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Increasing Political Risks of Onshore Wind Power - Selin Kumbaracı

In the energy transition away from fossil fuels, wind power is set to play an increasingly important role. This is particularly the case for northern European countries such as Sweden. However, public opinion seems to slowly be turning away from onshore wind power, especially when the situation becomes one wherein wind power is situated in opposition to the natural environment and landscape.

This is exactly what is happening in the village of Malung, in Sweden. While the plan to build 30 wind turbines on the nearby hill of Ripfjället has been approved by the local municipal council, the majority of residents are against the plan. According to a referendum held in Malung last year, only 44.6% of the village are in favor, with 52.1% opposing the plans.

Those who are in opposition broadly argue that the Ripfjället project would harm the natural environment and wildlife, in addition to potentially hurting local businesses if the wind turbines end up deterring tourists who come to see the natural sites—or as the ‘No to Wind Power on Ripfjället’ organization puts it, “Visitors to our area want to see nature, not noisy industrial sites.”

In other words, as the head of ‘No to Wind Power on Ripfjället’, Arne Söderbäck, has stated, “I am not against wind power, but this is not the place to develop it, (…) Build the turbines near the cities where the power is needed."

While the village of Malung is against this project specifically, it reflects a similar—if not as intense—trend that is taking place throughout Sweden, more broadly speaking. According to a survey conducted by Gothenburg University, the percentage of Swedes who want more wind farms has decreased by 15% in the past decade, going from 80% to 65%.

Given Sweden’s especially ambitious plan to move away from fossil fuels, where the entirety of its electricity will come from renewable sources by 2040, general faltering public support and specific local opposition pose a problem.

One proposal of how to deal with it comes from the Swedish Environment Minister, Per Bolund, who has suggested that the veto power of municipalities against wind farms be weakened in order to speed up the planning process of such projects, saying, “Of course people should be able to have their say when it comes to what is built where they live (…) But we must ensure that conditions are good to expand renewable electricity production in Sweden.”

Indeed, situations where the municipality has initially pointed out an area as being suitable for wind power only to veto the plan last minute can cost the companies involved a great deal of money, particularly on application documents. According to one expert, in a project with 15 wind turbines, such costs can amount to 10 million Swedish kronor (almost 1 million euros).

However, Bolund’s plan has its political dangers, potentially turning voters in areas like Malung against the current Swedish government—composed of Social Democrats and the Green Party—a year before national elections. The opposition, made up of the Moderates and Sweden Democrats, is beginning to question more and more the benefits of onshore wind farms. As Maria Stenergard of the Moderate Party has stated, “Renewables are important, but so is the natural environment.”

Sweden is not alone in facing such problems relating to the political risks of onshore wind power. Indeed, there have been protests in Germany and Norway against such onshore projects. Further south, in Turkey, there have also been objections against having wind farms built in areas such as the Mount Ida region, or Kaz Dağları as it is called in Turkish, due to the impact it would have on the natural environment and wildlife.

Across the Atlantic, wind power has come under attack for a different reason in the United States. Following the major power outages that have taken place in Texas throughout the past week, the state’s increasing use of wind power in electricity generation has been attacked—especially by conservative figures—as being the main cause of the blackouts, arguing that this incident demonstrates the unreliability of wind power. While the factual basis of this argument is not entirely sound, given the failures in other types of generation—including fossil fuels like coal and natural gas—public opinion may nonetheless be swayed against wind power.

On the other hand, it is worth mentioning that there are still examples of this debate taking place in the opposite direction, with local areas pushing for wind farms due to the potential economic benefits. One such case could be seen in the French village of Denting, where the locals are debating whether or not it is appropriate to build a wind farm on the site of a former Nazi camp where thousands of Soviet prisoners-of-war died.

While those against the wind farm argue it would be indecent and could risk disturbing the bodies still buried in the area, those in favor say that it is important to look toward the future, as well as highlighting the green energy that the project would produce for the village. The economic benefits are especially important for the municipality, given that the project could potentially bring in 42,000 euros in revenue.

Overall, the debate around onshore wind power seems to be heating up, with the politics surrounding it consequently getting riskier as well. It remains to be seen how much it will actually affect the governments in power. The Swedish general election next year could perhaps grant a more definitive idea of how these dynamics surrounding wind power play out.


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