Britain’s First Wind Farm–Three Decades of Delabole–What a Cornish Farmer with a Can Do Attitude Did

By Paul Gipe

Thirty years ago Cornish farmer Peter Edwards, his late wife Phillipa, and his son Martin installed Great Britain’s first wind farm despite the attacks of those who said it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done. But they persisted, overcoming all the planning objections and the naysayers, completing the project in late 1991.

The Delabole wind farm was an instant hit.

In the first year they had nearly 100,000 visitors and the site averaged 40-60,000 visitors for years afterwards.

Every time I visited in those early days, there were people milling about, buses dropping off school groups, ramblers in their “wellies” traipsing across the fields to see the wind turbines up close. Delabole had become a Mecca for the curious and those who dreamed of a renewable energy future.

Somewhere we have a tea towel bought from the crude but functional visitor center cut out of a shipping container. I remember asking them, “What is a tea towel.” It’s not something common among American households. I had to have one though. It had an image of the Vestas Wind Dane 400 on it. I couldn’t leave Cornwall without one.

When I first met Peter Edwards I thought he was the very embodiment of the ascot-wearing English farmer with his ruddy cheeks and tweed jacket. He could have just stepped off a BBC set for all I knew.

Peter, now 86, likes to attribute some of his success to a “can do” spirit he picked up from us Yanks when he studied at the University of Maryland for two years. He needed it for pioneering wind energy in a tradition-bound society where electricity was always produced by someone else somewhere else.

Most electricity then was generated by coal and nuclear power. And it was the proposal to build a nuclear plant in Cornwall that propelled the Edwards into wind energy. Opposed to nuclear they set out to demonstrate that there was another way. They did so at great risk at the time. No one had done it before in Britain.

The Edwards sold their dairy herd and their milk quota and used that to finance a wind farm of ten 400 kW wind turbines. Though the project was small by California standards, these were large machines for their day.

As farmers, they wanted to take as little land out of production as possible. To do this they put the turbines in the hedgerows so common in the English countryside. They also didn’t lay any roads to the turbines. Thus, the turbines used an absolute minimum of the tillable land.

Danes were doing something quite similar across the Channel at the time and projects such as Delabole became models for how to do it right. By minimizing the amount of land used by the wind turbines, they minimized the environmental impact of building a wind farm. This was in marked contrast to California wind farms that were notorious for extensive road networks.

The Edwards had an ideal 7.5 m/s site. Their farm was on the highland backbone of Cornwall 800 feet above sea level and less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean to the west and twenty miles from the English Channel to the east. It was always windy when I was there—and rainy too. Cornwall gets 60 inches of rain per year. (No wonder the countryside is so green.)

They operated the Danish wind turbines for two decades then repowered the site in 2011 with four Enercon E70 wind turbines. The new, much larger German turbines increased the project capacity from 4 MW to 9.3 MW.

The family sold their interest in the project to Good Energy who financed the repowering with the Co-operative Development Bank. Good Energy is an electricity retailer and formerly was a developer of renewable energy in Britain. They are now moving into electric vehicle charging, and plan to sell their renewable generation, including their Delabole project.

With the advent of much larger wind turbines, the site practices the Edwards pioneered are no longer possible. There are now roads to each of the modern wind turbines at Delabole but because there are only four turbines, there’s only a modest increase in site land use over what would be necessary to service ten turbines.

While the Conservative Party has killed wind on land, wind energy offshore is growing apace. And the Edwards continue to practice what they preach. Peter drives a Renault Zoe and Martin drives a Tesla.

Thirty years ago, one farm family on a rainy, windy hilltop decided to make a difference—and did.

More on Delabole

I am attaching here an extract of an article, Tilting at Windmills: Public Opinion Toward Wind Energy, that I published on May 1, 1995. Even after a quarter of a century, the importance of what the Edwards’ family accomplished at Delabole can’t be overestimated. They showed that wind energy not only could be but was popular.

For background, DTI was Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry.

Keep in mind that planning for Delabole began during the reign of Margaret Thatcher, who was no friend of renewables in general and wind energy in particular. Thatcher did like nuclear and created a program supporting Britain’s nuclear fleet. Unknown to her at the time, her program, the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation, opened a window through which projects such as Delabole could also climb through.

