Sonya Bedford MBE interview – championing solar and wind energy

Ian McDowell & Sonya Bedford MBE
16 February 2022
Spencer West Partner Sonya Bedford MBE has been flying the flag for sustainable energy for more than twenty years. She tells ESG Director Ian McDowell her sustainability story. 

Sonya is a lawyer specialising in renewable energy and she has a wind turbine tattoo – not something many lawyers can claim!

When, and where, did your interest in renewables start? 

I was in all the green groups as a student, and then got into traditional legal practice, working on landed estates with a Salisbury firm, and started to see land being used for different things – good, and not so good. Then, at a larger firm in the Bristol area, I got involved in a lot of land use related projects, including my first wind farm. At that point, even though I loved the work, you couldn’t make a career out of renewables alone without venturing into fossil fuels as well, something I was not prepared to do. But then, about thirteen years ago, the Feed In Tariff was introduced by the Government, and the firm I was in at the time saw this as an opportunity. There were a number of things pointing to the south west leading the way in renewables. Cornwall Council created a strategy for new solar farms for example. Stephens Scown asked me to leave Osborne Clarke and head up their renewable energy team. The land management experience, and my commitment to renewables, was like a marriage made in heaven. 

I remember standing where Glastonbury Festival is held, in a village hall talking about how to develop large scale solar farms when no one had ever seen one, and things going absolutely mad. There was so much excitement there, with standing room only, and lots of people clamouring to get engaged. Communities worked out they could start Community Energy Companies (or C.E.C.s) to take advantage of the new commercial environment and drive down emissions locally. These days I’m on six of these C.E.C.s, plus I’m a Non-Exec Director of the renewable energy company Regen. I did an MSc in Renewable Energy recently to round off my offering to clients, so now I can do technical as well as legal work. I’m currently consulting on a large scale procurement for Bristol City Council delivering a city which is sustainable and prosperous in low carbon energy infrastructure, doing both legal and technical consultancy. 

The very first community energy company was in Wales for a wind development, raising money through the local community to pay for it, with the profits going back to the investors and local community. There are now over 300 community energy companies nationally with more getting underway every day.! 

Are there some types of land that can’t be used? 

Top grade land can’t normally be used for renewables. Lower grade, or brownfield, sites are used first. Greenbelt is good, because solar and wind can actually protect the land from further development, along with increasing biodiversity and creating new areas of sustainability, in a broader sense. 

Solar farms are not concreted in, so the land below remains alive, and the development can be reversed almost instantly. It can just be taken away. 

Do you ever get “green ink” letters? 

In the old days, I used to get a lot of challenge, especially in Cornwall, but opposition is in fairly small pockets nowadays, and people can disagree politely. The evidence shows that new turbines don’t actually affect people’s house prices. I live near the new Hinckley Point pylons which are space age and look at bit like wind turbines. I’m busiest in Wales at the moment where some big wind farms are going up right now, and where onshore wind is totally supported by Devolved Administration policy. 

Have you ever tried to estimate how many kilowatt hours you’ve been instrumental in switching to wind and solar over your whole career? 

A while back I did count it all up. It was over 300 solar farms, so well over a gigawatt of power. After Bristol that will just about treble to three gigawatts of power. One gigawatt alone is enough energy to power 750,000 family homes. 

In the beginning, twenty years ago, were you regarded as a bit of an eccentric, a bit edgy?

It was a bit like that. Being a lawyer working in renewables at that time really did make you fairly “non-traditional”. But I was totally comfortable with that, and that’s why, as a forward-thinking lawyer, people now want me on their Boards. The people who come to me tend to be people whose projects are in harmony with my values.

I’ve had some lean years, because it’s sometimes been heavily politicised, and governments have sometimes pulled the plug completely: on onshore wind, for example. But I decided at the time never to go back to other forms of legal work. That’s why I spent time doing the Masters, as a strategic career move. 

Now the policy is moving very much back into the mainstream again, which is looking very promising. I’ve never been opposed to the commercial side of renewables, quite the opposite in fact. I’ve helped a lot of people, and not just the well off, to make quite a lot of money through investing in these new forms of energy. 

Have you ever climbed up one of these turbines? Did you feel a sense of pride when you got up there? 

I am actually qualified to climb wind turbines and rescue people from them. My first time up a turbine made me feel a bit sick up there because the turbines are designed to move in the wind. If this was not the case they would snap of course! 

The big ones have lifts in them, but I prefer to climb. There’s a ladder inside, and I’m trained to rescue engineers in the very unlikely event of an accident. I’ve done turbine rescue training, but only for onshore. The diving aspects of the offshore training are a bit scary but as I am involved in an offshore wind development I may have to get brave and go for the training!. When you get to the top of a turbine you can stand outside, wearing a full harness of course! Big turbines can be funded for 2-3 million pounds, so rather more than a racehorse. But if you buy one you get a free harness! 

There has been a of sense pride, exhilaration even. It shouldn’t be as hard to get a turbine built as it is, so when you see one built it is an exhilarating experience: exhilarating both on my own behalf, and on behalf of the people who work with me. 

And the MBE? 

I received the MBE from Prince Charles three or four years ago for my work with community renewable energy, which is a source of great pride. It’s something that doesn’t happen to many lawyers. Prince Charles and I spoke for quite a long time about solar panels, something he takes great interest in. 

It’s been quite a journey!  

Sonya, thank you so much for speaking with me. It’s been fascinating. 
Ian McDowell
ESG Director
Ian McDowell is the Community Engagement Director at Spencer West.
Sonya Bedford MBE
Partner– Energy
Sonya Bedford is a Partner Solicitor at Spencer West. She specialises in all forms of renewable energy technology; the funding of renewable energy projects; and sustainable development.