People Power

| 1st June 2004
The community of Machynlleth has gone beyond just investing in someone else’s wind turbine. They’ve clubbed together and planned, built and paid for one of their own.

Think back to the first hour of the morning. The alarm goes off. The radio comes on. Switch on the light in the bedroom. And in the kitchen. And in the bathroom. Take the milk out of the fridge. Boil the kettle. Twice. Have a hot shower.

All the while what were you thinking? About work? Breakfast?

How untidy the house was? How about how much electricity all those tasks used? Doubtful. Most of us, accustomed to simply plugging our appliances into sockets and flicking a switch, have no idea where our electricity even comes from. We know there are different types of power stations around the country, and we know roughly how much we pay out each month, but little more. If someone asked us to explain how coal heated our kettles, or how wind turbines powered our televisions, or how Sellafield’s nuclear reactors kept our frozen fish frozen, they’d be met with a blank stare.

And why should we know? It’s not our job. We pay our direct debits and leave the rest to the likes of Enron, British Nuclear Fuels and the young men and women dying in Falluja and Kirkuk. Ours is a world of ready meals and moving walkways, removed from the actual efforts of creation. We have forgotten that before the industrial revolution if you wanted something to move, or to grow, the energy you had to expend was your own.

Across Britain, people are beginning to wake up to this. Concerned at the level of their contribution to climate change, more and more people are changing their electricity over to one of the three green energy suppliers – Good Energy, Green Energy or Ecotricity. Ten years ago these companies didn’t exist. Now between them they have nearly 20,000 customers, all powering their lives off electricity not generated by coal, gas or nuclear.

One of the most ambitious projects, however, can be found in the Dyfi Valley in mid-Wales. There, on the edge of Snowdonia National Park, a rural community has gone beyond just relying on someone else’s wind turbine. They’ve clubbed together and planned, built and paid for one of their own.

‘Why?’ It’s one question I keep asking myself as my train dawdles its way from London to the little station of Machynlleth, tucked into the foothills of Snowdonia National Park. Why would a rural community invest five years of its time and money in a project that in the end will only provide the energy for 50 homes? What sort of radical environmentalists are these?

That evening, as I sit waiting in the pub I struggle to find anything remarkable. The White Lion Coaching Inn has low ceilings, exposed beams, regulars conversing with a barlady in Welsh, but other than a dish on the menu with the evocative name Cawl nothing differentiates it from a thousand pubs in a thousand villages all across the UK.

Furthermore, when my ‘radicals’ do arrive, they don’t appear that radical at all. There’s Tim Brewer, with a smile buried under a heavy gnomish beard. He’s a professional wind engineer who gave up his time to build the turbine. Vicky Leaney is early to mid thirties with the ebullient energy of a primary school teacher. As co-head of the company that owns the turbine she’s responsible for the day to day running of the project. Andy Rowlands is a softly spoken quiet man. He runs a community organisation that was instrumental in both finding the necessary funding and getting the local community involved.

I want them to amaze me with the trials and tribulations of building the UK’s first community wind turbine, but they talk about it as if it they were reflecting on repainting the front room. ‘Surely a lot of people must have been really against the idea,’ I suggest. ‘I mean wind farms are a famously divisive issue.’

Not theirs, it seems. At the very beginning of the project they’d held a meeting in the village hall to try to gauge what levels of support there were. As they sat nervously waiting to see if anyone would turn up, they got their first inkling of the spirit that over the next four years would turn their plan into a reality.

As the sky got darker, people started drifting in. Farmers, shopkeepers, a host of local characters. Before long Rowlands began to worry they wouldn’t have enough chairs. By the time he called the meeting to order there were almost 100 people squeezed into the tiny Victorian hall.

Everyone had something to say. Some wanted to know how much money they stood to make. Others were concerned as to how big it would be, or where it would be sited. A few were concerned about the noise it would make and some just wanted to lend a hand in whatever way they could.

By the end of the meeting, not only had 80 people signed up to be members of a wind turbine supporters group, but had paid £10 to £20 each to pay for a planning permission application and to have an environmental impact assessment drawn up.

