Spain's angry fishermen protest windmills

Jan 10, 2005 01:00 AM

Near this blustery headland where Admiral Nelson won his great naval victory over the French two centuries ago, a new battle of Trafalgar is brewing. But the ships involved today are only small fishing boats, wanting to protect this famous patch of water.
Two companies plan to build large clusters of windmills in the sea just off this stretch of Spain's southern shore, a gritty place of sand dunes, lagoons and sharp brown reefs. With about 400 offshore turbines, they want to capture the power of the winds that blow almost constantly here, the cusp of two seas, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Fishermen respond that these row of giant towers near the coast will make their tough jobs even more difficult.
"This is where the tuna pass and this is where we work," said Manuel Ponce Alva, who leads a fishermen's protest movement and waved a marine map full of ominous red arrows.
The men from the fishing villages of Barbate, Vejer and Conil have knocked on many official doors to argue that the wind farms will disturb the migration of the young tuna and, more dramatically, that their own lives may be at stake. They say the towers, to be based about 16 km, or 10 miles, offshore, will force their small vessels to make large detours in the already treacherous waters near the Strait of Gibraltar.
"We talk and talk, and we ask," said Antonio Varo, another angry fisherman. "We get no answers."

Their protests may well fall on deaf ears. The two projects are part of Spain's great drive to expand its output of native renewable energy. Spain is already one of Europe's largest producers of wind power, second only to Germany, and its present capacity of 8,500 MW can supply close to 5 % of electricity. Indications are that this may double by 2010.
In this country, where almost all oil, gas and coal must be imported, the wind rush has been under way for more than a decade. Privately owned wind parks, encouraged by official subsidies, first sprouted on the hills near here, behind Trafalgar and Tarifa. The gleaming white towers then spread to the rest of the country, to the windy north and to the central highlands.

Like the old stone windmills that have dotted Spanish horizons for centuries, the modern turbines are all on land. But now Spanish entrepreneurs want to join Europe's booming new trend of building large-scale wind farms offshore.
The seabed off Cape Trafalgar, one of six marine sites being studied, is a favourite. There are no important tourist resorts nearby, although visitors often come here from Britain, where "Trafalgar" has a special ring. Binoculars in hand, people climb to the tip of the cape, a knobby sand dune with a lighthouse on top. Here they peer out at the water where about 60 British, French and Spanish warships clashed in 1805 in the famed battle that established Britain's naval supremacy for the next century.

Cesar del Campo, director of a consortium involved in the wind park plans, said that the site is difficult because of the water depth and the speed of the currents, but that the energy yield will usually be high.
"You have to see the Strait of Gibraltar like a huge, fast-moving river that changes with the tides," he said. "Some days there may be heavy gusts from Atlantic storms, but you can count on wind every day."

Offsetting the greater yield at sea is the building cost, which can be twice as high as on land. It means driving piles into the sea floor, laying cables to the shore and doing maintenance work that is riskier. But specialists say the rush is on now for offshore wind energy and northern Europe is leading the way. Wind farms based at sea today still have a modest capacity of 600 MW, but this is expected to grow more than ten-fold by 2010, said Corin Millais, director of the European Wind Energy Association. Companies, including utilities, have staked out tracts in the seas off Britain, Denmark, Germany, Ireland and The Netherlands.
The incentive is evident, Millais said, because Europe's oil and natural gas reserves are running out and energy imports, now at 50 %, will rise further. The European Union, moreover, has been pushing for alternatives to fossil fuels as part of its commitment under the Kyoto treaty to reduce greenhouse gases, and it wants 22 % of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2010.

Many projects have been delayed because officials everywhere are demanding stringent environmental impact studies. These are still under way for the Trafalgar wind fields. The area is on the flight path of tens of thousands of eagles, ducks, storks, swallows and many other migrants crossing to winter in Africa.
Daniel Lopez Marijuan, of the association of Ecologists in Action, said: "The first studies have shown that migrating birds do not fly very low here, unless a storm takes them off their course."

There are other stakeholders, including two nearby NATO bases, operators of a gas duct, coming from North Africa, not to mention the heavy shipping traffic in and out of the Mediterranean, but planners say their studies showthe windmills pose no obstruction. If so, the fishermen along the Trafalgar coast will be alone to confront the powerful lobby of wind producers.
"There is good money in wind," said Rafael Bayo, an engineer and energy consultant. "That is why many hilltops now have windmills. A farmer used to get nothing from his hill. Now he rents it to a utility or puts his own windmills there." This may go on, he says, as long as the government pays grid operators the difference between conventional and wind-generated electricity, on average 2 or 3 cents per kWh. Eventually, some experts think, wind power may become competitive as turbines get bigger and as pollution taxes are imposed on fossil fuel energy, as planned.

Manuel Bustos, who represents the association of wind producers, said his group will try to convince the fishermen that they may even benefit. He said that in European pilot projects, fish farms have been attached to sea-based windmills. In another experiment, the underwater base of the mill was used to create artificial reefs to act as fish nurseries. At Barbate, the fishermen said they had never heard of this. Should the Trafalgar plans fail, then offshore parks may go elsewhere, given the Spaniards' hunger for wind profits.
"There are dozens of projects waiting for licenses, on land and offshore," said Bustos, "enough to produce another 50,000 MW."

Source: International Herald Tribune
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