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May 20, 2009

Fintry flags up the benefits

Last week,  Fintry Development Trust organised a two day event to spread the word of the phenomenal benefits to be gained from becoming involved in renewable energy.  If just 10% of electricity generated in this country were to come from community owned renewable sources,  our sector would have an independent income stream of £400 million per annum.   Why can’t the planning system begin with the presumption that every windfarm development should be 10% community owned

Kirsty Scott, The Guardian

When residents of the village of Fintry in Stirlingshire first heard about plans for a wind farm in the hills above them, their reaction took the developer by surprise.

Instead of opposing the scheme, the villagers asked the company to build an extra turbine and sell it to them to try to make the community one of the greenest in the UK.

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.

This weekend, the village has been holding an energy fair to showcase new renewable energy initiatives for the residents, and to try to persuade other communities in the UK to follow their lead.

“As far as we are aware, we are the only community in the UK to have gone down this route,” says Gordon Cowtan of the Fintry Development Trust, which manages the income from the turbine. “I think it’s a great shame it has not happened more.”

Cowtan says the villagers had already started looking into ways of being more energy efficient when they heard about proposals for the Earlsburn wind farm in the Fintry Hills.

“A couple of guys in the village had already been tasked by the community council to look at what opportunities there might be in doing something in the renewables area for the community,” he says. “We were going through that process when the wind farm developer turned up and said, we’re thinking about putting some turbines on the hill up there.

“Rather than saying to the developer, we don’t want these things; we said, can we have some more please? They were a little taken aback. We grabbed the agenda; we saw this was potentially a great thing for the village.” Only one person objected, he says.

The community worked out a loan deal with the wind farm developer, West Coast Energy, and an extra turbine was added to the 14-turbine project. The electricity it provides is sold to the National Grid and the profits go to the village, once the mortgage and maintenance payments have been made.

The community decided from the start that any money raised would be used for energy improvements, but Gordon Cowtan acknowledges that there may come a day when they have addressed all the green issues that they can, and they will have to look at other ways of spending the cash.

“If, a number of years down the line, we have solved all the energy issues of the village, then who knows what would happen then?”

There is no mains gas in the village and many residents have to rely on oil or LGP, so the trust is looking into alternative and greener heating forms. They are also considering setting up an energy supply company which could purchase energy wholesale. Many people in the village commute to work in Glasgow or Stirling, so transport issues will also be looked at, as will issues around food production. Fintry is surrounded by farmland, and has one small shop in the sports centre. Most residents travel to Stirling to shop at the supermarkets.

Tracey Tysvaer, of the Fintry Sports Club, said the turbine initiative had worked better than any of the villagers could have imagined.

“From our point of view at the sports club, we have had a huge benefit from it,” says Tysvaer, who has lived in Fintry since 1993. “It has paid for energy efficient lighting and we’ve been able to put light sensors in, so the lights go off when they are not being used. From a personal point of view, I have had my house insulated, which has been a great help.”

Bill Acton, one of the founder members of the Fintry project, says he gets dismayed when he sees developers and communities at loggerheads over wind farm projects.

“One of the problems is the reluctance of developers to really engage a community,” he says. Communities, too, he says, should make sure their voices are heard early on, and look to see if there is an opportunity for the community itself.

“If the wind farm developer comes in and has got as far as the planning stage, and the community has not engaged, they have lost their case. There is no chance of any relationship other than one neither wants.”

Fintry does not look directly on to the Earlsburn site, which has helped, as has the almost blanket support from villagers, but Acton says there was no reason for other communities not to copy what the village has done. Some have already expressed an interest in setting up something similar and have sought advice from the Fintry residents.

“We were very lucky,” says Acton. “We have had clear passage from the community, but absolutely 100% this could work elsewhere.”