Torbay has the opportunity to become the heart of a ‘South West Powerhouse’ with communities creating their own power, selling what they don’t need and then reinvesting proceeds into local projects such as giving local homes a net-zero retrofit.
This would create thousands of jobs and help ensure that the county achieves the goal enshrined in its carbon plan, to become net-zero by 2050 at the latest.
And the key could well be onshore wind.
Devon has more not-for-profit community energy organisations than any other county in England – and the county’s geography and unique double coastline makes it an ideal location to produce cheap green energy derived from wind, sea, and sun.
And if the numbers of these community-owned social enterprises increased, they would lay the foundations of a new low carbon energy infrastructure, helping to power the county to a net-zero future.
A glimpse of this future was recently given by Iain Stewart, professor of geoscience communication at the University of Plymouth, during a recent session of Devon Climate Assembly.
The assembly, which concluded last month, is a vital part of the Devon Carbon Plan, being developed by the Devon Climate Emergency Response Group, a partnership of councils, emergency services, voluntary organisations and business groups across Devon, Torbay and Plymouth.
Once adopted, the plan will draw up a road map of how, through local decision making and lobbying Government, Devon can become net-zero by changing how we live, travel, and get our energy.
In 2018, just 22 per cent of Devon’s total electricity came from renewable sources.
And while many of the key planks to achieve net-zero have been agreed through public consultation, some issues are so significant that they needed further consideration by the assembly.
One of these is the future of onshore wind turbines. The assembly listened to hours of evidence by expert speakers and were tasked with looking at the make-up of Devon’s future net-zero energy mix, and what proportion of that should be derived from wind turbines.
Prof Stuart said: “One of the things that we often lack in Devon is decent well-paying jobs… (Devon) is the potential hub of a complete energy transformation.”
This prospect, of thousands of new jobs, was reinforced by Johnny Gowdy of Regen. During the assembly, he said the Climate Change Committee estimates that onshore wind power could create 14,000 new jobs by 2035.
Prof Stuart contrasted a vision of what he called a ‘South West Powerhouse’ driven by green-energy technologies to the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ and ‘Midlands Engine’ built around industrial economic growth.
“Over the next 25 years every society will have to resolve similar challenges regarding mobility, transport and how to transform fossil fuel heavy industries into those we need for the future," he said.
“There are tremendous opportunities in Devon and the region has the potential to become a hub for wind.”
He added: “This idea of offshore wind is really important, and it will restart a long-standing question, which is onshore wind.”
The assembly heard that onshore wind, alongside large solar PV, were the cheapest ways of creating energy, green or otherwise - but large solar PV uses far more land and is less efficient.
To add one megawatt of generating capacity to the electricity network, a solar farm would require about 2.5 acres – that’s 30 per cent larger than a football pitch, whereas a single, large three-megawatt wind turbine could add three times that much.
And because the sun doesn’t shine as much as the wind blows, that single three-megawatt wind turbine will produce 2.5 times more electricity in a year than the solar farm.
It’s not just the cost of producing the energy where onshore wind turbines come out on top; wind has the lowest ‘embodied energy’ – the energy required during manufacture– of any form of energy production.
Tony Norton, head at the Centre for Energy and the Environment at the University of Exeter, said the ‘carbon payback’ – the amount of time it takes for an onshore wind turbine to prevent the same amount of carbon emissions from going into the atmosphere as it cost to manufacture - goes down with turbine size.
He said: “You can achieve this payback with a small turbine and as the turbine size increases the payback is shorter. For large three-megawatt turbines we are talking about a 75-day payback. That is very quick.”
In 2019, there were an estimated 800 onshore wind projects with planning approval in the UK – and if they were all constructed, they would cost £100m less than new nuclear reactors or biomass plants and would generate around 12 terawatt hours of energy a year; two thirds of what a new nuclear power station could produce.
However, on-shore wind remains a concern with many communities, and therefore politicians – and one of the concerns is the visual impact.
But if, after taking into account factors such as where wind turbines can be built, is there enough wind and proximity to the grid and protected nature areas, we woke up one morning to miraculously find wind farms built in every part of Devon, just two per cent of the county’s total land area would be occupied by wind turbines. In other words, 98 per cent wouldn’t be.
Despite this, and the government lifting a ban on public subsidy last year, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England maintains that all new windfarms have to be part of an area allocated for wind development in a local or neighbourhood plan and that the planning impacts identified by the affected local community have been fully addressed and the proposal has their backing.
Even before these requirements were introduced, the journey from planning application to delivery of a wind-turbine and its associated benefits have been excruciatingly slow.
Tony Norton gave the example of Den Brook Wind Farm in West Devon, which became fully operational in November 2016.
The wind farm has an installed capacity of 18 megawatts of renewable electricity, enough to meet the annual needs of 9,000 homes, and local people receive a £108 annual electricity discount.
Add to that it has a £36,000 annual Community Fund to support local projects.
But despite all these benefits, it took 12 years, two planning decisions, two public inquires and two submissions to the Court of Appeal to deliver, with an actual build time of just a few months.
Prof Patrick Devine-Wright, chairman of the Net-Zero TaskForce, summed up the position to assembly members and said: “We've set limits where onshore wind can go and most of those constraints were made before a climate emergency was declared.
“So, you might want to rethink some of those constraints - do they still apply? Are they still relevant or important enough to stop wind turbines in certain places? Well that's up to you.”
Prof Stuart added: “What kind of future do you want Devon to have in terms of you, your kids, and your grandkids - because that's what the climate assembly is being asked to do here.
“Through the assembly we are trying to give courage to political decision makers, for them to push government.
“But that all rests on us deciding here what vision we want for our country.”
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