Breaking wind: NIMBYs, hostages, and other woes from the European wind wars

Winds of… wind.

Those darned Europeans are so attached to their picturesque views.  When it comes to wind power and wind-turbine farms, the honeymoon is over.  The bloom is off the rose.  Rate-payers, homeowners, holiday-makers: if you’re wind, it turns out that Europeans can quit you.

A growing annoyance

It was being reported ominously, two years ago, that the Dutch – the Western world’s quintessential pioneers of wind power – were really starting to be over wind.  Not only is it expensive and unreliable; it’s just so…unsightly.  In the 21st century, we aren’t talking pretty, old-fashioned windmills that creak gently and make the Netherlands look its postcard-landscape best.  We’re talking about those towering monstrosities in vast phalanges that whir menacingly, slaughter birds, and mar world-heritage vistas – all while, who knows, causing cancer to boot.

One year ago, UK Minister of Energy John Hayes caused great rejoicing in the land – probably the first such event ever in human history – by proposing to put a hard cap on the number of wind farms that can be erected in the United Kingdom.  Daily Mail author Christopher Booker pointed out the following at the time:

[T]he amount of power [wind turbines] generate is so derisory that, even now, when we have built 3,500 turbines, the average amount of power we get from all of them combined is no more than what we get from a single medium-size, gas-fired power station, built at only fraction of the cost.

No one would dream of building windfarms unless the Government had arranged to pay their developers a subsidy of 100 per cent on all the power they produce, paid for by all of us through a hidden charge on our electricity bills.

Equally telling are the titles of related stories appended to his editorial:

Nobody wants a wind turbine in his back yard.  U-G-L-Y, they ain’t got no alibi.  They ugly! Problem is, in a place like Europe, offshore wind is in people’s back yards too, just as it is in, say, Massachusetts.  Folks don’t want offshore wind farms too close to shore.  They ruin the view, interfere with the commercial fishing, and make boating and other water activities less pleasant.  They also threaten the UNESCO world-heritage designations of beloved national landmarks, which are usually major tourist attractions and money-makers for local economies.

Mont St. Michel, site of the famous 8th-century monastery. Would you surround it with offshore wind turbines? (Photo credit: Giuseppe Citino)
Mont St. Michel, site of the famous 8th-century monastery. Would you surround it with offshore wind turbines? (Photo credit: Giuseppe Citino)


Moving the wind farms further offshore isn’t a solution, however.  Doing that just makes the electricity way too expensive per megawatt-hour for even the most power-hungry consumer or optimistic utility regulator.  Germany, which jumped into wind power with all 162 million feet, has been finding not only that residential consumers decline to support uneconomic electricity sources by keeping their grid-supplied energy use up, but that industrial users are being priced out of competition with foreign companies that have the advantage of cheaper energy.  In the meantime, overenthusiasm for offshore wind has already produced company closures, major layoffs, and idled capital in the German wind industry: a blow to tens of thousands of workers and investors in an already sluggish economy.

A looming choice

Europeans have a choice to make, and it isn’t going to wait much longer.  The privileged, subsidized position of “renewable” electric power is doing what it was supposed to in Europe:  driving out coal and nuclear power-generation sources.  Literally, it is driving them out: threatening to kill them, by making them impossible to run at a profit.  The reason is that, although coal and nuclear power generation are reliable, where wind and solar are not, coal and nuclear have the operational limitation that they can’t easily be cut back or shut down and then restarted.  They don’t degrade gracefully when demand is low.

Coal and nuclear are superb – reliable and cost-efficient – when they generate the power grid baseline, with natural gas and renewables adding power, either on-demand (gas) or when they can, given the weather conditions (wind and solar).  It doesn’t work the other way around, however.  Coal and nuclear produce too much power, and necessarily must produce too much, in a grid-infrastructure role, to function economically in the role of additional power sources.  It’s against their nature, at least in today’s technological conditions, to only be needed or available sometimes.

