Sweden—the country that brought the world 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg—is aiming to zero out greenhouse gases by 2045. To reach that goal, it’s ramping up wind energy. The country expects to install 1.8 gigawatts of capacity of wind power this year alone, enough to charge more than 16,000 Nissan LEAF electric cars.
At Ripfjallet, in the forests near Malung in western Sweden, German wind developer WPD AG has plans to build as many as 30 wind turbines that would reach heights of up to 250 meters (820 feet), according to Maria Roske, managing director of WPD’s Scandinavian arm. But a group of area residents is working to block it. “The project risks destroying the area where our ancestors used to hunt and pick berries. We want to be able to pass it on to future generations,” says Hans Ojes, one of the group’s organizers.
The efforts of the group have led to a referendum that could decide the project’s fate, which local politicians will schedule by June 22. “Wind power stirs up a lot of emotions, and the industry is used to both worry and criticism. Even if a lot of people are in favor of renewables and wind power, it’s different when it’s close by,” Roske told Swedish public broadcaster SVT last year.
Increasingly, the Nimby (“not in my back yard”) sentiment that often drives homeowners to protest a planned landfill or commercial development near them is being directed at renewable energy projects in some of the world’s most climate-hawkish democracies, threatening efforts to reduce carbon emissions. With wind power now cheaper to install per megawatt hour of output than coal or gas, the biggest challenge facing Europe’s energy transition may not be cost, but public perception.
Next door to Sweden, in Denmark, wind met 47% of the electricity demand last year, a larger share than in any other country. Two things break up the flat farmland of the Danish countryside: wind turbines and church steeples. Local dioceses of the Church of Denmark have traditionally had the right to object to changes that disturb the view to or from a church. This veto is increasingly being used to block or alter plans for wind parks, according to industry group Dansk Energi.
“In light of the climate challenges we face, the church’s veto against wind farms needs to be removed,” says Kristine van het Erve Grunnet, managing director of Renewable Energy at Dansk Energi. But the bishop of the Ribe diocese told the paper Kristeligt Dagblad in January: “I don’t think it’s a contradiction to both focus on the environment and on cultural landscapes.”
The issue was raised in the Danish parliament earlier this year, but Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs Joy Mogensen showed no signs of wanting to change the rules, arguing that in most cases there was a good dialogue between the church and municipalities that want to add turbines.
Germany has 30,000 wind turbines, the most in the European Union. Bigger, more powerful ones are replacing old clunkers, and saturation is taking projects ever nearer to woodland. Fachagentur Wind, a government agency, ran a survey last year and found 325 lawsuits against wind projects, many brought on the grounds of protecting ecology and wildlife. (Wind turbines can kill birds and bats that collide with them.) Opposition efforts by groups who haven’t gone to court number many more, the agency says. Groups can petition local councils, potentially delaying projects by years or even nixing them if councils decide in their favor.
“Murmurings of protests against wind farms here and there over the years have turned into a roar,” says Julia Zilles, a political analyst at the University of Goettingen. “Partly it’s a problem of provincial sensibilities vs. big-city politics: Locals feel that policymakers just don’t care what they think.”
The onshore wind market in Germany has virtually come to a standstill. Worried about the risk that poses to clean energy targets, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition last month drew up a bill of sweeteners to woo local support for new wind projects, including a share of profits. Yet the investors who are needed to bump up the additions are staying away from capacity auctions. The German Wind Energy Association, or BWE, fears that a net loss of turbines may be around the corner as the oldest subsidy contracts begin to expire.
Giles Dickson, chief executive officer of the industry group WindEurope, says it’s important for developers to reach out early to people who live near the proposed wind farm before a design is finalized. Wind farms usually pay out a portion of their revenue to local communities. They also bring jobs, sometimes to remote places that struggle to attract employers, Dickson notes. WindEurope is calling for permitting systems to be streamlined.
While community benefits can be a successful strategy, they can sometimes make a bad situation worse, says Patrick Devine-Wright, a social scientist who advises the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “If there’s already a lack of trust, people think that they’re being bribed, and then it digs in the trenches even more,” he says.
Leaders like Merkel can apply lessons from the coronavirus crisis, he argues. She’s been lauded for using her scientific knowledge to explain the need to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. “You have to have a grown-up conversation with citizens and treat them as adults and say, ‘Listen, the status quo has changed, we’re in a climate emergency, we have to make radical and fast changes to our systems,’ ” Devine-Wright says.
Those arguments could sway some skeptics, but others will likely remain convinced that their neighborhood is the wrong location for the towering windmills.
“There can be wind turbines where they don’t disturb people, for example, offshore,” says Anders Nilsson, a church organist who opposes the Björkvattnet wind farm under construction in Sweden. “But not in a quiet place like this.”
—With Brian Parkin, Will Mathis, Will Wilkes, Christian Wienberg, and Morten Buttler
BOTTOM LINE – As Sweden, Denmark, and Germany look to wind power to help meet climate targets, citizens are opposing wind farms on the grounds of habitat disruption and spoiled views.
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