Midwinter is not a great time for class trips in the north of Scotland. The sun was already starting to set as we peeled off the main road north of Aberdeen, bumping along the narrow country roads, watching out for patches of ice, and looking out for the houses, signposts and sharp corners that told us we were still on the right road. After a mile or two the trees on the left cleared to reveal our destination for the afternoon – the community wind turbine just outside of Udny.
It was just as well I had been provided with detailed maps to get us there, because the gently rolling farm landscape of Aberdeenshire is splattered with wind turbines – had we just ‘aimed for the turbine’, we could have ended up going to least four different places on the way there. White towers rising up on the top of hills, poking out from further away in the distance, lined up in teams of two or tree at the roadside. Their blades turned slowly in the light wind, providing electricity that their owners could feed into the grid.
This little outing marked the end of the semester-long course I’d been running on Energy, Sustainability and Society. The MSc Corporate Social Responsibility and Energy group I’d taught were keen to see some energy ‘in action’, and when I discovered the presence of a community turbine just forty minutes’ drive north of Aberdeen it seemed like the perfect place to think about the intersection of social, environmental and economic sustainability in the context of energy. A perfect counterfoil to a lot of the very large-scale, stripped of human dimensions, Big Energy Infrastructure we had spent perhaps too much time studying in class.
Brian McDougall from Udny Community Trust and Garth Entwistle from the Udny Community Wind Turbine Co met us at the turn-off from the road, and led us up the farm track to the turbine. Laying a track and making a parking/turning area out of hardcore at the base of the turbine, Garth told me, was one of the first and most important jobs that had to be done to facilitate building and maintaining the turbine. The cost and time required to do this was something I’d never previously thought of, and illustrates how complex the implementation of any form of energy infrastructure is.
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m hugely pro-renewable energy, and felt more than a tinge of pride at the renewable capability of the part of the world I live in as we stepped out the cars at the base of the turbine. With a base that seemed as wide as one of the redwood trees you read about online, the turbine shot up into the sky. Under massive golden-red skies created by the combination of faint cloud and a setting sun, the blades silently sliced through the freezing air, turning and turning in spite of the light breeze.
I’ve always thought of wind turbines as an extremely simple way of making electricity, but the array of control panels, switchboard, cables and wires inside made clear this was an extremely sophisticated bit of kit. Garth and Brian answered the questions from our little group in turn – how much electricity does this make? How much does it need to produce to be economical? What do the neighbours think? It soon dawned on us that it was getting bitterly cold, so we got back in the cars and headed to the trust’s office in Pitmedden to talk further over coffee and biscuits.
The trust office is a smart little setup, two white-walled and freshly carpeted rooms in a small granite building. Lottery funding has helped to establish the headquarters, from which the community initiatives that sprang up alongside the turbine are administered. Development Officer Eleanor Morris – who very kindly organised our visit – joined Brian and Garth at this point to explain more about the turbine and its relationship to the community. Everyone agrees that the community ownership aspect of the turbine – with both control and positive benefits remaining within the community that hosts the turbine – has contributed to its warm reception so far. Those living closest to the turbine were considered first and foremost when it came to thinking about siting, they explain. As an example of the kind of issues taken into account at the implementation phase, when it became apparent the turbine was interfering with several households’ TV signals a simple solution was found in the form of providing the homes in question with an alternative TV setup. It is also worth registering, though, the ongoing challenge of engaging people on the climate or decarbonisation rationale for renewable energy alone – the aspect of making and saving money, and also building social capital, is what the team themselves admit engages people in the first instance.
The benefits of the turbine extend beyond delivered electricity (in any case, the electricity generated feeds into the grid). Eleanor explains that the community trust that has sprung up funds local projects, encompassing all manner of things from dry stone dykes to path rebuilding to a meeting and discussion group to engage over-60s’ views on the trajectory of the community. This illustrates perfectly what I’ve been trying to tell the class all semester about how energy and climate change mitigation cannot and should not be separated from the other aspects of sustainability – in particular ‘social’ sustainability and what kind of society we want to live in in the future.
When I teach energy, I have an awful habit of focusing on ‘big’ things – huge coal and gas power stations, fields full of solar panels, hillsides covered in dozens of massive wind turbines. But just as one technology alone won’t solve the energy and climate challenges, so action at one scale alone won’t get us there. Community-scale projects like the Udny Community Turbine represent a very different way of governing the production of energy humans require to live, one that challenges some of the assumptions that perhaps underlie the focus on Big Things. Furthermore, given the small spatial and physical scales involved, projects like this make it much easier for us to think about how energy production and climate change mitigation might fit into a wider idea of social sustainability. And for this, I am hugely grateful to the Udny Community Trust for hosting us.