The Power of Community

Maybe some of you have been watching the documentary series, Blown Apart: Windfarm Wars, being shown on TVO (Sunday nights, 8:00 p.m.). It describes the community opposition in an English town against a windfarm development in their rural area. It echoes the type of local resistance to wind farm development in parts of Ontario.

In England the objection focused on noise levels and the visual impact on a scenic landscape. Here, the main concern seems to be over the disputed health effects of low level noise and the danger to migratory birds. In both countries, a government mandate to plan for new renewable energy has set the stage for controversy.  I don’t think the energy project in the documentary ends well. The key questions being asked are, “What are we being asked to give up? Who benefits?”

These multi-million dollar projects typically involve large, industrial-scale turbines perched on massive towers 30 to 100 metres tall. The antagonists are local residents versus large corporate interests.  The perception that an outsider is despoiling a public good (the landscape) for private profit comes through pretty clearly in the documentary. Here’s a familiar echo in a timely letter to the editor from a resident in Elgin County opposed to Ontario’s wind program: “The only rural residents who support industrial wind factories are land owners who directly stand to profit …” (Urban-rural division on wind power, Toronto Star, Oct. 23, 2011)

I was surprised to learn, then, about a wind project in Scotland that was not only supported by the local community but also partly owned by residents. The difference seems to be the level of local participation.

“Instead of opposing the scheme, the villagers asked the company to build an extra turbine and sell it to them… The Fintry turbine has now been operating for more than a year, and has already earned £140,000 for the villagers, money that has been put aside for energy efficiency schemes. Around half of the 300 households have already had roof and cavity wall insulation fitted, and some residents have seen their heating bills cut by hundreds of pounds a year. When the loan on the £2.5m turbine is paid off, Fintry could be making up to £500,000 a year from the electricity its turbine feeds into the National Grid.”  (Scottish villagers stun developers by demanding extra turbine, The Guardian, May 10, 2009)  The message from Fintry is that early community engagement is essential.

Following on that experience, Totnes Recyclable Energy Society (TRES) is inviting people in Devon to buy £800,000 worth of shares for two 100ft tall (30m) turbines. Shares of £20 to £20,000 are being offered. The Totnes scheme envisages two 2.3 megawatt turbines that it says will power 2,500 households, about a quarter of the town and cost £4 million.

Now, The UK’s largest community-owned wind farm has received approval. The Torrance Farm Community Wind Co-operative will consist of 3 turbines. “The turbines will have a maximum height of 125m creating an installed capacity of 10MW of green energy – enough to power 5,600 homes a year… next steps will be to form the co-op, and to put together a detailed prospectus that will describe the project to potential members. Once a share issue is underway, individuals will be invited to invest between £250 and £20,000.” (UK’s largest community-owned wind farm gets green light, Click Green, Feb. 28, 2011)

Here, the economic recession seems to have taken the momentum out of any cooperative energy schemes in Southern Ontario.

Future technological developments may make renewable energy financially accessible to individual home owners without the public controversy. Two developments are particularly interesting. I’ve written about a roof top wind turbine under development (Powering Up … Up on the Roof)  and Dow has announced “it will bring the DOW Powerhouse Solar Shingle to U.S. markets this month, starting in Colorado and rolling into targeted states through 2012… It operates as both a roof and solar product, and is installed directly onto the roof deck along with standard asphalt roofing shingles… The Solar Shingles are both the roof and the solar energy generator.”  (Dow News Release, October 4, 2011)

Solar photovoltaic energy production may be possible for those with an unobstructed south facing property, or wind energy may be feasible for those bordering the shores of a lake – like Simcoe. Provided that the costs are manageable, it could eclipse large corporate engineering projects and transform the energy landscape.