Many see wind as a great source of green energy, but some local communities around the world are seeing red. Specific cases in the United States and Mexico—two countries that are now investing heavily in wind energy—highlight the potential for community opposition to wind farms in the rural areas where they are being built.
Mexico was recently dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of alternative energy” by USA Today due to the government and foreign investors’ massive wind energy initiatives. The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a narrow point between two mountain ranges where wind from the Gulf of Mexico is funneled out to the Pacific Ocean, is known as the one of the windiest places on earth.
Mexican President (and former energy minister) Felipe Calderon has called for the isthmus to produce 2,500 megawatts of electricity from wind power within three years. The project is intended to decrease Mexico’s dependency on its falling oil supplies and stimulate the economy in Oaxaca, one of the poorest states in Mexico.
However, the local community has greeted the initiative with unexpectedly fierce opposition. Residents are angry that the electricity will likely be sold to distant cement plants and big-box stores like Wal-Mart.
In addition, foreign companies have offered local farmers little compensation—about $46 per acre each year—for the land. Residents say they need more, especially since wind farms threaten their traditional livelihoods. Construction stirred up huge amounts of dust and blocked irrigation lines, forcing many farmers to cut crops and herds by more than half.
A group of farmers recently sued three Spanish companies, claiming that the investors aimed to trick poorly educated farmers, many of whom did not speak Spanish, with misleading contracts. Demonstrators in La Venta have disrupted the construction of the Eurus wind farm six times. And territorial disputes have reignited old feuds along racial and political lines in San Mateo del Mar.
Wind farms in the United States are also generating opposition, although of a milder variety. In Flint Hills, Kansas, 100 wind turbines now tower over 20 miles of roads. While most environmentalists cheer such a move, the positive energy prospects on the plains may also bring some negative consequences, such as fragmenting the already fragile prairie ecosystem.
The issue is even more contentious in Cape Cod, where developers are set to construct 170 wind turbines off the coast. Opponents argue that the Cape Wind project will obstruct ocean views, decrease tourism, disrupt traditional fishing trawlers, and block a major bird migration route. In 2008, when the Interior Department issued a favorable report on the project, the late Sen. Edward Kennedy famously announced that its decision “virtually assured years of continued public conflict and contentious litigation.” Local opposition groups, such as the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, have said they are prepared to go to court if the project proceeds.
With the renewable energy footprint of the U.S. set to reach nearly 80,000 square miles of land by 2030, tensions over land-use issues look likely to rise.
These cautionary tales should not deter us from pursuing wind as a viable alternative energy source. Certainly, given the imperative to act against catastrophic climate change, wind should be part of the mix. However, planners and policymakers must consider the likely impacts on the local community; work with affected communities during site selection and construction; and share the benefits of the new projects in order to avoid environmental degradation and social unrest.
Photo: A wind farm in Mexico. Courtesy Flickr user Cedric’s Pics.