Buffeted by political winds

This article was first published in August 2013, in the Transition Free Press.  Since it was written, TRESOC’s industry partner, Infinergy, has determined that the commercial risk was too high to proceed with Totnes Community Wind Farm and protesters have joined forces to defeat any proposals in the area (with no distinction made as to whether they are private or community applications).  What a tragedy for clean energy in community ownership.

It’s increasingly likely that the UK will miss its European Union energy target, which is to generate 15% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.  The European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) ranks the UK a depressing 25th out of 27 states on progress towards the 2020 green energy target.

This doesn’t come as a huge surprise to the 500 members of Totnes Renewable Energy Society (TRESOC).  Nor did the rejection in February of our flagship project – two wind turbines in rural Devon.  We expected our local Planning Committee would reject our proposal.  We just didn’t know what reason they would give.  In the end it was “substantial harm” to the view.

Rejection is the fate of most onshore wind farms in planning, but many are passed on appeal because planning inspectors conclude that they meet government policy and that local impact is not as great as councillors fear.

We did take the bull by the horns with this proposal – 2.3 megawatt (MW) turbines are big. But it was the best site for wind in our area, we had chosen the most cost-effective technology and in theory the government has a policy of encouraging renewables. It seemed like a huge opportunity.

Unfortunately, in June, the political wind changed direction.  In what felt like a huge blow to the government’s vision for renewables and our attempts to power 2,500 households, the Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, wrote to councils giving them extra reasons to reject wind proposals.  Lib Dem Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, stressed that there would be more financial benefits for communities who accepted wind farms, but the media seemed to revel in the news that additional obstacles were being created.

The Pickles letter doesn’t constitute new legislation, but it will cause confusion. In particular, it cuts across the National Planning Policy Framework, which is in favour of sensibly sited wind farms.  So which should take precedence?  Giving communities the right to have more of a say is a good thing, but it must come with the responsibility to contribute to society’s wider, collective needs.

In the words of the Centre for Sustainable Energy’s Chief Executive, Simon Roberts: “Rights without responsibility is a recipe for short-term, self-interested decisions that pass the buck to others; someone or somewhere else will make up for any poorly informed, parochial decisions.  Yet this is what the Government seems to be doing with on-shore wind power; giving local views the upper hand over national interests in planning decisions on onshore wind farm proposals.”

Where does this leave TRESOC?  Buffeted certainly, but we’re not giving up.  Although we have only kilowatts of power production from our other schemes to show for huge amount of energy we’ve used to debate the pros and cons of onshore wind, we are now using knowledge gained and team resilience to move forward with the right solution for our wind project, and build our portfolio using a range of technologies including solar and river/tidal turbines.

It’s not all bad news – lobbying by community energy groups, including TRESOC, can work. In response to feedback on the type of financial incentive that works best for us, DECC is planning to increase the Feed-In Tariff threshold for community projects from 5MW to 10MW to enable larger installations to benefit.

Mostly, however, it’s a real struggle to make progress on community renewables in the current political climate.  But if politicians are finding onshore wind complex, one wonders how they’ll do when fracking companies start asking to blow up the countryside in search of gas.  Will fracking make wind seem more of a blast?

Jane Brady is Communications Director of TRESOC, www.tresoc.co.uk, and a member of Transition Town Totnes.