Cultivating energy farmers

A 50kW turbine at a height of 30m has eased into the landscape in Rattery. Having sighted the structure from afar I decided to investigate via bicycle, which allowed me to fully appreciate the high elevation of the site. Standing underneath the blades spinning at full capacity there was definitely some sound, but the feeling that most gripped me was of wonder.
The rejected Luscombe Cross turbines are three times the size, but provide 46 times the generation capacity. Yet this turbine has caused no controversy. If we are at all concerned about the growing generation gap, then surely the wrong decision was made.
Anyhow, the opportunity renewable energy offers to farmers is discussed in a recent article – “Is 2013 the year of the energy farmer?”. Rising costs, horrific harvests and unsympathetic banks, made 2012 a year of hardship for many farmers. The need to protect against future energy price rises and a new financial income stream, leaves the opportunity too good to refuse for many. Indeed there is a growing number of solar parks going through planning locally of some serious size – 13 hectares (5MW) and 15 hectares (8MW) within a few miles of each other near South Brent. A hectare is the area of Trafalgar Square in London or alternatively an international rugby pitch – in other words, big. Undoubtedly, these renewable energy installations will have an impact on our countryside, but to deny farmers a rare opportunity in gloomy economic times does seem a little unfair. I maintain my reservations that I stated in a previous post: solar is highly variable (2012 was a bad year for solar); provides little or no energy in winter and at night, when we use most; and is still expensive and carbon intensive compared with other forms. However it will surely form part of a diverse set of renewable energy technologies that we need urgently. Furthermore, the two large solar parks in question, offer no opportunity for local ownership, and therefore a much lower proportion of the financial benefits. This is in direct contrast to the model that Totnes Renewable SOCiety (TRESOC) and the Community energy coalition is striving to publicise and celebrate – local people finding resources and sharing the benefits with local investors.
There is space for all scales of renewable energy to play their part in securing a renewable future locally. Farmers can help cultivate a renewable future for all.
Olly Frankland

Dividing communities or taking responsibility?

There are two broad definitions of community:

  • a geographically-based community
  • and a community of interest.

The contentious nature of onshore wind turbines means that the they are often blamed for dividing  geographic communities. In the case of our development – Totnes Community Wind Farm – the opposition often seek to drive a wedge between Totnes and the parishes Harberton/ Harbertonford  – where the turbines will reside.

If the parishes of Harberton and Harbertonford were independent, the argument would have some justification. However, we are living in an increasingly inter-connected society, and therefore we are  reliant on other communities for our high standard of life. In energy terms, we impose the impact of living next to nuclear power stations, pylons, gas turbines, refineries, coal mines onto to other communities to maintain the status quo. Is this a fair imposition? We don’t question it, because it is so embedded as acceptable in our society. Our addiction to the existing system, means that we ignore these inequalities – we forget the current and future victims, that may suffer for us. A conservative estimate puts the number of serious accidents (more than 5 fatalities) in the coal, oil and gas industries as 2592 (1970-2008) within the EU (10 times that in developing countries). All communities are liable for these hidden discrepancies.

Now I’m am not suggesting that the two turbines proposed will totally transform this inequality, but they are a step in right direction.

If we take the second definition and broaden our view of community, from small geographic differences to a more general, community of interest, the discussion becomes very different. It is in the interest of every community to secure a vibrant local economy and produce renewable electricity. As I have explained previously (in my first blog post/ letter) the smaller parishes do not have the resources available for such a substantial development, that produces enough electricity for 2500 homes. So as a joint community of interest we respond to the needs locally in any way we can.

If we widen the geographic boundaries, accept we share common interests, and take into account the current energy system has many less publicised victims, we come to very different conclusions.

Can we ignore wind and just use solar?

A frequent response from those opposing onshore wind is that we should use more solar energy as it has a lower impact. While I agree there is a huge potential for solar energy (PV and thermal), particularly in the South West, it is not a perfect solution. We live fairly far North, which means that in the winter months, when are energy use peaks, the energy from the sun is very low. We also use more energy at night – when there is no generation from solar.
There is also variability from cloud cover that can have an impact, which can be easily seen at the Civic hall and Leatside surgery in Totnes, with the live output (kW) shown on the screens.

You could argue that solar PV is much more variable than onshore wind, however it is far more predictable and reliable. I found a report on renewable energy targets for Devon completed by the University of Exeter which states:

“…one large 3MW wind turbine generates more electricity in a year (at 25% load/ capacity factor) than over 3000 domestic (2kW) PV arrays at a tenth of the capital cost” 

(NB. as the report is a year old, the price of the PV panels has come down since).

