MALUNG, Sweden – Sweden faces a looming green electricity shortage, but its plan to scale up wind power has hit a problem: resistance from Swedes who don’t want giant turbines as neighbors.
Sweden, like a number of other northern European countries, sees wind power as a relatively cheap and quick way to move away from the fossil-fuel-driven power generation which has exacerbated the global climate crisis.
The Nordic country plans to scale up its wind power capacity to 100 terawatt-hours by 2040 – of which 80 TWh would be on land – from the current 28 TWh generated by a fleet of 4,000 turbines. The scale of that ambition is shown by plans for the 4 gigawatt Markbygden complex in the northeast of the country – a project that will be Europe’s largest onshore wind farm with about 1,100 turbines when it’s completed.
But as the rollout gathers pace, public sentiment is turning against turbines sprouting across some of Scandinavia’s most beautiful landscapes.
A plan by German company WPD to build 30 of these 250-meter-high structures on a hill called Ripfjället outside the central Swedish village of Malung is prompting a particularly sharp backlash.
The local municipal council approved the plan last month, and it’s now before county-level committees for further examination.
Arne Söderbäck, who heads the organization No to Wind Power on Ripfjället, which is fighting the project, condemned the decision.
“I am not against wind power, but this is not the place to develop it,” Söderbäck said. “Build the turbines near the cities where the power is needed.”
Söderback said the damage the new turbine park would do to the natural environment, which local people and wildlife – including eagles, wolverines and bears – depend on, would outweigh any economic or wider ecological benefits.
On a recent weekday near Malung, which lies on the main road to popular ski resorts further north, businesses were open as usual, despite the coronavirus pandemic, allowing tourists to do things like rent a snow scooter or buy a reindeer skin rug.
Many local entrepreneurs are worried that wind turbines will put these tourists off.
“Visitors to our area want to see nature, not noisy industrial sites,” a film on tourism on the No to Wind Power on Ripfjället website said.
A recent survey by Gothenburg University showed support for investment in wind power is drifting lower nationally – 65 percent of Swedes now want more wind farms, down from 80 percent a decade ago.
However, in areas where turbines are actually being built, support appears drastically lower.
A referendum held in Malung last year on the Ripfjället project showed 52.1 percent against while only 44.6 percent were in favor.
Balancing wind and politics
For Sweden’s government, made up of Social Democrats and the Green Party, local resistance to wind power is complicating an already tricky policy position.
Sweden has one of Europe’s most aggressive plans to shift away from fossil fuels: by 2040, all of the country’s electricity is to come from renewables, with wind a key part of the transition.
To meet this target the government needs to expand renewable power supplies fast: state-owned iron ore miner LKAB said its green transition alone would require around a third of Sweden’s total 2019 power production of 164 TWh.
Environment Minister Per Bolund of the Green Party has responded by, among other things, seeking to speed up the planning process for wind farms with a proposal to weaken municipal powers to veto them.
“Of course people should be able to have their say when it comes to what is built where they live,” Bolund said recently. “But we must ensure that conditions are good to expand renewable electricity production in Sweden.”
The problem for Bolund is that if his veto-weakening plan succeeds, he risks stoking anti-government sentiment in places like Malung ahead of next year’s general election.
The opposition center-right Moderates and the far-right Sweden Democrats are increasingly questioning onshore wind, meaning they could benefit politically from any disaffection.
“Renewables are important, but so is the natural environment,” senior Moderate Party lawmaker Maria Stenergard tweeted earlier this week.
For Europe, the situation in Sweden underscores a warning of the political risks of a rapid expansion of onshore wind power.
In Norway, local protests against wind farms on the country’s stormy west coast pushed the government to slow new projects with a general election looming in September.
In Germany, early enthusiasm for onshore wind power as part of the transition to green energy, the Energiewende, has also shown signs of fading as protests there have increased.
At last month’s meeting of the Malung council, lawmakers made their case for the Ripfjället plan.
Voting in favor, Social Democrat council leader Hans Unander highlighted the benefits for Sweden’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and for the local community which he said would receive income and jobs.
“Our view is that this is good for the climate and good for the municipality,” he said.
His opponents said the will of local people should be respected.
“I don’t plan to stand here and debate the relative merits of wind power, but the fact is that we had a referendum and I think it’s wrong to go against that,” Johannes Jonsson of the Sweden Democrats said.
After the chairman’s gavel fell and the votes were tallied – 22 in favor, 12 against – Söderbäck, the anti-wind farm campaigner, said his group would not give up fighting.
A former local vicar, he has sought to portray his group’s campaign as a David against Goliath contest of local interests against the state and big business, which can ultimately be won.
“This is by no means over,” he said.
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