With wind turbines popping up haphazardly around Switzerland, the time has come for better planning and dialogue to avoid opposition which the machines provoke.
Such was the conclusion of a conference in Bern this week attended by around 200 people, most of whom supported wind farms.
The same day, canton Neuchâtel tried to move ahead with its plans for five new farms, presenting a revised action plan that pointedly leaves out a controversial site in Chaumont.
Not far away, eight new turbines also started turning in what has been dubbed Switzerland’s most successful wind farm, Mont Crosin in canton Bern. The farm has 16 turbines spread out over four kilometres, producing 40 million kilowatt hours per year, enough to power 12,000 households.
Mont Crosin is touted as an example of good practice in involving the local population in the early stages of planning, but no lessons have yet been drawn on its impact on nature and wildlife.
Wind energy has the backing of the Swiss government, which in 2006 declared it to be in the country’s interest. A wind energy concept was drawn up, giving guidelines on locations and criteria for turbines and setting a goal of producing 50-100 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity by 2010.
With the inauguration of Mont Crosin’s latest additions, as well as two other parks, Switzerland will only just meet the 50 GWh target by the end of this year.
Lack of understanding
The Bern conference showed that questions remain about where and how to build wind farms and what should be the priorities, according to Pro Natura, the non-governmental environment organisation that co-hosted the national conference with the Swiss association for the promotion of wind power, Suisse Eole.
“There is no opposition to the central issue [of renewable energy]. But as soon as we start to talk about concrete projects, we see there is a lack of understanding,” said Pro Natura spokesman Nicholas Wüthrich.
“We also see that we lack answers to questions such as where to put wind turbines that would be best for the landscape or [would] not impact on birds, for example.”
Due to the complexity of Swiss planning procedures and in part to the opposition which projects attract, Switzerland is lagging behind other countries in harnessing wind power. The eight new turbines at Mont Crosin took eight years to get planning permission.
To move ahead now, dialogue and planning are essential, says Wüthrich.
“Planning was something that was asked for by everyone at the conference. We would like more planning by the cantons who do not do it, and between the different cantons,” he said.
“We see projects cropping up everywhere but we are not going to be able to do all these projects. So we need more reflection over what are the major projects that we should do and the priorities.”
He added: “The goal of dialogue will be to look for a solution together. We need to determine the gaps and what different sides are lacking in order to realise certain projects.”
The conference was a first step towards dialogue, he said, with networking helping to understand different stances. It also took stock of current thinking, namely that wind turbines alter the landscape and need to be grouped together, and that the best projects involve everyone in the planning stages.
Barbara Egger-Jenzer, a parliamentarian from the centre-left Social Democratic Party, told participants that Switzerland was at a “turning point” on the issue of wind farms. Lausanne politician Jean-Yves Pidoux and parliamentarian Geri Müller, both from the Green Party, outlined how to make Swiss energy policy greener.
For Suisse Eole, the next step is to look at the projects that are causing problems and the sticking points and to delve deeper into issues such as how far to take impact studies.
This, to match up and “fine-tune” the government’s initial directives for wind turbines in line with the current situation. For example, looking at guidelines about the number of birds that can be killed by the turbines and asking if that number is acceptable.
“We want to solve problems amicably before there is opposition,” said the association’s Martin Kernen.
“Discussions still need to be held on this, notably between the promoters of wind energy and environmentalists, and also the cantons concerned.”
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