Of course, for self-appointed environmentalist zealots, this energy-market dynamic is a feature of the push for renewables, not a bug.  But renewables can’t actually supply all of Europe’s energy needs: not if Europeans expect to keep from freezing in the winter, or expect to keep lights on and things like hospitals, ethanol factories, and organic-produce stores running.  (Certainly not if they want to favor electric trains and electric cars over internal-combustion transportation.)

Forcing the unnatural on the energy market – forcing the power-grid baseline to the fluctuating level of what renewables can produce – is forcing a moment of choice on Europe: whether to drive out coal and nuclear altogether, or find a way to keep them in operation, knowing that the day will come when it’s too cold or dark to do without them.  Maybe gas will always be cheap and available.  But maybe it won’t.  Is it smart to rush away from coal and nuclear: to lose capacity by conscious choice, as if it’s easy and quick to get it back when you find out later that you need it?  Is it smart, in particular, when the public is so stubbornly resistant to the wind-turbine blight (and is also starting to notice the denuding of national-heritage lands for corn-ethanol production, among other downsides of renewable fuels)?

A turning tide?

Of course, America can ask herself the same questions.  But we haven’t yet started the breaking-wind process to quite the extent the Europeans have.  The latest news from Europa is that a chateau-owning couple in the Pas-de-Calais, on France’s North Sea coast, has won a judgment in court against a wind company that put up 360-foot, view-obstructing turbines near their property in 2007.  According to the couple:

“The first evening when we arrived in the chateau (from Anvers in Belgium) after their construction, it was a firework display; we wondered where these lights were coming from. We were not even aware that these (wind) projects existed,” Mrs Wallecan told Le Monde. Three huge turbines are visible when gazing across the park from the bay windows in the chateau’s grand salon. “Every day we have to suffer the visual and noise pollution. I can see the turbines from everywhere in the castle, from every room,” said Mr Wallecan.

A panel of French judges saw their point:

Judges in Montpellier ruled that the turbines’ location blighted the countryside, causing the “total disfigurement of a bucolic and rustic landscape”. Besides the turbines “spoiling the view”, the judges also cited the “groaning and whistling” and “unsightliness of white and red flashing lights”.

The judges ordered the wind company, GDF Suez, to remove the turbines and pay damages to the Wallecans.  (GDF Suez has appealed.)


Ferocious siege of the Ferrieres-Poussarou city hall, July 2012
Ferocious siege of the Ferrieres-Poussarou city hall, July 2012

This being France, there is of course some backstory, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it involves hostage-taking.  OK, technically, the event seems to have been more a matter of besieging city hall.  It didn’t make news across the pond, but has been a rallying incident for the French wind-resistance movement.

According to this report from 20 October 2013, last year, the citizens of the tiny hamlet of Ferrières-Poussarou “took hostage,” for a night and a day, their local city hall.  (This brief update gives the date as 10 July 2012.)   Their demand: an explanation for the proposed addition of 90 new wind turbines to their pastoral mountain redoubt in the Hérault, in the south of France near the Mediterranean border with Spain (author translation):

“The wind blows according to the interests [of profit],” complain Stéphane Quiquerez and Benjamin Veyrac, creators of the citizens’ group of Ferrières-Poussarou. …

The mayor’s error: having taken [gentle] lambs for sheep.  “Meekness is like a wooden beam, the more obvious it is, the more wary you should be,” goes a local saying.  So last year, as one man, the village [of Ferrières-Poussarou] took its city hall hostage, for a night and a day, “to demand explanations.” Intervention by law enforcement, a media uproar, close monitoring by the national police… It [all became] a devil’s chorus that enabled these madmen to wangle a meeting with the sub-prefect [a local official, one step above the mayor’s level], and to figure today in the debate.  Swelling like a flood, with the proliferation of wind farms, the local dispute has [become the defining] experience of a decade.  And [it has a defining] leader: Marcel Caron.  A former college president, this retiree has overturned four projects in the region with his group Hurlevent, affiliated with the [larger] collective Vent de colère [Wind of Anger], which battles all the way to the Conseil d’État [France’s Council of State].

