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Energy on a Coast of Light - By Michel Cruz

The very wind that used to drive people to despair and produce the highest suicide rate in the country now seems to be the dynamo at the very heart of the region’s economy. Put to famously good use by the windsurfers and kite-surfers of Tarifa, the powerful onshore gusts are also being tapped to produce electricity. To this end an army of wind turbines stands on peaks and fields, catching and harnessing a natural force that is as much a local resource as oil is to Saudi Arabia or uranium to Namibia. These tall metal ‘windmills’ are now very much a part of the scenery, but while most acknowledge their value as an alternative energy source to fossil fuels, the debate rages on about their visual impact, leaving the population at large very much divided between two extremes.

To some, the wind-energy generating turbines are graceful, adding a new element to an ancient landscape. To others, they are a price worth paying in the search for clean, renewable energy, while to many the rows of metal structures look like ugly, intrusive regiments of giants that swing their arms in rage. ‘We don’t like the pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels,’ goes a popular sentiment, ‘but this amounts to a form of visual pollution that is equally destructive.’ Throughout this aesthetic debate the technical validity and usefulness, as well as the positive environmental credentials of wind energy, are more or less taken for granted, but now there are also those who call the efficiency and eco-friendliness of aeolic energy into doubt. According to this group, large concentrations of wind turbines damage the living environment of birds and do not warrant either the aesthetic sacrifice of wind energy generation nor the huge resources pumped into it.

The case for wind energy

Levels of pollution and climate change are now such that the time for philosophical debate has passed and we now have to act. In other words, we need to find clean, sustainable energy sources to replace dwindling supplies of environmentally polluting and politically volatile fossil fuels. All of this is set against a world in which rampant population growth and rapid industrialisation are causing a huge increase in energy consumption. Clean and sustainable energy supplies are few and far between, and as there is as yet no single source that could meet the world’s voracious appetite for electricity, we have to explore all credible possibilities. Wind energy has proved that it can be a reliable, clean source of electricity, capable of generating power without any of the smoke and smog of thermal power stations, or the potential risks of nuclear reactors. Improvements in technology have produced wind turbines that are relatively cheap, easy to assemble (and disassemble), mobile and powerful, while improved weather forecasting has made it an increasingly reliable source of supply.

Over the past 20 years, Spain has invested heavily in this form of ‘green’ power, and over the past ten years it has seen its wind-generated electricity output rise 50-fold from 200 MW (Megawatt) to over 10,000 MW today. The contribution of wind to overall electricity production over the same period rose from two per cent to ten per cent, and it’s rising still. In areas such as Galicia and Navarre these figures are significantly higher, demonstrating just how much potential wind energy can have. Tarifa is another such ‘wind pocket’, which the regional authorities wish to harness to its fullest extent. They acknowledge the visual impact on the landscape, but counter with the contribution made by this ‘eco-friendly’ energy supply and the thousands of jobs its related industries provide within Spain alone.

The case against

Spain has indeed become a major player both in the production of wind-generated electricity and its related technologies. Currently ranked second in the world, it is set become the number one producer and one of the main exporters of wind turbines, but does this come at the expense of a country scarred by unsightly metal poles? It is argued that the revenue earned from giving up parts of their land to so-called wind farms provides farming communities with a welcome source of income in times when agriculture appears increasingly unfeasible, but the ‘wind boom’ that has followed in the wake of government grants and meteoric growth in the sector has led to increasingly wild speculation, as unknowing investors buy shares in wind energy suppliers and land speculators seek large tracts of land for the sole purpose of receiving the grants that come with wind farms. The result is a potentially dangerous bubble in the utilities sector and rising land prices in rural areas that may prove destructive to farming communities in the longer term.

Protagonists of wind farms say that the land occupied by legions of wind turbines can also be used for other purposes, such as grazing cattle or sheep, but they ignore the land uses lost as a result of the turbines. Certainly, no-one would want to live near a colony of giant windmills, including quite possibly large numbers of birds who will see not only their habitats but even their flight paths affected. Unlike the windmills of old, the new turbines do not really blend in with their surroundings. The presence of large wind parks could therefore have an adverse effect on the development of tourism in rural areas, while their application in urban zones is very limited. Or is it? Leading architects have already been citing the tops of tall urban buildings as more suitable locations for wind turbines. The visual impact would certainly be lower.

