Helping communities to develop their own local renewable energy resources could boost the local economy and improve participation in community activities, according to a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Trust.
It says that the Government, instead of reforming planning processes to force unwanted schemes on towns and villages, should instead consider ways in which communities can benefit from low carbon energy.
The report, Wind energy and justice for disadvantaged communities, says that it is not simply about large companies giving a share of their profits to local communities when they put a wind farm in their neighbourhood.
Instead, it should be about bolstering local resilience in the face of difficult economic conditions and rising energy prices, which can have spin-off benefits in terms of improving local facilities and promoting a sense of community spirit.
The report does not consider community-owned schemes, which have their own, separate benefits. Rather, it examines how commercial, large-scale schemes can be more embedded in their locality. It calls on developers to directly invest in community resources or environmental enhancement.
There are community benefit funds from wind farms that now exceed £100,000 a year. As the size of these wind farms continues to increase so will the funds. With this, the report says, “comes the opportunity to achieve something transformational".
This “exciting vision" could, in 25 years time, leave communities with a more “sustainable, autonomous, locally embedded energy system, which retains more local employment and generates funds for other goals".
It quotes research showing that large wind farms tend to be in areas of social disadvantage, or of lower population and lower incomes. These include West Wales, Cornwall, Lincolnshire, North East England, Lothian and Scottish Highlands. By contrast, the affluent counties of southern England, often the most vocal against wind farms, have very few such facilities.
This is not surprising, since remote areas tend to be both windy and socially deprived. But it does show that there is an opportunity for wind farms to redress the economic disadvantage experienced by these areas.
The report cites communities already existing across the country with this transformational aspiration.
One example is that of Argyll and Bute, Scotland, which decided that the sum of £2000 per megawatt of installed capacity should be the minimum payment of the community benefit, with an additional £1000 per megawatt based on the actual output of the wind farm. 60% of this share of the profit is channelled to the immediate local community through a trust fund, and 40% to the wider community.
Another example is Forestry Commission Wales, which manages a lot of upland coniferous plantation land on behalf of the Welsh government, that is made available for developers. Tenders for wind farms are evaluated with considerable weight given to community and financial dimensions: 60% in total, with just 40% given to technical aspects.
Finally the report looks at an example of offshore wind near Lincolnshire on the east coast of England. Here, community benefits have been substantially shaped by the developer, Centrica. For example, they have invested in a local community centre to give it heating and hot water, and provided a visitor centre and education officer.
The report has been welcomed by RenewableUK, which points out that already in Scotland there is a national register detailing community benefits already agreed with developers to help other communities negotiate with developers.
There is also an emerging UK-wide Coastal Communities Fund, which is beginning a debate about the equitable division of profits between the government and local communities, in cases where projects are developed on land owned by the Crown.
Many companies are seeing the benefits of investing in local communities. In Scotland, Scottish and Southern Energy are increasing their standard community benefit offer to £5000 per megawatt, half of which is put into a “Scotland Sustainable Energy Fund" with the aim of supporting the development of skills, community energy schemes and environmental improvements in the wider region.
The Rowntree Report concludes by saying: “The prize is a significant one: a low-carbon energy revolution that not only addresses global obligations to future generations, but which fosters long-term resilience in the communities that live alongside the infrastructure".