When it comes to choosing sites for wind farms, nature conservation is always the last thing to be considered, falling behind the price of land, proximity to power lines and opposition from locals, writes Luke Dale-Harris.
Luke Dale-Harris is a freelance journalist and media editor for Milvus Group, a Romanian ornithological and nature protection organisation.
[Correction: At the author's request, all references to RSPB in this article were changed to BirdLife.]
Even if the naysayers are right and they produce little else, wind farms most certainly generate debate. Doubts of their efficiency, cost, reliability and aesthetic impact are pitched against the fundamental need for a move to a cleaner form of energy production.
But the argument has become misplaced. In trying to deal with an issue that has come about due to our disregard of the natural world we live in, we have fallen again into an entirely human centric approach, our hands on our wallets and our eyes on our favourite picnic spots.
This is, of course, understandable. Money is tight, and the beauty of our countryside important. But, as wind farms will continue to be built, the result is that they are moved to areas where land is cheap, and human habitation scarce. Unfortunately, these tend also to be the areas where biodiversity is rich, and endangered species populous. In trying to keep renewable energy as inconspicuous and inconsequential as possible, we end up blighting the very thing we set out to protect.
New renewable energy developments in areas protected for nature conservation has become one of the most common environmental complaints at the European commission. That these two heavily funded EU environmental policies stand pitched against each other suggests a change of approach is desperately needed.
This incongruity is being played out at the moment in Romania, where over 5,000 wind farms are either built or consented In the Dobrogea area that borders the Black Sea.
The wind farms are evidence that Romania is genuinely committed to green energy. Once the turbines are all up, Romania will be one of the Europe’s most renewable energy dependent countries.
They are, however, also evidence that the government is little concerned for the conservation of its wildlife. Of the turbines to be built, over 752 will fall directly in Natura 2000 sites, areas protected under EU nature and biodiversity policy.
The Dobrogea area is one of the most heavily protected in Europe. This is, in large part, as it lies underneath the Dobrogea flyway, the busy migratory route that carries Lesser Spotted Eagles, Saker Falcons, white and black storks and many others through Romania, Bulgaria and down to the Bosphorus straights in Turkey.
According to assessments carried out by Milvus group, the effect of the wind farms on these passing birds could be devastating.
The same situation has been seen before in Spain and California where, over time, collisions with poorly sited turbines has bought the populations of larger birds, that have typically long life spans and low reproductive rates, down to critical levels.
But, for the moment at least, the Milvus’ assessment isn’t the one that matters. The official environmental impact assessments (EIAs) have given the developments the go ahead. Whether they can be trusted or not though is another matter. According to Marina Cazacu from the Romanian BirdLife organisation, the quality of EIAs is invariably very poor. "They are paid for by the investor," she says. "Mostly they just repeat what the company tells them- that there is no conflict between the development and the surrounding environment."
When it comes to choosing sites for wind farms, nature conservation is always the last thing to be considered, falling behind the price of the land, proximity to power lines and opposition from locals.
But the Romanian Ministry for Environment have been quick to accept the official EIAs on face value, eager not to lose the custom of the well subsidised and rapidly growing renewable energy industry.
Alternative assessments, opposing the wind farms, take much longer to process. They must be first considered by the Romanian environmental agency and then, if approved, taken to the European commission. Invariably, by the time this has been achieved, the turbines are up and spinning.
This was the case in Bulgaria last year, when the government finally capitulated under the pressure put on it by BirdLife and its Bulgarian partners, and passed a law prohibiting the construction of wind farms and solar parks in all Bulgarian Natura 2000 sites. "It’s a fantastic result for us," says Daniel Pullan from BirdLife, "but it comes too late, the wind farms are already up."
The Natura 2000 network was created under the pretext that Europe’s wildlife is a ‘shared heritage and its protection requires international cooperation’. But control over the sites is delegated to the member states that host them, and maintenance, funding and legal regulations change from country to country. As a result, the protection they offer falls to the whims of party politics and fluctuations in the economy. If challenging developments occurring within Natura 2000 sites to the European commission is such a convoluted and protracted process, it is difficult to see what purpose the sites serve at all.
The move to green energy is supported by much stronger central policy. The subsidies and advice given from Brussels have spurred rapid growth in the industry and at this point it looks set to meet and in many cases surpass the targets set for 2020. Biodiversity levels on the other hand have missed every target set out for them and, until the EU starts to give this less profitable form of environmental protection the same support as it does renewable energy, they will continue to do so.