with the CARE turbine.
CARE’s directors are made up of local volunteers and the organisation is a not for profit Community Benefit Society where all benefits are brought back into the community. We also hope to be able to go further than this and do our best to capture the investment interest locally that is currently going back to the large project loan from the Development Bank of Wales. This can be done by replacing as much of this bank loan as possible with a public share offer - primarily for local people. This means that anyone locally, with even a small amount to invest, could benefit. Currently there is some uncertainty over the financial return of the project with the slump in energy prices due to Covid-19. We are therefore waiting for greater clarity on the projected returns so we can be sure of offering the best interest rate on investment.
In addition to the potential economic benefit, the turbine also attempts to foster a proactive community spirit of how we, as a local community, can tackle critical and difficult challenges, like climate change. We can see how essential that community spirit is when a difficulty like Covid-19 comes along. The project aims to go further in engaging with as many people as it can locally to help address the challenges that we face.
It comes up regularly with community energy that one of the benefits should be to feed the electricity produced straight back into the homes of local people or to local companies. Often when we have said the turbine is producing community energy, people have asked - when do we get some? To try to do this is a big challenge and the first projects attempting this are just getting off the ground. We have been closely monitoring this and hope that once this opportunity is there we are primed to take this forward. Having this community asset will hopefully unlock many such opportunities here in the future.
The intent of the volunteers who have driven the process along has always been to combat climate change through producing renewable electricity whilst also generating a sustainable community income. Over the 15 years of getting this project to completion the impacts of climate change have very noticeably increased both locally and globally and the sense of urgency to tackle this problem has grown both among the public and politicians. All nations of the UK have now declared a climate emergency and the UK government has set itself the legally binding target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. It will clearly be extremely challenging to fully decarbonise our energy sources in thirty years to meet this critical target - so it is very fortunate that the CARE community turbine is in place and contributing right now. Everything points to climate change becoming the most pressing issue of our time and correspondingly for this turbine being increasingly valued.