‘Amazingly only one hand was raised in objection,’ smiled Leaney, ‘and she wasn’t even from round here.’ Not only was Marion Rees not local, but it transpires she was a member of a group called the Country Guardian, which describes itself as ‘a National Campaign to oppose wind turbines in Britain’s precious landscapes and promote energy conservation’. Critics suggest the organisation has a hidden agenda to promote nuclear power, and point to the fact that its vice-president is Sir Bernard Ingham, one time Thatcher press spokesman, former consultant to British Nuclear Fuels, current secretary of Supporters of Nuclear Energy and holder of the view that: 'The only means by which we can power Britain and not damage the atmosphere further is by nuclear power.’

However, even Rees was impressed by the enthusiasm shown at the meeting. Although initially she did her best to put a spanner in the works, she could see it was pointless. In the end she left, saying she wouldn’t campaign against a project that was that popular with the local community.

Persuading people to chip in £10 at the beginning was one thing, but the wind turbine was slated to cost £80,000. Andy Rowlands was hopeful he could raise at least half of that from a series of EU grants, with the remaining £40,000 or so to come from the local community.

On the way in I’d seen graffiti sprayed by the side of the railway reading ‘growing up in a dying town.’ For many years many of the young people have been escaping the Welsh countryside for the bright lights of Cardiff or Bristol and leaving not much else but a few hill farmers scratching a living and increasing numbers of people seeking retirement in the idyllic setting of the surrounding hills. None of these however, would have much disposable income. How, I ask them, did they manage to raise that sort of money?

Encouraged by the enthusiasm shown at the village hall, and knowing the best way to keep the profits in the community was for the community to own the turbine, they formed a limited company, and sold off the shares to the community. In September 2001 they set up the company that would own and manage the wind turbine [Bro Dyfi Community Renewables]. And as a fallback they convinced Baywind, a larger wind co-operative based in Cumbria, to underwrite the whole offer.

‘We’d done everything possible to get the message out and get more people excited,’ remembers Rowlands, ‘We’d get positive articles written in the local papers; pin up notices in the village hall keeping people updated; we even dropped leaflets into the town’s vegetable box schemes – whatever would get local people feeling that this was their project.’

Their efforts paid off. Within three weeks of its release, the share offer was massively oversubscribed. From all over the valley people had applied to buy not £37,000 worth of shares in their wind turbine, but £54,000. ‘It was incredible,’ adds Leaney. ‘We actually had to drop the maximum value of shares anyone could own from £20,000 down to £1,000, just to make sure that anyone who wanted to be part of the scheme could be.’

They had the money. The community were excited. Now all they had to do was build it. But what about planning permission? Was it easy trying to find a site? Brewer tells me how having promised for three years to let them build the turbine on his land, the owner of the originally proposed plot all of a sudden pulled out, or ‘shat on us from a great height,’ as he commented colourfully.

‘It was a very bad moment,’ Vicky added somberly. There they were three years into the project, the wind turbine due to arrive any day, finance in place, local contractors committed to build it and no where to put it.

‘Thank God, less than a month after he’d dropped out,’ chips in Rowlands, ‘We got a phone call from Forest Enterprise, offering us land they owned next to his. They even threw in a free picnic table and chairs to go under the turbine.’

The more they talked the more I realised that this project has nothing to do with ‘amazing’ individuals. It is about something that we have forgotten in our society obsessed with, well, ‘amazing individuals’. It’s about community. They hold a meeting and it’s 80 to 1 in favour. The landlord pulls out so the local government offers to help and throws in a picnic table for good measure. So many people want to buy into it that they have to stop them spending too much money.

The next morning I learn just how resourceful this community really is. Wanting to see the wind turbine for myself, I’ve been told to meet Andy Rowlands at the office of an organisation called Ecodyfi, based on Machynlleth’s sleepy high street.

From the outside the building looks like a shop selling sickly flavoured fudge to tourists. Inside it seems more store cupboard than office, crammed full of desks, display units, and promotional leaflets for ‘Things to do in the Dyfi Valley’. However, I’ve been assured that it is only thanks to Ecodyfi that the turbine ever got off the ground.

