England’s tallest onshore wind turbine will soon be built in Lawrence Weston, northwest Bristol. Reaching 150m tall, it’s nearly at tall as Blackpool Tower, and will produce enough low-carbon electricity to power 3,500 homes.
It’s a remarkable story, and not just because of its size.
The turbine is a community-owned and community-led scheme. It has been driven by Ambition Lawrence Weston, a grassroots, resident-led group, with the support of some technical partners. Contrary to what you might think, climate concerns are a low priority for residents in this Bristol neighbourhood. For locals, the wind turbine represents a financial asset, providing income to help fund their ambitious community development plans and improve day to day life for locals.
On a bigger-picture scale, the turbine sets an exciting precedent for other groups. Since 2016 government policy has been hugely restrictive, effectively blocking new onshore wind developments. Just getting approval to build an onshore turbine is a major triumph and demonstrates how the community-led route can be an effective way to steer change.
Bristol Energy Cooperative isn’t directly involved in the wind turbine project, but our solar farm certainly provided inspiration and early buy-in from residents in Lawrence Weston, giving them a taste for the benefits of community-owned renewable energy.
We developed the Lawrence Weston solar farm back in 2016. It’s an 18-acre site, roughly equivalent to 10 football pitches, wedged between the M49 and M5 motorways. The 16,000 solar panels produce enough energy to power 1,000 average homes.
Right from the planning stages in 2015, we were in discussions with the resident group, assessing the opportunities to use the energy revenues to boost the local community. On the launch of the solar farm in 2016, we set up a partnering arrangement with Ambition Lawrence Weston. We provided over £150,000 upfront to the group, with further support in the following years based on income from the farm.
Over the years, the resident group used this money for a range of energy support activities, from C.H.E.E.S.E surveys to training up energy advice interns. They also chose to put a share of the money towards funding an energy consultant to assess a potential onshore turbine locally.
That consultant was David Tudgey, who has been at the helm of the project since its inception:
“The solar farm gave Ambition Lawrence Weston a taste for community energy, and they came back for more, with the suggestion of constructing a community wind turbine.
Council-owned wind turbines dominate the skyline at Lawrence Weston, so it felt like a sensible move that locals should get a stake in their own.”David Tudgey, Project Development Manager, Ambition Lawrence Energy CIC
7 years later, David and the team at Ambition Community Energy CIC are delighted to finally be seeing things happen on the ground.
Onshore wind projects have been near impossible since 2016, when the National Planning Policy Framework was drawn up.
This policy only permitted wind development if a local authority had defined the area as suitable for wind. It takes expertise and time to do this, plus there was no obligation for local authorities to do such a thing. Consequently, only 12 per cent of English councils bothered to draw up wind development plans.
The other major issue was the policy detail around gaining local consent. The team at Ambition Community Energy were in a stronger position than most to get consent for the wind turbine. The restrictions from policy meant they needed to spend time and energy exploring the different legal options. Ultimately, being driven by a community-led organisation they were able to get the consents they needed to push the project forward.
Lawrence Weston has historically been a “neglected” area of the city, with high unemployment, and limited amenities and access to green space.
Unsurprisingly, sustainability is a low priority for residents at Lawrence Weston. And yet draughty homes and volatile fossil fuel prices are leaving many locals vulnerable.
“People get confused that the residents of Lawrence Weston are green activists, and really engaged with the climate”.Mark Pepper, Development Manager at Ambition Lawrence Weston.
For locals, the Lawrence Weston wind turbine is about providing the community with an income which will help them tackle social issues impacting their everyday lives. The turbine is expected to bring in £100,000 a year in revenues.
Over the years, Ambition Lawrence Weston have delivered huge impact in the area. They have created an employment hub, lobbied for new affordable homes, secured funding for safe play areas for children and campaigned for better amenities locally. More recently, they have developed one of the most comprehensive community action plans in the region, showcasing their deep understanding of the way that climate issues and social justice are connected.
There is light at the end of the tunnel for onshore wind. In September 2022, amidst the energy crisis, the government thankfully proposed a review of the planning rules to help reduce barriers.
Onshore wind is now ten times cheaper than gas and can be deployed far more quickly. There are still challenges with grid connection, but we can be hopeful that wind developments will be more commonplace in the near future.
It’s hugely inspiring to see the way that clean energy revenues are providing economic stability for Lawrence Weston. Climate benefits might be secondary to the residents there right now, but they are enormously important for the longer term.
Retelling and sharing this fantastic case study of the Lawrence Weston wind turbine is important for encouraging similar action across the country. Please do share the story!