Seriously, would you put a wind farm here? (View of Ferrieres-Poussarou looking toward the Mediterranean Sea.  Photo credit: RussP)
Seriously, would you put a wind farm here? (View of Ferrieres-Poussarou looking toward the Mediterranean Sea. Photo credit: RussP)

It bears noting, just because it’s so gallically charming, that the French call a wind farm a “parc éolien” – literally, Aeolian park – which is one of those linguistic delights that English, for all its adaptability, can never hope to offer. 

But at this point, no one can be certain where the wind wars will all end.  One thing’s for sure:  the final chapter hasn’t been written yet.  Keep your eye on Europe.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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6 thoughts on “Breaking wind: NIMBYs, hostages, and other woes from the European wind wars”

  1. Maybe gas will always be cheap and available. But maybe it won’t. Is it smart to rush away from coal and nuclear … as if it’s easy and quick to get it back when you find out later that you need it?

    Precisely. While coal and nuclear prefer to be base-loaded, gas is both easy and economical to run in load-follow (“peaking”) operation. Natural gas is a wonder fuel: clean, cheap to build plants and now, almost overnight, very cheap to operate – and that last attribute has it displacing coal and nuclear for base-load operation as well.

    The EPA would like to scrap coal, but market pressure from shale gas is assisting that objective. Nuclear is less environmentally problematic, but why take the legal and regulatory risks in an always uncertain political environment, when it is easy, cheap and safe to count on gas? So the happy development of cheap (for now) gas threatens not only “renewable” sources, but also the base-load energy mix that powered the industrial economies of the past half century. Ironically, in that same half century natural gas been more important to those same economies as a chemical feedstock, so that until relatively recently it has been too valuable to burn up for electricity (except as the load-follow component of a utility’s system).

    Here is an irony for us: We prefer markets to government for the efficient allocation of resources. Yet here is a case where current market conditions make a perfect storm with regulatory and political forces to jeopardize the security of base-load power generation. For any one utility, it’s hard to make a case to buck those forces – but, taken altogether, do we face a new Tragedy of the Commons?

    “Renewable” energy sources like wind or solar collectors are feeble attempts to collect solar energy directly, while the economical sources are those which let time and space do the collecting for us: For example, the solar energy captured in photosynthesis over eons in fossil fuels, or the water collected over space for hydro power. Market conditions for the “renewables” will change very little, while those for “non-renewable” fuels are subject, broadly speaking, to discovery and depletion. Clearly, government energy policies promoting “renewable energy” have been simplistic and misguided… but is there a place for government energy policy?

  2. ” is there a place for government energy policy”

    Of course there is but it’s not one that either democrats or republicans are pushing. That’s because each is partially right and partially wrong and too ideological to pursue the rational course. Wind’s variability and less than dense energy storage makes it an unsuitable energy source for industrialized economies. Solar’s daytime dependence and its certain obsolescence makes it unsuitable as well.

    Republicans are correct when they stress that we should be utilizing our most economically viable resources. That is for the immediate future our best bet. Democrats are correct when they stress that the future of the world’s civilization depends upon developing alternative energy sources. But they completely negate their position, when they ignore the pre-condition of practical economic viability.

    Natural gas is a viable energy source for the foreseeable future.

    The place for government energy policy is in research grants and favorable tax policies for the development of practical alternative energy sources. And for the creation of suitable rewards to encourage invention by individuals.

    Coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear fission reactors can, if necessary, power the world’s civilization for centuries to come. In the meantime, nuclear fusion research will eventually lead to a fundamental advance in that field, which shall be a ‘game changer’ in energy production.

    Nuclear fission is what we have today and we all know its negatives.