Perhaps the greatest criticism of all has come from those who call in doubt the efficiency of wind power. While it cannot be denied that wind is clean and sustainable as an energy source, it is also highly unpredictable, making only known wind spots such as Tarifa truly reliable suppliers of wind-generated electricity. The main single drawback remains the fact that while wind-generated electricity can be transferred on the spot, it cannot be stored and used up later—like most other energy sources. Critics therefore say that the huge amounts of money spent on developing this energy could have been better allocated to other sustainable energy sources that do not come with such a high price tag-both aesthetically and financially.

Alternative sustainable energies…

In the balance sheet of pros and cons, wind energy remains ahead on points-for the time being. Expect more resistance as wind parks spread across the globe, and the intrusiveness of metal turbines makes wind energy suddenly seem less environmentally friendly. So what are the alternatives? Tidal energy is one possibility, using powerful water currents in river estuaries to activate large turbines in much the same way as hydroelectric plants do. Although clean and sustainable, tidal energy is both costly and limited to those few areas that have suitable conditions. Tidal energy, then, is likely to always remain a small contributor to the global energy sector, but in the future floating ‘power stations’ could be developed to harness the immense power of the oceans. That scenario is still distant, however, leaving only one major renewable energy source with the capacity to satisfy world demand in the foreseeable future: solar energy.

Solar energy

Already in existence for several decades, solar energy somehow never quite lived up to its promise. Large, inefficient, costly and above all, unsightly solar panels have a lot to do with this. Everybody wants to save the world, but not at the cost of making their house look ugly, it seems. The fact that Freiburg, in Germany’s Black Forest region, is the centre of Europe’s solar energy industry says enough. One would expect Germany to feature prominently in a key technological sector, but Freiburg is one of the few cities in Europe where the potential of solar power is well harnessed. It is in the sunny countries of southern Europe that the lack of enthusiasm for solar energy has been particularly noteworthy. Ask most architects along Spain’s Costas why they don’t include it in their plans and they will cite the drawbacks mentioned above.

But solar technology has moved on. The thick, costly and inefficient panels of old have been replaced by slim, high-yielding panels that fit more snugly on rooftops and are also much less of an eyesore on terraces and in gardens. The potential, however, extends far beyond the humble family home. In some countries, rows and rows of solar panels cover large tracts of desert in what are the world’s first ‘sun farms’. Operating pretty much like wind farms, they harness a powerful, sustainable but at times unpredictable supply of energy whose only known form of pollution is visual. Some have even gone so far as to suggest the launching of satellites with huge folding solar panels that catch the sun’s rays and beam them to receiving stations on earth. Although attractive in science fiction terms, it seems a very risky business indeed, so most projects continue to be earth-bound.

The untapped potential of solar energy in countries such as Spain is evident. Just consider how much electricity and hot water could be generated if all those thousands of offices, factories, warehouses, retail centres, public buildings and apartment blocks had solar panels fitted to their mostly flat roofs. The visual impact would be far more limited than that of wind turbines, and solar generated electricity has the added advantage that it can be stored and used at a later date. In countries such as the UK the energy companies will even buy back any electricity you don’t use, while in Spain, as in most of the European Union, there are grants available to encourage the installation of solar panels—albeit accompanied with huge volumes of paper work. As more solar panels are produced costs per unit will drop, which should form the ultimate incentive needed to see them used more universally. Already, the solar energy sector is starting to stir, seemingly on the brink of a meteoric rise such as the wind power sector has been experiencing. Utilities companies are showing increased interest and investment in solar technology is up sharply, but unfortunately it seems that the focus is not on using existing sites such as rooftops for the placing of thousands of solar panels.

As always, the business sector is looking to cover huge tracts of countryside in acres and acres of glass panels aimed at the sky. It is, no doubt, the most convenient option for big business, but once again comes at a high price to nature and society at large. It is, therefore, not so much a question of what kind of sustainable energy source we should use, but how we can best apply it. In ignoring such considerations, economics has once again hijacked technology in the search for renewable energy sources, imposing its ugly form of efficiency on what should have been a new chance to satisfy mankind’s energy needs without destroying the planet in the process.