Belfast Telegraph

Co-operative pact on renewable energy gives power to the people

The trend for community-owned wind farms is gathering pace in places like Germany and the US
The trend for community-owned wind farms is gathering pace in places like Germany and the US

With advent of wind farms comes the chance for communities to take ownership of their power supplies for the first time, says Paul Phare

The UK's energy supply sector is largely dominated by big utility companies. Renewable energy, particularly wind power, is different in that it is more dispersed and in closer proximity to many of our communities.

With many renewable projects, jobs are often presented as the big advantage to the economy, but the real benefits to society, particularly with wind, come from direct ownership of these capital intensive projects as in reality they don't require a great deal of labour to operate them.

Wind power lends itself well to a new model of ownership, one where the communities which host these vital sources of clean energy reap the major benefits.

However, the UK is largely relying on the private sector to deliver and with this approach communities rarely get a look in.

This contrasts with countries like Denmark and Germany where a high proportion of renewable energy is owned by communities and individuals. Even in the United States, community-owned wind projects are now growing faster than the commercial sector.

Individuals looking for a solid, ethical investment opportunity have been attracted to community wind energy co-operatives, which are driven by principles of fairness, democracy and sustainability.

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This summer, Drumlin Wind Energy Co-operative was launched as Northern Ireland's first project of this kind, bringing a new dimension to Northern Ireland's wind energy sector and giving local people access to a model of community ownership which has enjoyed popular growth elsewhere.

The Drumlin Wind Energy Co-operative came about when Belfast-based social entrepreneur Andrew McMurray, of NRG solutions, secured planning for five single 250kW turbine sites in Larne, Ballyclare, Kells and two near Pomeroy. Rather than sell his project to the highest bidder, Andrew decided to work with community energy specialist Energy4All, a not-for-profit social enterprise that has successfully created seven other wind co-ops in the UK and has the expertise to set up and build the wind turbines and raise the capital through a public share offer.

The co-operative structure is a tried and tested business model, as used throughout Europe and America, which promotes fairness and equality through its legal structure and social principles yet retains the robust professionalism of a business.

The opportunity being presented to people in Northern Ireland is to own and operate these turbines by becoming members of Drumlin Co-op.

Individuals and organisations can invest from as little as £250 up to a maximum of £20,000.

In addition to receiving a solid return on their investment, members will vote on resolutions put forward by the membership under the democratic one member, one vote system, which ensures influence is not relative to the amount invested.

There is also a community benefit fund available for communities local to the turbines

Politically, systems need to be put in place to make community renewable projects viable. If we look at Scotland, the Government has an agency and fund in place to allow communities to develop their own projects. Such support would be welcome in Northern Ireland if we are to emulate the success of co-operative schemes elsewhere, otherwise communities will lose out to larger developers as they won't be able to compete in terms of raising capital, managing risk and capacity to deliver.

In a world where our banks have let us down in how they have handled our money, this is a way in which people, for the first time, can get involved and directly own a stake in their electricity supply and also have more control over how their money is used. Provided local people participate, all the economic benefits from co-operatives such as Drumlin stay local; individuals and organisations can do something practical about climate issues; and local communities benefit. It is an exciting and inspirational way to do business, a true demonstration of 'people power', and experience shows that it works.

Hopefully the Northern Ireland Executive will recognise the benefits of supporting this co-operative model, as ultimately we will all reap the benefits.

Paul Phare is the director at Drumlin Wind Energy Co-operative