    Nuclear fusion is the process that powers the stars. Nuclear fusion reactors would be clean with no radioactive waste. They could be powered by Helium3 of which there is an abundance upon the moon. It’s on the surface and thus easily accessible. Scientists have estimated that one NASA space shuttle load full of HE3 could provide for the current energy needs of the US for 1000 years…

    Once nuclear fusion reactors are invented and developed, the solar system’s resources become available and just the asteroid belt alone contains astonishing levels of material resources. NASA reports that, ” It has been estimated that the mineral wealth resident in the belt of asteroids between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter would be equivalent to about 100 billion dollars for every person on Earth today.”

    Nanotechnology and super conducting materials will usher in a greater technological paradigm change than even computers. All of this is perhaps 50 years away. The technological problems we face are absolutely surmountable, it is man’s inhumanity to man wherein the challenge lies as it always has, just as a Jewish carpenter tried to explain 2000 years ago.

    1. GB, your comment is thoughtful and provocative, but I’m still not convinced that government should foster a policy of, say, mining the moon to meet prospective energy needs. IAC, the problems of the He3 reactor will probably be addressed only by a technical culture that has first mastered the H2-H3 reactor — and that, in turn, is likely to depend on the technical culture of fission at the other end of the binding energy curve [which is, BTW, the most important current source of H3 (and He3)].

      IOW, to a large degree, things evolve as our understanding of the issues evolves. [First rule of first-time engineering: Confidence is evidence that you don’t yet understand the problem.] When I said that for a utility “it is easy, cheap and safe to count on gas,” I intended no slight to nuclear power; “safe” referred to non-technical (political/legal/regulatory) issues that bedevil utility planners. I submit that when we think, “Nuclear fission is what we have today and we all know its negatives,” there may be less there than meets the eye. Compared to current alternatives (the only sensible measure), it is a safe and clean energy source for today, and possibly indispensable to the next step.

      Rather, my question was directed to the more immediate concern of possible over-dependence on cheap gas for base-load generation, in the context of TOC’s question about whether we can quickly recover the sources it displaces in the current climate: Kill an industry, and it may not readily spring back to life. Gas has so many positive attributes – easily transported, easily scalable (down to the kitchen stove), an alternative to petroleum derivatives for transportation, and still an indispensable chemical feedstock – that there is something unseemly in a policy of burning it up to make electricity that delivers less than a third of its energy to the light bulb.

      Yet its current price invites that profligacy, recalling the parable in which the Boston Commons became agriculturally useless because it was “free”. Moreover, though current shale extraction technology seems sound, I’m uneasy putting so many eggs in that basket. As the fate of bees reminds us, monocultures in any domain often carry unseen risks (Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns”). Diversity is sound policy, but may appear uneconomical to the individual producer. It is in that sense that there may be a role for government policy.

      1. Please forgive any lack of clarity on my part. Mining the moon for HE3 would only make sense after a practical, economically viable nuclear fusion reactor had been achieved. That is why I said we are perhaps 50 years away from that achievement and other advances I mentioned.

        In the meantime, “Coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear fission reactors can, if necessary, power the world’s civilization for centuries to come.” we should work with what we have and coal and nuclear fission are certainly part of our energy resources. And yes, the French have demonstrated for many years that nuclear fission’s negatives can be greatly ameliorated. That we haven’t adopted French advances and developed nuclear reactors is entirely due to the enviromental lobby and the MSM.

  3. So long as Barry and/or Hillary are in power, there will be massive efforts to diminish our use of our coal, hydro, oil and gas resources. They are in love with “change” and “innovation,” particularly where there is an opportunity to help destroy bad old America.

    1. That’s true. On the other hand would a Romney administration have implemented a “Manhattan style’ program to develop nuclear fusion?
      We know such a process is possible, all we have to do is consider the sun for but an instant.

      Would Romney have urged Congress to pass laws providing individual inventors attractive rewards and developmental assistance for successful inventions?

      Perhaps but had the GOP made that part of the Republican party’s platform (which Romney could have urged but did not) there would be no credibility to the claim that he and the Republicans oppose alternative energy research/development and do so because of entrenched conventional energy and transportation special interests.

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