The Westmill Cooperative was founded in 2004 by an organic farmer named Adam Twine. He had land available on a disused airfield that he owned, and a vision for community owned wind power. A share offer was launched the following year, and in 2008 work began to install four wind turbines along the line of what used to be the airfield’s runway. The completed wind farm generates enough power to supply 2,500 homes, and it was the first community owned wind farm in the South of England.
With plenty of space left on the site and an existing grid connection, it made sense to supplement the wind farm with solar. An engaged and well-informed local population were ready to do something similar again, and a solar cooperative followed in 2011. Its 20,000 panels cover 30 acres, making it the world’s largest community owned solar park.
Westmill has excelled at community engagement. The site hosts annual open days, and school trips can visit the solar and wind farms. A competition was held in local schools to name each of the five wind turbines. A small percentage of profits are channelled into a trust, which has paid for solar panels on a nearby sports hall, and other energy efficiency projects in the immediate area. This creates a connection between people and renewable energy, building awareness and interest in climate change and how we respond.
At the same time, Westmill is a commercial venture. It turns a healthy profit and delivers returns to its shareholders – it’s just that they are a couple of thousand local people, rather than banks or distant investors elsewhere. The money remains within the area, to be recycled in the local economy.
Westmill is a good example of how renewable energy can be democratic as well as clean. Big power stations could only be funded and built by big capital. Whether it was the state or private capital putting up the money, it needed large up-front investment. Wind and solar can be decentralised and built at a smaller scale, allowing much greater participation. Ordinary people can have a stake in their local energy companies, and take responsibility for emissions at the same time. This stimulates local economies, and reduces regional inequality.
Unfortunately government policy has made it harder to start community energy companies since Westmill launched, and only a handful are launched each year. This may change, and we might then see the full potential of community energy.