This remains a staggering statistic, that should needs to be taken into account when analysing the different options. It also shows the difference between micro-generation of renewable electricity and that of large scale production. It is far more efficient to do it at a larger scale, but then you have to also take into account the larger impacts. This was also mentioned in my last post – 92 small turbines needed to produce as much as the two large turbines proposed in Totnes Community wind farm.

If we look at the renewable production of energy in 2011 from the 2012 DUKES report, there was an interesting change – wind and hydro performing much better than previous years (windier and wetter). There has also been a lot of media attention on the extreme weather observed in 2012 in recent reports. Given these developments it is surely better to use a diverse set of generation technologies, including onshore wind, so we can weather the ‘perfect storm’ of resource scarcity, extreme climatic events, retiring power stations and increased demand. All communities should be responsible for generating some of their energy and conserving their use. The scale of the challenge and the lack of time means we cannot afford to ignore any low carbon technology.

Olly Frankland

Windfarms – “pros and antis: it’s disconcerting how decent they all seem…”

Last Friday TRESOC held a Christmas party in the civic hall in Totnes. Updating our members on our numerous projects, we then continued to the OSTAS – where TRESOC awarded specific members for their commitment by giving them a trophy of huge significance – a cabbage (Savoy, if you’re interested). Then wine and cheese to end evening.
I was having a discussion with one of the lucky winners – Dan Findlay – about our flagship project -Totnes Community Wind Farm (TCWF). One of the key aspects that seems to surround onshore wind projects, is the divisions it can create in the community – as well as the Government. This reminded me of an article I had read the previous week on the issue, which struck a chord:

“Pros and antis: it is disconcerting how decent they all seem……. Vexingly, the two sides of this debate do not organise neatly along opposite straits: it’s not as though the antis are fighting for the landscape, while the pros are fighting for the economy. Everyone’s a conservationist; everyone’s trying to secure a long-term energy future……”


These observations have become more and more obvious to me, after the talking to people on both sides during the past year. Both sides agree on a lot of things other than onshore wind, and often have the same priorities and motivations. It is quite ridiculous – I don’t fall out with my friends because they use an Apple Mac computer rather than a PC to blog. The one difference is amplified, whereas the similarities are acoustic whispers. This is the case in many issues that trouble society, including the debate surrounding onshore wind. So when there are headlines from the media claiming a ‘broken community’ due to TCWF, I am perplexed. Why should neighbours that have been friendly for decades, fall out over one issue they disagree on? They didn’t agree on everything before.

Clearly it’s a highly emotive issue, that touches the core of what we value, and often, becomes part of our identity. So when disagreements occur they are undeniably personal. People are genuinely worried and concerned about their standard of life. But, there needs to be some sense of proportion. Our sense of community and neighbourliness is of more value than any one issue.

We all want a viable future for our fragile environment and society. When we look objectively at the problem of securing our low carbon energy future locally, we simply cannot afford to ignore our cheapest and most widely available resource – onshore wind.

We need to acknowledge the many similarities between the opposing sides, and also the difficulties people are experiencing, in order to have better conversations. I think this quote from the same article sums up some of my sentiments:

“We are still the Saudi Arabia of wind, but you have to imagine us as an oil-rich country with a very strong objection to the extraction of oil, for reasons that are absolutely self-evident to half our parliament (and our communities) and totally obscure to the other half.”

The scale of Totnes Community Wind Farm

I recently posted a response to the question raised by some opposing Totnes Community Wind Farm (TCWF) on Sarah Wollastons’ (MP) website:

“I’m glad the issue of scale has been raised. They are large to produce as much renewable energy as possible. It would take 92 turbines of the size proposed at Foales Leigh (50kW – 46m to tip) to produce as much as the two turbines in our proposal (at max. capacity – not taking into account a lower capacity factor).Surely the cumulative impact (noise, energy, landscape) of that number is much larger?
This also serves to show the huge loss of generation when reducing the size of the turbine – half the height but only 2.2% of the capacity (compared with one 2.3MW turbine).  They are connected to the national grid because of the large amount of electricity produced – so it can go where the demand is. At present there is no other alternative local grid available. The scale of the community chosen – Totnes and its environs – was so that the necessary investment, skills and resources could be sourced. At a village scale it simply wouldn’t be possible to carry out a development of this size – £6million, 4.6MW – enough for 2500 homes.” 

I hope this contains some insight for those involved in the conversation. I certainly learned something during the process.

Olly Frankland.