Community, crowd and conversion

Liz Nickels

George Marsh looks at the growing trend for community ownership of renewable energy projects across the world, from Europe to North America and beyond, assessing why it is becoming more popular.

While significant opposition remains to some projects, more and more communities are starting to support local renewable energy projects.

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Imagine a small rural village in which the residents command dozens of wind turbines, a biodigester, a wood chip powered heating plant and an amount of solar photovoltaics (PV) – a combination which easily meets their total power and heating needs while also providing a substantial surplus which they can sell back to the grid. Actually, there is no need to imagine it. Such renewables icons already exist. Feldheim, 60km south of Berlin, Germany, is one. It has become a ‘sustainability mecca’ attracting a stream of ‘pilgrims’, keen to mark and learn, from around the world.
Feldheim's 150 or so inhabitants benefit from cheaper power, a share of the proceeds of excess energy sales and carbon-free self-reliance. They are independent of the conventional utility grid, although power from the village is exported to it via their own regional grid, co-owned with project developer Energiequelle GmbH.
“We are 100% carbon neutral,” says Barbara Ral, a scientist who runs educational tours for the community. “Our heat and energy are derived entirely from renewables, and not a drop of oil is used.” In addition to these benefits, about a third of the villagers derive livelihoods from working at the adjacent 43-turbine wind farm and a factory that produces metal bases for solar PV panels.

Inspiring others

Feldheim inspires with its example of direct community ownership. Petri Hakkarainen, a senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, argues that achieving citizen buy-in is what will make Germany's energy transition (from fossil and nuclear to reneweables) successful. Feldheim offers a model that can be adopted by communities of up to 10,000 people, Hakkarainen notes.
An interesting twist is that adopted by the Black Forest town of Schonau where the inhabitants have acquired the local grid but source clean energy from a wider area. Some 1000 citizens, fired by a desire to avoid nuclear power following the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, set up EWS Energy to buy the local grid, running a nationwide campaign to raise the necessary funding (which in those pre-Euro days amounted to Dm 6mn). Today the cooperative's members receive an annual dividend while the enterprise provides clean electricity, sourced from around Germany, to around 120,000 households and businesses in and around the town.
Other examples can be found elsewhere, such as Wildpoldsried, another German village highlighted here. Exemplary though these cases are, they are part of a phenomenon that is far from new.

Danish heritage goes global

From the 1970s Denmark was the birthplace of commercial-scale community wind and owes its onshore wind pre-eminence today to the landowners, farmers and communities who, with official encouragement, acquired those early wind turbines. By 2001 over 100,000 Danish families belonged to wind farm cooperatives, which had installed 86% of all the country's turbines.
From single turbines, the concept has progressed to multiple turbines and entire wind farms, both on and offshore. For instance, the 20-turbine Middelgrunden offshore wind farm, built in 2000, is half owned by 10,000 investors and half by the municipal utility company. Indeed, joint ownership between a cooperative and a municipal or commercial entity, often a developer, has become a leading business model for community wind.
In Denmark up to 90% of wind turbines are cooperatively owned while Germany and Sweden are not far behind. In Germany, the national figure is about 50%. However, the German district of North Frisia (home to the Husum wind energy trade fair) has set the pace with some 90% of installed wind capacity (around 700MW) community owned.
More recently, the concept of community renewables has arrived Stateside. An early example is in Boston, Massachussetts, where the Hull Wind One project, a 660kW turbine is municipally owned. Generating more that 1.5 million kilowatt hours in its first year, this asset effectively cancelled out the street lighting bill and raised the level of popular support to 95% of the town's residents.
Today, many more projects belong to community stakeholders. According to US outreach and advocacy organisation Windustry, there are now wind projects owned by farmers, colleges, schools, tribal governments, municipal utilities, local businesses, electricity cooperatives and others. Projects range in scale from single turbines to mammoth multi-megawatt developments involving hundreds of turbines, generating electricity for local consumption and/or for sale.
Developers and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), the traditional prime movers and beneficiaries of projects, are adapting to the new environment. Starting by supporting local causes as a means to influence popular sentiment at the planning stage, they have gone on to recognise that fuller on-going engagement with communities can be more productive than simply giving handouts to local sports teams.
One OEM convinced of the wisdom of this approach is Spain's Gamesa, whose vice president for communication and government affairs David Rosenburg has described distributed and community wind as the next frontier for the company. Andreas Nauen, CEO of REpower Systems, has expressed similar sentiments while pointing out that much of the value added (by a renewable energy project) stays within the locality, jobs are created and citizens can play an active role in the planning process. “The beauty of community wind is that it captures hearts and minds in a way that commercial wind farms struggle to do,” adds Jacob Susman, CEO of US developer OwnEnergy. “When communities are involved in their local wind projects, everybody wins.”
In Toronto, Canada, the WindShare enterprise operates the country's first urban turbine, owned by individuals and the local power utility. Elsewhere, the 20MW Pukwiss Community Wind Park is the first to be jointly owned by a First Nation (native Americans) and a local cooperative. ‘Power to the people’ has started to take off in Australia too. The country's first community-owned wind farm, a 4.1MW twin-turbine installation 100km north west of Melbourne, Victoria, is owned and operated by the Hepburn Wind Cooperative. Hepburn Wind was founded six years ago as a trading cooperative and now has over 1900 members.
Members share the dividends in proportion to their investment and democratic control is exercised with each member having one vote. Nine volunteer directors elected at an annual general meeting run the farm, with operational assistance provided by a local executive body. Renewable energy is sold at competitive rates to residents of Victoria, while a proportion of the revenue is used to support local sustainability projects.

