This is the festive season in more ways than one. The 21st of December marked the 25th anniversary of the very first commercial wind farm built in the UK, in Cornwall. I’m writing this on the train returning from the birthday party at the site to mark this remarkable achievement. It’s been a moment for celebration and a chance for reflection.
In the small Cornish village of Delabole, the local Edwards family acted as trailblazers for an entire industry when they single-handedly commissioned and completed a 10 turbine project on their own farmland. They learned from existing sites in Denmark, and battled for years to get project financing. The original ten turbine wind farm which stood at Delabole was able to power 2,700 homes. In 2011, its new owner, Good Energy, upgraded the site, replacing the older turbines with just four new ones, which, on a smaller land footprint, can power an estimated 6,200 homes.
This first commercial project has played a symbolic role for the wind industry, along with a central one for the community. Good Energy remains an active participant in local life by, for example, providing discounts on electricity bills and contributing over £10,000 a year to a community fund, which is controlled by a local committee and used to support community initiatives. The committee has allocated grants to a wide range of local community groups and projects, including St Piran’s playschool for an outdoor play area and willow shelter, Delabole Football Club for a new kit, Delabole Allotment Society for new fencing, and the village cricket club for solar PV on the clubhouse roof. Today, Good Energy staff spent the morning delivering birthday cards and presents to villagers, as a thank you for a quarter of a century of support for their local wind farm.
To think 25 years has already passed since Delabole was built, and 30 since it was planned, is amazing. On a personal note, it means that the UK’s commercial wind sector and I are almost the same age – we’ve grown up together. The turbines at Delabole were the first steps on the way to the £19 billion British onshore wind sector I now work in.
Everything has changed since 1991. Innovation and experience have sent costs plummeting, and have improved technology, faster than anyone could have predicted.
The turbines originally installed at Delabole had a capacity of 400 kilowatts; in 2016, we’re building onshore wind farms with turbines of 3.45 megawatts apiece: that’s over eight times more powerful than 25 years ago. And progress in offshore wind has been just as spectacular, 8-megawatt machines now being built at the Burbo Bank Extension in Liverpool Bay.
It's worth comparing the early days of wind technology to that other great intervention in 1991: the dawn of the World Wide Web in Tim Berners-Lee's laboratory. It's taken some time for the technology to develop - but renewables have exploded into a multi-billion dollar global market, and have the same potential to disrupt the way consumers use power as smart phones have changed the way we communicate.
In the past 10 years alone, British onshore and offshore wind have gone from supplying 1% of the UK’s electricity to 12% last year. The figures for 2016, coming out soon, will be even greater. Wind is a mainstream energy technology now, and modest estimates expect that it will be generating 20% of the UK’s electricity by 2020. This year, the Government's own numbers highlighted wind as the cheapest form of new power generation in the country.
Today there is still a strong onshore wind construction pipeline in the UK. This year alone we’ve built 650 megawatts of new capacity and we expect to build at least the same in 2017. That means that onshore wind will soon pass the 10 gigawatt milestone, by which point it will be powering six million British homes.
This extraordinary, pioneering technology deserves a strong future in Britain, but recent policy changes have made the environment uncertain. This is a shame, at a time when the global transition to renewable power is now beyond doubt, and when flexible and decentralised energy generation is set to deliver the full potential of other changes to how we use energy in the UK. The government's push for electric vehicles, smart technology, and exciting developments in storage, all benefit from a diverse, decarbonised energy mix.
The progress of onshore wind in this country over the past 25 years is an extraordinary achievement. Today it is a modern British success story, offering cheap, clean electricity to millions of homes, offices and factories. The next 25 years of British wind development have the potential to do even more for the UK, and we must do all we can to support its future. Happy Birthday to Delabole wind farm - and here's to a happy new year for renewables.
(This blog first appeared in BusinessGreen)