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The fast-changing narrative around renewable energy

The village of Wellow, Somerset, set in a green valley and viewed from a distance
21 September 2023

How might we harness conversations around renewable energy to boost deployment? Dan Stone, Lead Planner for Net Zero at CSE, explores the shifting narrative around renewables …

This blog was originally posted in November 2022 and updated in September 2023 with the outcomes of our consultation.

The narrative and public mood around renewable energy has been changing so rapidly it’s hard to keep up.

Until only quite recently, renewables like onshore wind or solar farms were portrayed in the press as being unreliable white elephants, entirely dependent on subsidies.

But sky-rocketing gas prices, the war in Ukraine and plummeting renewable energy costs have turned this on its head. This, alongside the cost-of-living crisis, has changed the mood music.

This really hit home at a village fete in Wellow, in the Cotswolds. I was there to promote a workshop exploring how the area could become more self-sufficient in energy, and what renewable energy developments – wind turbines, solar farms, anaerobic digestion –  might be acceptable and where?

For anyone who doesn’t know it, Wellow is possibly the most chocolate-boxy, beautiful Cotswold village possible, on the Sunday Times Best Place to live list this year.

So, on my journey there, driving up the high-street between the listed limestone cottages behind a traffic jam of teenagers in matching jodhpurs and jackets on beautifully groomed ponies, car rammed full of display boards with illustrations of wind turbines, solar farms and micro hydro developments, I wondered if we’d got it very wrong.

Everyone needs to be involved in the transition to renewable energy

The way we produce and use energy needs to change. At the Centre for Sustainable Energy, we’ve long championed renewable energy, but we recognise that the shift to more renewable energy is as much a people problem as a technical one.

If we’re to boost renewable energy deployment, we need everyone to buy into a better energy system, accepting and understanding the changes to our landscapes it requires and critically, being able to meaningfully influence what happens where.

CSE has been scaling up a new approach to “bottom-up” community engagement about renewable energy. We offer workshops, taking people on a journey. We show people objective information on the different forms of renewable energy, their pros and cons and a menu of what might be feasible in the local area, and we take some soundings:

The process can build support for more ambitious renewable energy policies and the outputs can then inform plan making.

People understand the need for renewable energy

Back to Wellow, I needn’t have worried. Even here, in this beautiful corner of England that no-one would wish to despoil, the people I met were very open to conversations about the trade-offs between landscape impacts and renewable energy generation.

In addition to this openness about how Wellow might become more energy self-sufficient, residents were explicitly making the link between renewable energy generation and lower energy bills.. No one questioned the reality or seriousness of the climate crisis.

So, against the pleasant background hubbub of a genteel English fete, when asked about what parts of the landscape they cherished and what renewable energy options might potentially be acceptable – and to mark these on a map –  people instead cut to the chase:

The same theme emerged in the workshop that followed, with long-term residents expressing support for wind turbines, solar farms and micro-hydro development which if delivered would provide nearly four times their annual electricity demand from local renewable sources.

We ran an online consultation following the workshop to see if the wider community shared the views expressed in the workshop, and they largely did! By no means was there unanimity, but there was majority support for nearly all the technologies suggested in the workshop, including multiple wind turbines, solar farms, micro hydro, the use of mine water heat and rooftop solar panels.

The supported technologies, if delivered in full, would result in the parishes of Peasedown and Wellow installing about 91 MW of renewable energy capacity, generating four times as much electricity from renewable sources as both parishes use in a year, and resulting in a 400% increase in the amount of total renewable energy installed across the district as a whole! (In total in Bath and North-East Somerset, the district has just 21 MW of renewable energy installed. That’s not much!)

We asked how people felt about the area generating more renewable energy than it consumes. Most respondents felt “very satisfied”, provided that the community benefits from hosting this infrastructure, either through profits being ploughed back into the community or lower energy bills.

These were some of the positive comments made: 

Given the number of renewable energy installations proposed (ten wind turbines and five large solar farms!) and the sensitivity of the landscape, it’s unlikely that the cumulative impacts of all of this development would be acceptable, but even if a third of them were to come forward, these communities would effectively become zero carbon in terms of their use of electricity.

Our findings from Bath & Somerset Workshops

Read our report for full findings and learnings.

A surprising turnaround

To find so many people from an area like this willing to engage in these conversations is in glaring contrast to my experience in a wind consultancy in 2012 (trench warfare), and trying to win consent for renewable energy projects as a planning officer back in 2014 (regular brickbats and climate denial from councillors). That’s down to both the shifting narrative and building informed consent for renewable energy development by communities themselves.

People, quite rightly, care about their local area and want to be involved with any proposed changes. But they are also able to weigh up how the protection of their landscapes should be balanced against the need to generate renewable energy, and how their community might reasonably benefit from hosting renewable energy developments in the first place.

The results from Wellow and the other communities we’ve worked in suggest that our approach supports rural areas to become self-sufficient in local renewable electricity generation, whilst maintaining public support.

Making renewable energy a local issue

Making it local is key to breaking down the problem of how to decarbonise our energy system into something much more chewable:

Fundamentally, if a sensitive area like Wellow could potentially generate all or most of its electricity from renewables, it suggests a that nearly every rural community could. And that would go a really long way towards decarbonising our energy system.

We often run low-cost training sessions on our Future Energy Landscapes (FEL) approach. Be the first to hear about upcoming sessions by registering here. All the resources to run a FEL community engagement process are available on our website for free.

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