Portions of this article have appeared previously in Wind Energy Comes of Age and in the May 1995 issue of Independent Energy magazine.

Cornwall 1995

The clearest example of a change in attitude towards wind energy, once a community has learned to live with the technology, occurred in Cornwall, where a survey measured the public’s response before and after wind turbines were installed. With open water on the west, the English Channel on the east, and a spine of nearly flat treeless uplands stretching the length of the peninsula, Cornwall is an ideal area for wind energy.

As early as 1980, Cornish dairyman Peter Edwards considered building his own wind farm. Edwards first sought planning approval in 1989, finally receiving permission two years later, with noise emissions strictly limited because of local fears. By late 1991, Edwards had commissioned Britain’s first commercial wind power plant.

Though small by international standards, the project comprises only ten turbines, it stirred controversy well out of proportion to its size. Neighbors feared the noise would drive them away. Owners of second homes and tourists from urban England, who frequent Cornwall, worried that the turbines would despoil their summertime destination. To gauge the effect of the controversy on the development of wind energy elsewhere in Britain, DTI sponsored a survey of the public’s response to the Delabole wind farm.

During the summer of 1990, researchers polled nearby residents and residents of Exeter (the nearest major city) about their attitudes towards environmental issues, wind energy in general, and towards the Delabole project. The poll was repeated during the summer of 1992, six months after the 400 kW turbines were installed.

During the first survey, two-thirds of those rural residents polled near Camelford identified themselves as “green” whereas three-quarters of those polled in urban Exeter so identified themselves. Opinion near Camelford was split on whether wind turbines should be built at Delabole, with two-thirds favoring the project and one-third opposed. Respondents in Exeter decidedly favored the project. A majority of the Cornish group thought the wind turbines would spoil the scenery and a majority in Exeter thought they would not. And more than 40% of the Cornish respondents thought the turbines would create a noise nuisance. Overall, the Cornish residents were less favorably disposed toward wind energy than those living in Exeter.

After installation, attitudes toward wind energy changed noticeably among those most affected: the residents near Camelford. Prior to installation, only 15% of those surveyed in Cornwall thought that noise would be insignificant. After the turbines were in service, says Brian Young, who conducted the survey, 80% of those polled in Cornwall found that noise was not a problem, 12% were unsure. Young, an Exeter consultant, found that among the Exeter group, which had not seen or heard the wind turbines, only 27% thought noise was not a problem, and 19% still thought noise was a problem and 54% were undecided. This led Young to conclude that noise is “less of a nuisance than people who had not lived near them would anticipate.” In other words, noise is more of a concern for those who have never heard a wind turbine.

Opinions towards Delabole’s aesthetic impact also changed. After installation about 28% of the Cornish sample still thought that the wind turbines spoiled the landscape, whereas more than half had thought so prior to the project. In Exeter, 29% thought wind turbines spoiled the scenery, agreeing with their Cornish neighbors. Young determined that this group of aesthetic objectors in both samples believe wind turbines spoil the scenery whether or not the respondents had ever seen wind turbines in Delabole or elsewhere. It was unnecessary to see them. The mere thought of wind turbines on the Cornish landscape was unacceptable. Still, nearly 60% of the Cornish sample found that wind turbines did not spoil the scenery, despite the fact that more than 90% thought preserving the scenic beauty of the countryside was important. Young determined that Cornish residents’ negative opinion of wind energy’s scenic impact prior to the actual project, like their concern about noise, had resulted from fear of the unknown.

Overall 85% of the respondents in Cornwall and Exeter approved of wind energy after completion of the Delabole project. Only 4% disapproved. Of the 289 surveyed, only 7 respondents continued to disapprove of wind energy after the turbines were installed, and only 3 switched from approval to disapproval after the project was completed. In contrast, says Young, 71 people, or about one-fourth of those polled, reversed their original opinion and approved of the project after completion.

These results parallel those of Dutch wind developer Energy Connection, which has noted general approval of wind energy in the Netherlands until specific projects are proposed. These proposals elicit a negative reaction that dampens public support, but approval returns to near-normal levels once the project has been installed and communities have had time to adjust. “The reality of a wind farm,” says Garrad Hassan’s Andrew Garrad, “is much better than the prospect of it.” Acceptance grows as people learn that many of their misgivings were il-founded.