With the planning process and local opposition being two of the biggest hurdles to getting a renewable energy project off the ground, David Burrows looks at how engaging with communities from the start can make for a much smoother ride.
Five years ago Forum for the Future produced its Size of the Prize report showing there to be 10-20GW of ‘unmet renewable energy potential’ across British farms.
This would be enough energy to power between seven million and 14m homes.
The authors claimed: “Despite the pioneering efforts of some, the considerable potential of farms and rural communities to contribute to the energy system remains largely untapped.
“Farm-based energy does not get the attention, or the support, it deserves and farmers are finding ways to invest in renewables despite the system, rather than because of it.”
Few will be surprised to hear the biggest barriers to developments were planning and local opposition.
Asked whether they support renewable energy most people say yes; the Government tracks attitudes towards energy and climate change every year and support for low carbon energy has remained at 75-80 per cent.
However, their feelings can change if the technology is in their backyard.
Whether it is an anaerobic digester to take slurry, a field of solar panels or a wind turbine, farmers can encounter opposition to their plans.
This can add considerable costs to the whole process and, on occasion, force a divide between the farm and the local community they are at the heart of.
But what if the whole process was turned on its head? What if the village or town asked farmers to support a community-wide energy scheme, rather than having farmers approach locals with their plans.
Rebecca Lawson, senior sustainability advisor in Forum’s energy team, says: “Resistance from local communities is quite common, particularly for wind turbines which locals see as a blot on their landscape for no tangible benefit to them.
“We are looking at how we can start with the community and work out towards farmers.”
Ms Lawson is involved in a pilot project currently underway in Wales.
Thanks to funding from the Waterloo Foundation, a charity providing grants to sustainability projects, a series of workshops have been run in a small market town to develop a ‘master plan’ for the community’s energy.
This started with an understanding of the local energy needs, where it comes from, how much it costs and what the future trends might be.
“We then looked at what the community’s vision was,” Ms Lawson adds.
“They wanted to be carbon neutral by 2030. Beyond that they aim to supply renewable energy to neighbouring villages and communities.”
The beauty of the process so far is residents and local groups have led it, rather than expensive consultancy firms.
Of course, a vision is one thing but the hard part is working out how to achieve it.
Ms Lawson and local residents have already identified opportunities, which have been subsequently graded by cost, impact and difficulty, including the local opposition.
“From there we looked at priority areas and what they think they want to focus on,” she says.
The emphasis is on projects which will be quick, easy to finance and most likely to receive wider support.
Wind is trickier than solar, for example, and might attract more opposition locally.
Still, Ms Lawson has not witnessed any knee-jerk reactions to certain concepts or technologies.
Indeed, involving the community at the outset brings everything much closer to home.
What may have been viewed as a giant blot on the landscape generating income only for the landowners can quickly become a beacon for a community which is taking back ownership of its energy supply and securing it for the future.
The next stage for this pilot is to start exploring the business models which will work regardless of renewable energy subsidies and to engage the wider community, including more farmers. The hope is this will provide a blueprint for others to develop their plans and harness some of the untapped renewable energy potential on the UK’s farms.
Forum for the Future’s 2013 report concluded: “Farm-based energy provides an opportunity to strengthen the relationship between farmers and their communities through mechanisms such as shared ownership and jointly-constructed community energy plans.”
Indeed, the benefits of engaging communities do not stop at the simple removal of planning objections, Ms Lawson adds.
“Some farmers might have halted renewable plans due to finance and costs not adding up,” she says.
“If local communities are bought into the change, they could bring their fundraising resources to help finance these installations, with farmers and communities standing to benefit from co-owned facilities.”