Wind power's other untapped resource

This renewable energy source could provide a much needed boost to local economies.

Wind power's other untapped resource
Photograph: Getty Images

This renewable energy source could provide a much needed boost to local economies.

Although subjective discussions on the impact of wind turbines are commonplace, what is needed is better communication of the social and economic opportunities these developments offer to local communities

Branded a "public menace" by National Trust Chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins this week, large-scale wind developments are proposed in rural areas throughout the country, and will no doubt bring with them localised economic and environmental change. Despite the economic and social development potential these developments offer to local communities, the discourse continues to be dominated by emotive discussion of wind turbines.

The geographic conditions required for the development of wind energy often parallel those seen in rural communities. This has brought forth a policy narrative that suggests the potential for the generation of an economy based on a more sustainable source than the current agricultural systems. However, questions still remain on the potential for rural communities to actually capture the benefits of this new technology for their own local economies.

In an effort by developers to increase support for their wind-energy projects, community benefit schemes have become increasingly popular; making a fund available that can be drawn upon to support activities in nearby communities. However, research by Cardiff University last year found that the charitable status of this fund often means that the beneficiaries are rarely individuals or local businesses, resulting in limited local economic development. As the public may see these schemes as a form of community compensation, establishing these funds may also be a source of concern for developers aware of their public image.

In addition to this, the same research also identified that the local (and national) economic benefit from job creation and manufacture of the technology may be limited. This relative lack of local benefit is widely considered a factor contributing to conflicts that often arise around wind farm development in the UK.

Community ownership

Arguably, a better strategy that can benefit both parties is community ownership. At Fintry Wind Farm, Scotland, the community owns a single two-MW turbine that is expected to generate £400,000 to £500,000 per annum after the initial capital is paid off. Despite opposition from local planning experts, developers were urged to continue the project due to local support. By providing communities with tangible and measureable economic benefits, public approval is likely to increase and projects could provide a needed boost to local economies.

At a time when the country needs to take ownership of the global climate change problem and confront economic uncertainty, these projects present a two-fold solution. To achieve this, greater support is needed to assist community groups in establishing their own projects and to navigate the possibly complex network of regulatory institutions. A cut to wind subsidies would not only result in an increase in the cost of renewable energy for the consumer, but could also affect the financial viability of community projects for both parties.

Projects such as this could also provide us with the hard facts that are needed when analysing the economic impact of wind energy, providing an opportunity to reduce the need to confront the difficult task of placing a value on any potential loss of the visual quality of the landscape. Although this is still a valid area of enquiry, careful consideration of the benefits of the technology is needed. Without it, we cannot rule out a resource that may offer financial support to individuals and communities in areas of the country where it is needed the most.

Greg Dash is a researcher in renewable energy at Aberystwyth University's School of Management and Business