Development of Renewable Energy on Public Land
Communities must be an integral part of plans to develop wind farms on Forest Service land
The development of renewable energy on public land in Northern Ireland presents an opportunity for the Executive to meet commitments laid out in the Programme for Government and contribute to wider goals of sustainable development.
The potential to develop wind energy on the forest estate has been recognised by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Indeed, the Forest Service Business Plan 2014/2015 has made the ‘exploitation of wind energy opportunities on the forest estate’ as one of its business responsibilities, and has set a target by March 2015 to publish a procurement strategy as part of these plans.
It is essential that communities are thoroughly engaged with in these plans. This is particularly important given the impact which wind energy development has on host communities throughout Northern Ireland. However it is also important as it presents an opportunity to support rural development, to help to provide a long term sustainable income for communities and broaden the debate on community asset transfer.
Scotland and Wales have already embarked on the development of renewable energy on publically owned forest land and both have clearly recognised the importance of making communities an integral part of this development.
Forestry Commission Scotland has developed several ways of communities becoming involved in a wind or hydro development on the Scottish Forest Estate. This includes the opportunity to work with a developer to receive an annual community benefit payment; the opportunity to invest in a partnership with a developer and receive payments from a stake; and on sites not chosen by a developer there is the opportunity to explore community development on these sites under the National Forest Land Scheme.
In Wales, following the construction of wind energy developments on the Woodland Estate, the Wind Energy Programme presents the chance to create an estimated £100 million over its 25 year lifetime for community based projects. The Welsh Government also encourages hydro power schemes owned by communities or run for community benefit on the Woodland Estate.
It is essential that Northern Ireland learns from these experiences. The Northern Ireland Executive should engage with developers and local communities when developing wind energy projects on public sector land. A strategy and vision to develop wind farms on Forest Service land needs to be created which puts public engagement at the heart of these plans.