Time to unleash 10GW of untapped farm wind potential?

Brett Pingree, Endurance Wind Power

With 20% of the UK’s population living in rural areas, it’s vital we find clean, sustainable ways to address the energy trilemma of rising energy costs, climate change and strains on security of supply within the rural economy.

For hundreds of years Britain’s countryside has been defined by the activities of the people who live and work on the land. Environmental stewardship is an integral quality of the country’s culture and history. It is founded on an understanding of the countryside as living, working, and evolving along with its inhabitants.

Britain, along with much of the rest of the world, is facing the infamous energy “trilemma” of rising energy costs, climate change and strains on security of supply. With about 20% of our population living in rural areas, it’s vital that we find clean, sustainable ways to address this trilemma within the rural economy. Wind power could continue to be one promising option.

Small and medium-scale wind turbines give anyone with a plot of land in a windy area the opportunity to generate power for their own use and as a source of additional income. It is for this reason that farm wind is so named: famers are ideal candidates for these turbines as they are landowners often running energy-intensive businesses with increasingly squeezed profit margins.

“Farm wind”, as opposed to wind farms, is designed to be small, quiet and unobtrusive. While larger onshore wind farms comprise turbines up to 150 metres tall, farm wind turbines are smaller than standard pylons, and less than a quarter of the height of wind farm turbines.

Farm wind is also called “distributed” wind, as turbines of this scale do not form part of a large wind farm, but instead are typically single installations in rural locations up and down the country. Typically they power a single site, such as a farm, domestic property or business park, offsetting energy costs and generating new revenues that enable local businesses to thrive.

Wind is a valuable local resource and the biggest driver of acceptance for wind turbines is ownership. Farm wind is intended to be privately owned by local people, communities or businesses, rather than by energy companies seeking to make large returns. Enabling farm wind to flourish is about empowering individuals and communities, not about lining the pockets of developers with taxpayer money.

To provide an idea of the scale of this opportunity, research by the Farm Power Coalition shows there is at least 10GW of untapped renewable resource across UK farms – equivalent to more than three times the installed capacity of the proposed new nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point C. Research by Farmers Weekly highlighted that 73% of farmers think that on-farm renewable energy should play a major part in meeting future energy needs in the UK.

In April 2010 the Government introduced the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) system, an incentive programme aimed at encouraging the deployment of small scale (up to 5MW) renewable electricity generation by communities, individuals and organisations in order to:

  • Empower people and give them a direct stake in the transition to a low carbon economy
  • Assist in public take-up of carbon reduction measures
  • Help develop local supply chains and drive down technology costs

Small and medium wind deployment achieves all of the above objectives.

These FiT payments, coupled with savings in electricity costs, contribute to the income earned with a wind turbine. For example, a 50kW turbine can produce over 200,000kWh in wind regimes of at least 6 metres per second. A return on investment is achieved within as little as 8-10 years. Payments are guaranteed for a term of 20 years from installation date and so the turbine will quickly become an appreciating asset.

Grid parity within grasp

Government is right to challenge industry to deliver on price reductions, but it also needs to recognise the sector has continually over-exceeded on cost cutting already. FIT payments have been reducing ahead of schedule accordingly. The FIT is doing all the things it was created to do – create volume to cut costs for consumers – and grid parity is within grasp.

The latest turbines from Endurance Wind Power are prime examples of this in practice. Its new 85kW E4660 wind turbine generates 35% more electricity than the previous model, despite being the same height and price as its predecessor. This 35% jump in productivity compensates for the 30% FIT degression that has taken place over the last 18 months. This means that despite drops in subsidy payments, installers still receive the same revenues they would have in 2012.

Going even further, Endurance’s new X35 turbine, built at its West Midlands factory, is coming to market in September 2015 offering power generation within two pence of grid parity.

Even if farmers aren’t able to afford the upfront cost of a turbine, or secure a loan, options such as asset-backed finance for landowners and joint venture schemes are available to provide access to the benefits of wind power. Alternatively, farmers can lease a small plot of land to earn a 20 year rental income from a turbine without the need for any significant upfront investment or risk.

Endurance is also pioneering new models for financing community wind to help rural communities mitigate rising energy costs. In summer 2014, it worked with the UK’s biggest social crowd-funding platform, Trillion Fund, and installer Earthmill, to crowd-fund a five-turbine community project. The raise was oversubscribed and closed six weeks early, having hit the £1.25 million target and attracted more than 250 investors.

The team has now launched its second crowdsourcing scheme to fund 10 turbines in Yorkshire, allowing local residents to invest from as little as £50. Unlike developer-owned, large scale wind farms, the initiative means that local communities are able to reap financial rewards from small, single turbines, while supporting local businesses in the process.

Policy concerns

Given this progress, policy proposals such as the Conservative’s moratorium on onshore wind are deeply concerning, and risk destabilising an industry that has continually over-delivered on cost cutting.

Halting the growth of onshore wind power would have various implications, both immediate and long-term, personal and collective. Not only will small and medium wind help to strengthen our rural economy, supporting farms, communities and rural businesses throughout the UK, but deployment of smaller wind turbines will also create green jobs and provide sustainable, renewable energy generation at a reasonable cost.

Wind power is a viable form of renewable energy in the UK; an alternative to fossil fuels, nuclear power and fracking. According to RenewableUK’s latest industry report, the UK is now the sixth-largest wind power producer.

The UK is also a world leader in the manufacturing of small scale wind turbines. We are already close to grid parity and RenewableUK estimates that in the next ten years the small and medium wind industry could grow to employ over 10,000 people, deliver over £800 million of GVA (gross value add) to the UK economy and help save over 2.5 million tonnes of carbon.

Wind turbines are a reflection of our reliance on electrification, just as windmills are a symbol of the industrial revolution. Not everyone wants a wind turbine on their property, but there are many people who do want to invest in farm wind. It is crucial for the UK energy system that the future of onshore wind in the UK comes down to more than just a matter of policy maker taste.

About the author: Brett Pingree is Commercial Vice President of Endurance Wind Power. The company designs, manufactures and tests some of the most advanced wind turbines in the world, specialising in distributed “farm wind” (rather than wind farms). Endurance Wind Power is a Canadian company, incorporated in 2007. Its head office is in British Columbia, Canada but it has had an office in the UK since 2010 and recently opened a factory in Hartlebury, West Midlands. It employs 47 people in the UK but has plans for significant expansion.

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Policy, investment and markets  •  Wind power