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Bird deaths promt rethink on wind farming in Spain

larming new data linking wind farms to avian mortality stand to torpedo Spain's self-set target to turn the country into one of the biggest wind power producers in the world. The controversy, fuelled by an increasingly concerned environmental lobby, centres on the southern Tarifa area, home to the biggest grouping of turbines in Europe and temporary roost for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds on their way to and from Africa. The debate has prompted the European Union to re-examine its funding policy for more wind plants at Tarifa.

The findings, advanced by local conservation groups and independent experts pending publication of a long term study by the Spanish partner of the prestigious Birdlife International, indicate that the number of birds killed by the Tarifa turbines is far higher than originally believed. The data collected so far include telling photographs of decapitated vultures that had collided with some of the site's 269 wind turbines. The victims were among the corpses of 13 different species found at the wind farms, either killed on impact or by electrocution on power cables. All of the species found are protected by Spanish and European Union law and most of them were birds of prey.

The EU's Directorate General XI , which deals with environmental issues, has already reacted to complaints lodged with it about the impact of the Tarifa wind turbines on birds. Last month, confirms a spokesman, the directorate cautioned Spain in a letter to the energy ministry suggesting it review planned expansions of the wind farms until the long term bird study has been executed. Francisco Serrano, the director of Spain's renewables agency, the Institute for the Conservation and Diversification of Energy (IDAE), confirms a letter from DG XI was received by the pertinent authorities in Madrid warning that Brussels was planning infringement proceedings against Spain for environmental infractions at Tarifa. "It was very generic and contained a lot of contradictions which we pointed out in our reply. We have now been informed by the DG for energy that the complaint will be reduced to a reprimand," he says. "We also indicated how brakes on the wind industry here could prove detrimental to development in Spain and the rest of Europe."

The European Wind Energy Association (Ewea) has also stepped in on behalf of wind energy, pointing out to DG XI that studies of birds and wind turbines in the north of Europe have revealed that bird deaths are few. Ewea vice-president, Birger Madsen, says: "If there is a big problem at Tarifa it should be brought into the open for discussion. If we try to hide it -- and it turns out there really is a problem -- then we'll be doing what the nuclear industry has done for years. That just results in people regarding us with suspicion when there is no reason to. Let's look at the problem and what we can do about it." On present evidence he supports a pause in development at Tarifa until the full impact on the birds' habitat and migratory route are assessed.

The wind turbines at Tarifa were originally two wind farms -- the 20 MW Pesur project of Abengoa Wind Power (AWP) and Made machines and the 10 MW Energ’a E—lica del Estrecho of Ecotècnia and Made turbines. They were commissioned in early 1993. AWP is a joint venture between Spanish Abengoa and Kenetech Windpower (formerly US Windpower) and uses turbines built in Spain from a design supplied by US Windpower. Made is a subsidiary of national utility Endesa and Ecotècnia is a private company. The two Tarifa wind farms have now merged into one giant project, the Sociedad E—lica de Andaluc’a.

The environmentalists' view of the project, as perceived by the European Commission (EC), raises a number of concerns. The turbines are situated in a national park and according to environmentalists one of the two original sites lacked a proper impact study. Long term plans to expand the wind farm could see up to a total of 2000 turbines erected at the site. This, they charge, would prove devastating for the resident and migratory birds. And even now, the EC is considering possible infringement proceedings over the Tarifa turbines since they allegedly violate Bird Directive 79/409/EEC which protects certain species, including all the raptors and storks that pass through Tarifa.

"I have found a total of five dead raptors at the windmills in only six visits," says Cristina Parkes, a seasoned English bird enthusiast at Tarifa. "Twice I've found griffon vultures directly under the windmills. I also found an Egyptian vulture and two griffon vultures by the electrical pylons. The Egyptian vulture was a juvenile, ringed and marked for identification by a group in Spain's Basque Country before it migrated." The significance of Parkes' observations is that on every visit to the wind farms, with only one exception, she has found a dead bird. Other species killed at Tarifa include an Eagle Owl, White Storks, Lesser Kestrels and Red Kites. A random corpse count of griffon vultures stands at around 30.

The birds stop over at Tarifa before and after the long trek to the 14 kilometer-wide straits between Africa and Europe where they rest and feed before making the crossing. Most, including the raptors, are soarers; birds too large to get much propulsion out of flapping and, like gliders, greatly dependent on thermal updrafts which are only available on land and not over water. Tarifa not only provides the updrafts but has the added attraction of affording the shortest possible route between the two continents -- the entire estimated complement of Western Europe's 350,000 soaring birds migrate via Tarifa. The birds, guided to Tarifa by instinct or drawn in flocks, have no other place to cross. "They often have to wait in the area for the right wind and weather conditions, increasing the likelihood of colliding with the windmills which are now covering the area where they traditionally gathered," says Parkes.

Her findings have been corroborated by conservation organisations, including a regional federation grouping 13 associations and other experts who prefer to remain anonymous so as not to jeopardise the long term impact study. They believe the number of victims could be much higher than the original counts suggest given the sheer bulk of birds that migrate via Tarifa. Ornithologists claim that larger numbers of corpses are not found at Tarifa since the birds are ravaged by wild predators, vermin or feral dogs.