Overcoming NIMBYism

Turning attention back to Europe, community ownership of projects has been spreading in the UK too, encouraged by politicians and developers as a way of overcoming the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome. Despite having some of the world's best resources, the UK has some of the most entrenched opposition to renewable energy projects. Reasons cited include the crowded nature of the highly populated islands, with high value consequently being put on ‘natural’ landscapes; the inherent conservatism of the British people and some reaction against environmentalism.
Nothing, it seems, talks louder to the people who have to live with turbines and other infrastructure in their midst than a sense of ownership, money and other direct benefits. Too harsh? Consider the telling example of two neighbouring Gloucestershire towns, one of which was vehemently opposed to hosting a wind turbine while the other was strongly in favour of a similar initiative. The main difference between the two: Community buy-in was a feature of one, but not the other.
In picturesque St Briavels in the Forest of Dean, local people have helped fund a 500kW Resilient Energy turbine. Individual contributions have ranged from £20 put in by a pensioner to £10,000 from a seasoned investor. According to the latter, Bob Handley, “It [community ownership] is saying it's not just the big energy companies that are doing this. Crowd-funding cuts out the middle man. It's like going down to the farm shop where you're buying directly from the producer. Here you're investing directly in the producer.”
Four and a half miles away, the town of Coleford rejected plans for a turbine after a project put forward by a different company ran into strong opposition. A town councillor has referred to an ‘extraordinary difference’ in the local response citing ‘pages and pages of [objecting] letters and petitions‘, compared with low level objection at St Briavels, most of which was subsequently withdrawn.
Admittedly, the intended 86m high turbine at Coleford would have been more visible to inhabitants than the St Briavels installation; even so it seems clear that it was the local buy-in at St Briavels that most strongly influenced the outcome. Here, the money raising was organised by Abundance Generation, a crowd-funding company which aims to make it easy for small investors to put their money into community energy projects, whilst offering a 5-9% return. Other similar matchmakers include Microgenius, now part of the UK Co-op, and Solar Schools, run by 10:10 UK, which helps schools finance solar roofs by raising donations from the local community.
Larger projects are not left out in the cold; Oxford-based Energy Bank and the Trillion Fund are two examples of organisations bringing communities and developers together in sizeable renewable developments. Jennifer Webber, a spokesperson for RenewableUK, agrees community ownership is taking off in the UK. She cites as examples the 6.5MW wind farm at Westmill farm, Oxfordshire, which is the UK's largest community-owned wind farm and is to be complemented by a solar farm, and a number of Scottish projects facilitated by Falck Renewables Wind Ltd.
Engineering roles in high-vacuum physics, electronics, flight testing and radar led George Marsh, via technology PR, to technology journalism. He is a regular contributor to Renewable Energy Focus. 

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