Local communities must benefit from wind farms, argues new report

Redressing the impacts on those affected by new energy projects is a "matter of justice", says the J

A wind turbine project at Findhorn Ecovillage in Moray, Scotland.
A community-based wind turbine project at Findhorn Ecovillage in Moray, Scotland.

More must be done to make sure that the expansion of wind-farm projects is matched by help for neighbouring communities, a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) argues.

The report's author, Richard Cowell, calls the "community dimension" – the issue of how investment in energy infrastructure should be delivered in ways that directly benefit those affected – the "Achilles heel" of the UK's renewable energy policy:

While the roll-out of wind power in Denmark and Germany benefited from the widespread participation of local co-operatives and farmers, British projects are typically large, commercial, mostly benefit distant shareholders and encounter local disquiet. It seems unlikely that the Energy Bill will change that.

Cowell, a researcher and lecturer at Cardiff University, outlines three key reasons why "justice" is important in wind energy developments. First, there are legitimate concerns over the impact on the environment; second, there is an unequal distribution of impacts from wind farms on places (particularly economic); third, the concentration of wind farms disproportionately falls on disadvantaged groups.

The report argues that a mechanism for deals between developers and local people to ensure benefit for the latter must be put in place now, before the next wave of investment takes place. An expansion of such funds would help improve the economic, social and environmental prospects of affected areas. This is particularly important in disadvantaged rural and coastal regions, where the majority of wind farms have been built.

Richard Cowell, author of the report, said:

We are seeing the size of community benefit funds increase in line with the growing scale of wind farm developments. That presents a huge opportunity to address the disadvantages faced by those living alongside wind farms and ensure these communities become more sustainable into the future.

What we would like to see is those living near wind farms having locally-embedded energy and jobs, as well as money to fund other community goals and schemes. By widening the remit of community benefit funds, beyond the village or parish in the direct shadow of the wind farm, more people can share in the benefits of investment, and more significant projects can be realised.

Community benefit funds should go beyond trying to foster acceptance of schemes. They should be provided out of fairness, particularly in disadvantaged areas where wind farm development is often concentrated.

The report looked at three case studies of community benefit provision, two at onshore developments and one offshore. It highlights how Argyll and Bute Council in north-west Scotland have introduced local policies to increase benefits for local people.

Katharine Knox, a programme manager at JRF, said:

Climate change requires us to develop new forms of renewable energy but not at the expense of social justice. The areas seeing intensive wind farm development are often places with below-average incomes, so it’s important disadvantaged areas do not miss out on the benefits of investment.

We need to respond to climate change and its effects by generating energy from sustainable sources. But action is also needed to ensure that communities which live in the vicinity of wind farms are supported to become more resilient in the long term.