The organisation works promoting sustainable community projects, and helping local people develop and find funding for ones of their own. As Rowlands talks to someone on the phone, I nose around. Leaning against one of its light blue walls are a pair of pinboards covered with photographs of schemes the organisation has supported. In one a farmer is standing above a crystalline stream, pointing to a tiny dam built to supply electricity to his farm. Another photo shows a local potter who is heating his house and furnace with wood waste from nearby factories. In the centre of Machynlleth, meanwhile, the Quarry Café is heated by solar panels on its roof. Elsewhere in the town similar panels provide the power for a block of 10 flats in a social housing unit. And aside from renewable energy schemes, in the few minutes that I’m waiting for Rowlands I’ve picked up flyers or seen posters promoting kerbside composting, local box schemes, reusable nappies and even a plan to make the area the first Fair Trade valley in the UK.

Rowlands puts the phone down. He has been talking to another member of the local car share club, just checking it was ready for us. ‘None of us use a car that much, so it makes sense to share one.’

As we wind our way up through the trees towards the turbine, I ask him about Ecodyfi’s work, and especially its plan to make the area a Fair Trade valley. ‘Like producers in the Third World,’ he replies, ‘our farmers are being ripped off by multinationals. As well as supporting Fair Trade products, we’re translating the principles to our own local experience. Simple things like encouraging people to choose local lamb over imported lamb – that way we support the farmers and keep the money circulating in the community, rather than being sucked out of it.’ Again, it just makes sense.

As we carry on up the hill, all I can see are spruces lining both sides of the road. There’s no sign of the turbine at all. Then, after we’ve been driving for about 20 minutes, we lurch round a final corner and there it is. I’m accustomed to seeing wind farms on the horizon from miles away. To have not even been aware of this one until I am within 50 metres comes as a surprise. We get out of the car and walk across the clearing towards it.

Although standing 23 metres tall to the centre of the blades, which themselves stretch nearly 16 metres in either direction, it doesn’t seem that large. I’ve always loved the sight of windfarms, yet to be honest being up this close it seems more prosaic. It’s just there, doing its job. The thing I notice most is the noise. Not that it’s particularly loud; we continue to talk without having to raise our voices. It’s just the fact that there is noise. Seeing them standing on the horizon they had always seemed somehow silent.

‘Must have been difficult to build’. ‘Not really. ‘We cleared a few trees. Laid some concrete foundations and then put the turbine up.’ ‘Sure, but the turbine itself?’ ‘It’s a second hand one from Denmark,’ he replies.

Second hand? I’d always imagined they’d been built to order. ‘Too expensive, and with some careful searching there are some good second hands ones to be found,’ Andy added. Apparently they’d originally planned to get one from Germany, but that one hadn’t been ready in time. A volatile US exchange rate after September 11 had put paid to another. A third got refused by the council on aesthetic grounds – it had three blades, whereas those on the surrounding hills had only two. In the end they bought one from Denmark.

It wasn’t hard to put up either. It came over in a lorry. The mast section came intact, with all the workings inside, and the blades separate. ‘Anyone with a few general skills and a bit of determination could do it.’ Rowlands assures me.

I point to the bottom five or so feet of the turbine’s mast. They are covered with children’s paintings. Rough and brightly coloured, they look to have been stamped with cut out potatoes. Amidst several handprints can be made out smiling suns, wind turbines, a red Welsh dragon. Repeated around the mast are the words ‘Pwer Pobl’.

‘It means People Power,’ he explains. ‘We had a party last April to inaugurate the turbine. We all trecked up here and tried to come up with a name. When someone said Pwer Pobl it got the loudest cheer.’ BP spend 1 million to change their name to Beyond Petroleum and design themselves a green and yellow logo. Out here in the Dyfi valley they give the kids a paintbrush and pick the name at a party. ‘So where does the power go from the turbine?’ All around us it’s just hills and trees. No cables, no powerlines. Not even a house.

He points off over the brow of a hill. ‘Down there to CAT [The Centre for Alternative Technology]’. I’m confused. ‘But I thought you were using the power directly yourselves?’ Before arriving I had envisioned a rural idyll where the people of the valley generated enough renewable energy to satisfy their needs, and so were able to cut themselves off from the National Grid altogether. ‘Local people unshackle themselves from multinational domination’, or something like that.

Detaching ourselves from the grid, Rowlands explains, is a romantic, but impractical notion. First, since the National Grid has invested a lot of time and money in setting up the infrastructure of pylons, cables, wiring etc, they would have to be bought out, at huge cost. Secondly, if the National Grid no longer owned it, the community would be liable for all the maintenance, health and safety aspects of running their own grid.

