In the aftermath of the floods and the debate about what needs to be done to prevent similar events in future, there has been a focus on the role of farming. A lot of this has been about land use, and how water can be slowed down with trees, better soil management and wetlands. There has been less discussion, however, as to the role of farms in cutting the emissions that cause climate to change in the first place.
One area where there could be a modest but helpful contribution is through small and medium-sized wind turbines. Food and drink is now the UK's fourth largest exporting sector, and for many producers generating their own power is not only cutting emissions but also playing a crucial role in keeping them in business. This is especially true of smaller producers, who increasingly need support to compete alongside the factory-scale end of the industry.
When Energy Minister Greg Barker spoke last year about moving from the Big 6 energy companies to the 'Big 60,000'. He suggested that there should be nothing 'timid' about this approach. The small wind industry agrees and wants to play a part in making sure it happens. Self-generation "should become the automatic default option of the progressive, ambitious, go ahead company and the obvious choice for the disruptive entrepreneur, whether they are a retailer or a manufacturer, running a multi-national or a brand new start up", he said.
The good news is that Big 60,000 is actually starting to happen, not least through the support of the Feed-in-Tariff that since it was introduced in 2010 has helped farm-sized wind grow significantly. Like a crop, however, this emerging industry needs nurturing if it is to continue to get bigger. That's why we're calling for a crucial review of the Feed-in-Tariff to send the signal needed to expand the industry to the next stage. If that doesn't happen, and the Tariff is cut, then all that good work achieved in the small-scale wind industry could wither on the vine.
We're all familiar with the austerity arguments and its right that as more farm-sized turbines are installed that public support is scaled back. But cutting the Feed-in-Tariff now will not only put British manufacturers out of business and make it harder for farmers and communities to generate their own electricity, but will also undermine the contribution that wind power plays in developing the low carbon power systems that we need in helping reduce the risk of the ever more extreme weather events we're being told to expect more of.
And while Ministers are thinking about the choices before them, they might like to cast their minds back to the recent threats to our power system caused by those very same extremes. Dungeness B shut down for a week and a half in October due to hurricane strength winds, and further down the grid substations, such as Pingewood in Berkshire, had problems. A further 40,000 homes only managed to avoid the loss of their electricity because of tactically-placed sandbags.
Distributed small-scale power is more resilient in the face of extreme conditions and for people living in rural communities access to locally-installed sources of renewable energy can make a positive difference. And such power sources can not only increase the energy security of communities and businesses but sourcing power locally means that every kettle boiled and every light switched on keeps money in the local area.
Greg Barker's championing of the idea of a Big 60,000 is very welcome but if it is to happen it will need to be backed by practical policies. The Government has recently published its strategy for community energy, showcasing its commitment for members of the public to set up shop as their own energy producers. Thus far small and medium wind power has driven the bulk of this, with 80 per cent of community schemes using that technology.
Given the evident potential for small and medium scale wind power to expand in the UK it is vital that a weak signal from the Feed-in-Tariff doesn't allow Britain's small and medium wind industry to be washed away. This will make it all the more likely that the Big 6 will remain in the driving seat and harder for communities, farmers and businesses to experience the benefits of farm-scale wind. The Big 60,000 is far stronger with a healthy, thriving small wind industry, and the Government needs to think again about cutting the Feed-in-Tariff that could keep it going and growing.
Tony Juniper is Chair of the Action for Renewables Campaign.
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