One of the farms most significant environmental and social achievements has been the setting up of the pioneering and award winning community owned wind and solar farms.
I began work to investigate the potential for a wind farm in 1992 and after many roller coaster years and with a lot of sweat and tears, and a huge amount of community involvement, the five 1.3MW turbines were eventually commissioned in 2008.
Westmill wind farm was the first wind farm in SE England the first wind farm in the UK to be initiated and realised by local people. It was set up as a co-operative so that local people could own and benefit from the project. It is 100% owned by its 2000 plus coop members. The turbines produce around 10GW of clean electricity a year – equivalent to the annual domestic electricity consumption of our local market town and the surrounding villages.
To raise the £5 million of equity needed to finance the construction of the wind farm we worked with Energy 4 All to do a share issue – this was the largest amount of money ever aspired to by a local coop to date – crowd funding before there was crowd funding! It was nail biting and extraordinarily exciting to pull it off and as a result Westmill has gone on to inspire the community energy movement in the UK.
Three of us initially set up Westmill Solar Co-operative in 2012.
Unlike the wind farm we were racing against the clock to both construct (though a third party), and then to buy the solar farm. We worked through many nights to get our share offer together, planned and organised a big on site launch with our local MP, and only got FSA approval for the share offer hours before the launch and before we could get any copies printed!
In the following six weeks, just ahead of the 2012 London Olympics, we raised the, almost £6 million, of equity that was needed to buy the recently commissioned farm. We still needed another £12 million which we arranged through a novel bond issue with a local authority and completed the purchase only weeks before our option expired.
Westmill Solar Co-operative was the first community group in the UK to develop and own a solar farm, and at 5MW, was for many years, the largest co-operatively owned solar farm in the world. It generates just under 5MW of electricity a year and the co-op has around 1500 members.
I retained the agricultural rights for the use of the land, planted it up with a range of wild flowers and grasses and manage it to promote greater biodiversity. In 2021 the first observation of a corn bunting successfully nesting in the site drew international interest and it has been used as an exemplar of how solar farms in the UK can provide multiple benefits.
Westmill Sustainable Energy Trust (WeSET)
As well as providing a dividend to their members from the sales of the electricity, the two Co-operatives also support a wide range of local, national and international initiatives, the one based at Westmill is the charity WeSET which organises visits to the site (over 10,000 people have visited so far) and a whole range of educational initiatives.
WeSET is relies on the goodwill and energy of its the volunteers who keep it running and who are currently working towards building an on-site study centre.
WeSET also provides practical support for local groups and organisations who are investigating renewable energy for their own local communities or wishing to reduce their carbon footprint and has put PV panels on several local community buildings.
Root & Branch – Westmill
A group of us with an interest in social wellbeing came together in 2001 to set up a charity we called Root & Branch – Westmill.
R&B has been running since then as a local independent charity to provide support for mental health service users through horticulture, growing, preparing and sharing food, a wide range of crafts and providing a beautiful safe space.
R&B is based on the farm using several of the restored traditional farm buildings, a small parcel of land for gardening and the wider farm for walking.
Westmill Woodland Burial Ground CIC
Liz Rothschild and I started to create a natural burial ground shed on the farm in 2004 and a bit later set up Westmill Woodland Burial Ground as a not-for-profit social enterprise.
The site covers approximately 3 acres and over the years both Liz and the site have won several awards. There are approximately 250 people now buried at Westmill and a similar number of reservations.
Again it is managed with a strong emphasis on promoting biodiversity and will eventually become an area of woodland. The 6 acre site had been previously growing willow biomass with the intention to supply the nearby coal fired power station at Didcot but the power station didn’t want the biomass (and is now decommissioned) and the burial ground made a perfect fit for that land.