Thirdly, why bother? ‘The grid acts like a giant battery,’ he adds. ‘Currently it is “charged” primarily by a few giant power stations situated around the country. This brings with it a host of problems. Huge amounts of energy are wasted because of the distance it has to travel. Because we are reliant on so few sources, we are much less secure. And because most people don’t live anywhere near their source of power, they are unaware of its environmental costs and treat it as infinite.’

The answer, he believes, is for small, local, renewable schemes to proliferate across the country. Not just wind turbines, but solar panels, wood chip burners, micro hydro dams – whatever works best with the area’s renewable natural resources and whatever the community affected by it wants. That’s where the pinboards in his office fit in.

‘So why are you selling it to CAT?’ I still don’t get it. ‘If you’re not going to use it, why not just sell it to the grid?’

At the time selling it to the grid meant selling it to one of many multinational companies who are only interested in getting the cheapest price. If they find their energy cheaper elsewhere they might just cancel your contract. Things have improved since, he tells me, with the advent of the truly green energy companies. Five years ago, however, this wasn’t a viable option.

On the other hand, CAT’s professed aim is ‘to inspire, inform and enable society to move towards a sustainable future’. The centre operates as both a research station and visitor centre for renewable technologies. It so happened that when Rowlands and Leaney wanted to build their turbine, CAT needed a new one. They committed to buy all the energy the turbine could produce at a fixed price for its entire life. It gave the project the security it needed to begin.

That was five years ago. The turbine has now been turning for a year and those people who put money in are already seeing a return on their investment of 4.2 per cent. Over its lifetime that is expected to double to 8.44 per cent, far better than what any bank would pay. Over its 15-year lifespan, it will produce around 163,500kwh of power a year – enough to supply almost 50 homes with clean electricity. By then anyone who invested £1000 will have received enough in dividends to pay off all their electricity bills for the period, as well as the satisfaction of knowing they helped their community save 70 tonnes of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere every year.

As well as providing a return to its investors, 30 per cent of the turbine’s profits are invested into a Community Energy Fund that Bro Dyfi has set up. It trains up local people as ‘energy champions’ to provide practical advice to the community. It gives away free bus passes to get people out of their cars. The community mini bus is being converted to biodiesel. Insulation materials are being subsidised. Local schools are changing over to green energy tariffs as well as being provided with renewable energy kits for their classrooms.

Meanwhile, Rowlands and his colleagues at Ecodyfi are working their way around the community, asking people to fill in forms calculating their energy use. Those that do are given a free energy saving lightbulb and provided with advice on how to further increase their energy conservation. In the end, claims Rowlands, these initiatives will cut a further 345 tonnes a year of CO2 emissions in the valley each year. Meanwhile Bro Dyfi is planning an improved public transport system for the area, which naturally will be electrically driven (with batteries charged by renewable energy), and looking to develop a further wind turbine, again owned by the community.

Looking out from below Pwer Pobl’s mast at the hills of Snowdonia it is impossible not to feel moved by their barren beauty contrasted against the hedges and streams of the lush green foothills below. The air smells fresh and free of pollution. I can understand why people living in such an area would do what they could to keep it this way. But what if another village somewhere else in the UK wanted to do something similar?

‘We didn’t just do this for ourselves,’ Rowlands tells me. ‘All along we made sure to keep track of everything we had to do, every possible alternative we could have explored. We want to make it easier for others to repeat what we have done.’

With this knowledge and experience, Bro Dyfi is now working as a consultancy, advising other communities in the UK on what sort of schemes might best suit them. If you need technical advice, or assistance applying for grants, they are there to help. ‘Recently I’ve been showing people round from County Tipperary,’ adds Rowlands. ‘ There was another group from a village in Derbyshire interested in small scale hydropower, several farmers from Snowdonia, and a community in Pembrokeshire eager to develop a wind turbine on a similar model to our own.

‘It would have been easy for detractors to dismiss this project as a one off,’ he tells me as we get back into the car. ‘They could have said that without CAT being nearby, or without mine, or Vicky or Tim’s backgrounds, we’d never even have got it off the ground. It’s true, it made it easier for us to be the first. But what we have done is created a blueprint. All the difficulties that might be encountered, all the assistance that can be found – we know where that is now.’

Jeremy Smith is the deputy editor of the Ecologist. Bro Dyfi can be contacted on 01654 703965

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2004

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