Divesting from fossil fuels? Inspiring returns from community

A personal story from Heather Hunt

As the pressure is on to be open and transparent about our investments and tax returns, I am coming clean that I decided to invest my modest NHS pension pot, not in a unit trust in an off shore tax haven, but in renewables, run by co-operatives – one of which is Four Winds Energy Co-op.

If you don’t want to read, I highly recommend the video on their website  “How coal country can spark a clean energy revolution”.

I attended the Four Winds Energy Co-op  AGM on the 19th March in Barnsley which included a site visit to their 500kw turbine on a disused colliery site at Shafton. The coop have two 500kw turbines up and running on old colliery sites: the Shafton turbine pictured here, which started generating in July 2015, and the other one at Duckmanton, near Chesterfield, which started generating in December 2014.

Close to, the turbine seems vast. The shaft is 70 metres tall. All we could hear was a gentle purr. We were shown inside by the members of the board who were very experienced, retired people, who had been working in a voluntary capacity for several years to get this to happen. One, a retired electrical engineer, told us the turbine was bought and imported from the Netherlands. He told us at the beginning of his working life there were 6 factories in the UK manufacturing turbines, now there are none. On the control computer screen inside the turbine it was really impressive to see how the blades alter their pitch and direction in response to wind speed and direction. The turbine has been generating electricity for nine months and generated one million kW hours, roughly enough electricity for 500 households. Looking 360 degrees from the turbine we could see the communities of Grimesthorpe, Cudworth and Shafton…in our  view about 500 houses.

However, in the UK you can’t sell electricity directly to your local community, like you can in Germany, so this electricity is sold to the grid with remuneration through the Feed in Tariff (FITs). The AGM decided that in future years 5% of any dividend should go to a community fund and if possible, one that addresses fuel poverty. The Duckmanton turbine started generating in December 2014 and they have a community fund up and running, working with the local primary school who want to fit solar panels on their roof.

The AGM itself was both inspiring and depressing. The accounts indicated the coop paid for the secretariat services of the parent energy renewable co-op, Energy 4 All, which amounted to one part time job and salary. The directors received no fees, just modest travel expenses. (Rather different from any bank or building society!) The deeply depressing information was that the coop previously had plans for 6 further turbines all on disused colliery sites in Yorkshire, but these are no longer viable due to the governments changes in policy…viz: making planning permission much harder, massively reducing the FITs, and  stopping tax incentives for investing in renewables.

I think this example of Four Winds co-op shows what can be done, and at the same time exposes the total hypocrisy and deceit of our government. David Cameron signed the Climate Change agreement in Paris last December to commit to massively reducing our fossil fuel emissions and build up our renewables, and also declares he wants to encourage local enterprise and initiatives.  With policies that cramp initiatives such as the Four Winds co-op, what is going on? Can we hold him to account?

But above all I am filled with gratitude for those men and women who put their all into making these turbines whirr.

If anyone is interested to look into investment in community renewables I can recommend Triodos Renewables, now called Thrive Renewables, and Energy 4 All.

Heather Hunt

11th April 2016