This week, German energy company Innogy and Irish company Saorgus moved a step closer to the development of a €1.5 billion ($1.67 billion) wind farm 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) off the east coast of Ireland with an application to Irish planning authorities.
Although still at a preliminary stage, the companies hope that one day the so-called Dublin Array project will be generating enough electricity for up to 600,000 homes in the Dublin area.
To those with little more than a passing interest in such matters, this story probably seems like one we will be seeing more and more of; a story of European cooperation, German and Irish groups working together to develop a major source of renewable energy for a greener future.
In an era where talk of climate crisis grows louder by the day, this is surely the way it is simply going to have to be. Or is it?
Since 2017, wind power has been the EU’s main source of renewable energy for electricity generation, with around 14% of total EU-28 gross electricity consumption coming through it, and 30% coming from renewable sources overall.
Yet, while examples such as Dublin Array show that wind farm development is continuing apace in many countries, there are also indications that increasingly strong headwinds are being felt.
Storm winds rising
WindEurope, a Brussels-based association that promotes the use of wind power in Europe, has released a new report which emphasizes the significant uncertainty over how much wind energy capacity will grow in Europe up to the year 2023.
Putting its emphasis on the extent to which European governments implement ambitious National Energy & Climate Plans (NECPs) – the framework by which EU nations now have to plan their climate and energy objectives – the report warns that if these plans are unambitious, then Europe will install much less wind power than it otherwise could.
“In terms of condensing the report into a wider message, I think we have seen the amount of wind energy in Europe stall over the last couple of years,” Andrew Canning of WindEurope told DW. “And over the next five years we are facing increasing uncertainty.”
Canning says a lack of political will is one reason why wind energy production in Europe could fall behind but an even bigger reason is coordinated, local opposition to wind farm development.
Increasingly, this has become the biggest stumbling block for wind energy and other forms of renewable development, particularly in Germany, where a sharp decline in the number of new onshore wind farms has alarmed environmentalists who feel that further undermines Germany’s long-term climate and renewable goals.
Germany has committed itself to phasing out nuclear power by 2022 and coal power by 2038 and needs to beef up its renewable sector significantly to hit those targets.
Only 290 megawatts were installed in Germany in the first six months of 2019, a fall of more than 80% on the same period in 2018, which also saw a sharp fall from 2017.
The most common grounds for complaint in Germany is the protection of birds and bats, which can be endangered by wind turbines. Procedural mistakes, monument protection, noise pollution, health effects and the effects on the local landscape are other common reasons why wind farms are objected to in the EU’s largest country.
“It is worrying when you think how urgent the need to expand renewable energy is,” says Canning. Yet there are many people around Europe who passionately disagree with him.
One is Pat Swords, an Irish chemical engineer who has taken legal action against the EU on the grounds that it has contravened the Aarhus Convention (the UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters) in the way it has, in his words, “forced this thing on the people.”
A legal advisor with the lobby group EPAW (European Platform Against Windfarms), his primary argument is that the EU, and national governments such as the Irish one, acting on the EU’s behalf, did not abide by its legal obligations under Aarhus before it committed governments to environmental plans which included the large-scale development of wind farms and wind turbines.
The legal action is ongoing.
“You have to go through a legal process. That is already defined in European law. Political agendas come and go, ideologies come and go, but the environment doesn’t belong to the state,” he told DW.
Comparing the collective movement for renewable sources of energy as being like “a religion or a cult,” he says it will all make no difference in the wider global context.”Over 70% of the world doesn’t care about this. You can make all these carbon savings and then someone else will just use carbon anyway.”
He is opposed to wind farm developments for several reasons, not least because he believes the benefit of renewable sources of energy to be negligible and unproven, particularly in terms of cost benefit analysis. He believes renewable energy is not financially viable and is too expensive and that it forces up the price of domestic electricity as a result.
But his primary complaint is that the aforementioned NECPs are being forced upon citizens without having gone through the appropriate legal avenues first.
Swords’ view is not a majority one. In a 2019 European Commission survey, 92% of respondents thought it important for their national governments to set ambitious targets to increase the amount of renewable energy.
Yet when it comes to local opposition to developments in countries from Germany to Ireland, that supposed support apparently drains away in the face of coordinated local opposition.
Canning believes it is vital for Europe’s energy future that more certainty comes to the sector and that wind farm development ratchets up again in the next few years. But he is not especially optimistic.
“We just don’t know how much we are going to see in the next five or 10 years. It depends on how much governments decide to build, how they will build it, or enable that to happen,” he said.
For Swords, he sees the recent decline in wind farm development in Germany as a positive trend that he hopes will be continued elsewhere.
“It’s people exerting their rights,” he says. “It’s the fact that people have gone out and learned how the planning system works. It is all part of the checks and balances of a democratic society.”