Findings questioned

Members of the wind industry involved with the Tarifa projects question the findings of the conservationists. It has also been suggested that a political power struggle between the environment and energy directorates in Brussels is behind the gathering storm. The energy directorate, DG XVII, declines to comment on the whole Tarifa issue. Both the managing director of the Sociedad E—lica de Andaluc’a, Fernando Rodr’guez Vizcaino, and AWP director Tomas Andueza claim the death count from last year was never higher than 12 all told. Other figures are as low as two. "This is nothing compared to the number of birds flying through here," says Andueza. "We took inordinate precautions. By law we were not obliged to carry out impact studies but we did, burying the power cables and making a concerted effort to respect the environment -- with regard to not only birds but also other fauna, the flora, visual impact and noise. We complied with the regional government's environmental conditions in every possible way. And it cost us a fair penny over the original budget."

It is the Pesur wind farm, hosting the AWP and Made turbines, that most concerns the conservationists. "My information is that no real impact study regarding the birds was carried out," claims Carlos Sunyer of Spanish Ornithological Society (SEO), the organisation now charged with carrying out the long term study. "Despite what has been said, all that was done was a field study of the species and number of birds that funnelled through on their way to the straits." The biologist who carried out the study on the birds at the Pesur farm, Professor Manuel Fern‡ndez Cruz of Madrid's Complutense University, says: "What I did was to inform on the fauna likely to be affected." Environmentalists claim that Fernandez Cruz's report is being flaunted as a full-blown impact study to ward off criticism.

On the other hand, the Energ’a E—lica del Estrecho site where SEO says fewer accidents have been detected, was submitted to deeper research before construction. According to Antoni Mart’nez of Ecotècnia, one of the Spanish companies with turbines at the site, the lot of the birds was taken into consideration right from the farm's inception. "Biologists were called in from the nearby Doñana national nature reserve. Following their instructions we spent a lot of money and effort. We re-routed the access road, buried some 17 kilometers of cables and did everything possible to reduce the impact on the environment, with emphasis on the plight of the birds," says Mart’nez.

Halt to development

Action by the EU might not only affect the existing wind farms, but stymie current plans to increase the number of turbines in the area, not least by cutting off financial support for future projects. All major wind projects in Spain have been supported by the EU. Two more wind farms consisting of a total of 112 turbines, to be developed by Elsam Project and Nordtank of Denmark and by AWP are well into the planning stage. AWP has all the permits required for its 100, 300 kW machines and will commence building this year, although Nordtank's permits for 12, 500 kW units have been delayed. Both stood to benefit from a financial package to be released 1994-1999 for the development of under privileged EU areas, but if the projects now standing prove hazardous to the environment, it's unlikely the EU will invest in new ones. In fact, the EC is already re-examining its funding stance for future expansions of the Tarifa wind farms.

A "no" to more wind turbines at Tarifa would put a dent in Spain's ambitious wind power plans, at least in the short term. Surveys have long championed Tarifa as underpinning the country's wind energy goals, with the end-of the century official target for Tarifa standing at 130 MW, over 75% of the 168 MW goal for all of Spain. And long term plans for Tarifa contemplate installing a large portion of the 600 MW programmed for Andalusia, the regional community Tarifa is situated in. If the conservationist's view wins out, planners might soon be forced to look elsewhere if Spain is to keep to its ultimate goal of installing 2400 MW nationwide.

So far there is still a considerable willingness on all sides to find a solution. "We support all alternative energies," says Juan Luis Gonz‡lez of the Pacifist-Environmental Federation, based in the city of Cadiz. "But in the case of wind energy in Tarifa, many problems exist, and it is necessary to develop a solution before construction of new wind farms, so we have asked for a moratorium." SEO's Sunyer is of the same mind: "Without exception all conservation groups in Spain support wind power. There should be no misunderstanding there. But it must be accepted that windmills can be dangerous to birds and at Tarifa the problem is magnified because of where the farms are situated. Solutions must be site specific and until the long term study is completed speculation about these is pure conjecture."

Lapse of memory

The mood at IDAE, is conciliatory. According to director Serrano, there was no negligence on the part of the developers, or on that of the local or regional governments regarding the birds. "I think everybody did their best to ensure that the environmental impact was kept to a minimum at Tarifa. What I think happened was that there was a very unfortunate lapse of memory. Nobody thought about the migratory birds. Only the resident fauna was taken into consideration. "

As a spokesman for the nascent wind industry in Spain, Serrano is appealing to all sides to review their positions: "We are the last to want to destroy the industry by irresponsible actions and we are the first to support a delay in future expansions while an in-depth study is carried out. " AWP's Andueza agrees: "The issue of the birds cannot be minimised, but at the same time it must not be exaggerated beyond the reality of the facts. " Wind farm director Rodr’guez Vizcaino adds: "Hopefully, the impact study will provide a solution acceptable to all. "

Financed by the regional government's environmental department, the study should be ready by the end of 1994, but is unlikely, according to observers, to return a positive verdict on the Tarifa wind plants as they stand today. Meanwhile, the town council of Tarifa, the sleepy, wind-swept town of 15,000 which wind surfers put on the map long before the first turbine was erected, is coping with dozens of requests to erect wind farms. In dealing with the sudden interest in its barren -- and until now largely unproductive terrain -- it is carrying out an ordinance survey of the municipality to map out the areas where the wind plants can best be situated. That too will be ready by the end of 1994. Until then, the industry will have to sit tight to see which way the wind will blow.

Alicia Watts Hosmer is an Environmental Attorney with ICF, International, a Fairfax, Virginia-based consulting firm in the US. She is currently on leave of absence studying the avian mortality problem in Tarifa.

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