From Pam the lollipop lady to the repairs for a storm-battered church roof, the fruits of wind power are not hard to find in Delabole. The residents of this Cornish village have lived alongside the UK’s first commercial windfarm since it was built in the year the Gulf war ended and Ryan Giggs rose to fame.
The Delabole windfarm marked its 25th anniversary in December, having produced enough power to boil 3.4bn kettles since the blades began spinning. Peter Edwards, a local farmer, erected the first turbines after going on an anti-nuclear march with his wife, Pip.
“They thought ‘if not nuclear’, then what do we build?” said Juliet Davenport, CEO of Good Energy, the utility that bought the farm from the family in 2002. Since there was effectively no wind industry in the UK in 1991, Peter went on an exploratory mission to Denmark, which had by then become a world leader in wind power, spurred by the oil crises of the 1970s.
With the help of local people, local authorities and utilities, he raised about £10m to fund the first 10 turbines, which were each rated at 0.4 megawatts (MW) of capacity. Today, renewable energy accounts for a quarter of the UK’s electricity generation, and the biggest turbines are rated at approximately 8MW.
“After the windfarm started generating in 1991, one of the main criticisms was that the amount we contributed to the National Grid was so insignificant that we shouldn’t have bothered,” said Edwards. “That’s why it’s so satisfying to see just how far wind energy has come and how it now competes with nuclear.”
While locals acknowledge there are some people in the village who don’t like the windfarm, many are vocal supporters of a technology that in some parts of the UK has become so politically toxic the Conservatives effectively banned it by pulling subsidies when they came to power in 2015.
“It’s definitely positive. I stood up for it for years ago when I was parish councillor,” said Tricia Hicks, who is now retired and runs a volunteer hospital car service in the village where she has lived for 40 years.
“It’s been brilliant for Delabole: we’ve not had power cuts; they’ve given money for repairing the church roof after storm damage, for playgrounds; they’ve put a load into the village. You’ll get the few [who are negative]. They’re in the minority.”
The windfarm is also a draw for passersby. Delabole residents Susan and John Theobald said: “We’ve always enjoyed being around the turbines and have often walked right up to them with our dogs. It’s always lovely – still to this day – to see so many people taking photos of the site.”
The area, as Hicks and others point out, has always been a mixture of natural beauty and industry. Next door is the country’s biggest slate quarry, where more than 10m tonnes of the rock have been mined over the last millennium.
Some of the goodwill for the windfarm is financially driven. Householders in Delabole, which has held on to a pub, primary school, two churches and a Spar, can sign up for a special tariff with Good Energy, and enjoy lower electricity bills on windy years via a windfall. The company also provides a local fund of £10,000 a year, which has helped pay for everything from the local football and cricket team to a community newsletter produced by volunteers.
The local tariff was one of the fruits of door-to-door discussions in 2010, when it made economic sense for Good Energy to “repower” the site by taking down the old turbines and replacing them with four new ones. With the turbines twice the height and much more powerful at 2.3MW each, the new windfarm produces more than double the power of the old one, enough for about 6,200 homes.
“The major difference with the turbines is the size,” said Davenport, of how the technology has changed. “The ones we’ve put on there are gearbox-less. It reduces the noise – with the bigger turbines, the key noise you hear is the blades, but the older ones you heard the gearbox as well.”
Aerodynamics of modern turbines have improved too, while costs have “come down significantly”, said Davenport. “But really it’s about getting more power from the same land area.”
For now, wind power’s expansion from this corner of Cornwall to more than a 1,000 onshore wind projects across the UK is halted. Ministers have made clear they will only support windfarms at sea. “I can’t see onshore wind being positively supported by this government,” said Davenport.
But Delabole’s story as a pioneer is not necessarily over. Next on Davenport’s wishlist for the site is a solar farm, and an energy storage plant, a technology many believe will be key for renewable energy’s next big breakthrough.