I spent the day along with several hundred other people in a field in rural Oxfordshire, a few miles outside Swindon. It wasn’t just any old field though, it belongs to Adam Twine of Westmill Farm, and contains thirty acres of Solar Panels. The Westmill Solar Park is thought to be the largest community owned solar project anywhere in the world, and I’m one of the over 1600 local investors who put forward money to allow the park to be built, and I am now part of the cooperative that will run the park for at least the next twenty-four years. You can read more about the park on their website.
I came across the share offer quite by chance online last year, and having previously looked at whether we could have solar panels on the roof here and been told that the house was facing slightly the wrong way, joining the small investors putting money into the Westmill project seemed like a good alternative. Although some investors put in thousands of pounds, my investment was a much more modest £250. However like all the investors, big or small I was invited along today for the annual general meeting, and to actually see the park that we owned. Alongside the formal business of the day, we also heard from Peter Harper one of the founders of the Center for Alternative Technology in Wales who was the keynote speaker.
So the good news was that despite the government messing with the feed-in tariffs on which the financial viability of the project depended, the park had got up and running in time to qualify. It was also generating more energy than had originally been predicted. All in all it seemed very positive.
Moving on to the keynote, Peter was a very interesting speaker. He spoke about his technique for looking at renewable technology – he speaks to his granddaughters great-granddaughter! Essentially what he does is role play someone living in the 22nd century and looking back at what we’re doing now. As he said, he doesn’t know what kind of world this person may be living in, it could be very much like our own, but with subtle changes to eliminate dependance on carbon, alternatively it could be a world where mankind has failed to address climate change, and people who are living with a climate that is out of control. As he said, we are blessed to have lived in a golden age of a relatively stable, temperate climate following the last ice age, but that may be coming to an end, and things we do today may accelerate the end of that period, or control it.
He made some interesting comments about a number of the controversial generation methods, for all of them he said that people of the future will largely not care how they got to the current position, in much the same way as we don’t spend much time considering how we got to where we are today. So for example if we choose to use nuclear energy to lower the amount of carbon we use, then that would not be overly important to the average person a century from now. He also agreed that wind turbines are an eyesore, but again he said you should consider how you explain to your descendant why you prioritised your view over the long term damaging effects of continuing to burn carbon to generate electricity. Another point he made is whilst nuclear and clean coal may seem like good ways out, they are effectively storing up problems for our descendants – essentially we’re taking the benefit, but leaving future generations to work out what to do with the results. However if you look at a wind turbine or solar power array, whilst they may be an eyesore, they can relatively easily be removed in the future, and once the turbine is gone, or the frame holding the panels is gone, there is very little left for our descendants to clear up. With so many forms of energy these days we take a short term view, it is the economic effect now, not the economic effect of it in the future that is considered. The people of the future do not have a voice in our discussions, but in some ways they are perhaps the most important voice that should be heard.
He also said that in some ways he regards turbines being an eyesore as being positive. Being visible, local generation such as wind turbines are important because they are a visible reminder to people to consider how they use energy.
For the vast majority of people we use electricity, but we can’t see where it comes from. In most countries power is generated in large generating stations that are sometimes many miles away from where the energy is used, that energy is then transported (with some of that energy being lost along the way) to where it is needed. With local generation, if much of your energy is coming from a wind turbine or other power plant you can see, and when you’re running out of power you know you need another one of those eyesores to be built it then comes down to a question about us – are we willing to trade another of these eyesores for being able to use more power, or do we try to use less power instead? With the warning of approaching blackouts as the effects of not replacing decommissioned power plants become reality, this is becoming much more of a question we need to be asking.