Prosperity arrives in the winds of change

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The story of the Spanish town of La Muela is of how wind power and a young and visionary mayor came together as the catalyst that ignited a barely surviving and almost forgotten community and turned it into a thriving hub of economic activity. One of the arguments in support of wind energy is that it creates jobs in outlying and often depressed regions. We sent

Tor Eigeland to find out what that actually means in practice

Halfway between Barcelona and Madrid on the high-speed four-lane Nacional II highway in the Spanish region of Aragón lies the busy urban sprawl of Zaragoza, invariably passed in thunderous traffic. Out on the other side, dirección Madrid, the scenery is almost desert-like, with dreary industrial complexes dotted along the road. Some 20 kilometres farther on the vista changes dramatically, becoming almost surrealistic. We are nearly in La Muela.

Curving and rising into an arid, mountainous and strangely beautiful area of Spain, the highway soon brings you within sight of a myriad of spinning white rotors that loom above the hilltops. Keep a sharp eye out for a sign on the right: La Muela -- Cambio de Sentido (change of direction). At this point a traveller can turn around and go back to Zaragoza, or bear hard right to La Muela, a small and windswept old town, where it gets very hot in summer and biting cold in winter.

Just out of the Ebro Valley, the town lies at an altitude of 600 metres above sea level. What grabs the attention now are not the lovely carpets of olive trees. It is the forest -- or forests -- -- of swirling wind turbine rotors reaching almost as far as the eye can see. The locals here call them molinos -- windmills. They would provide a dream battleground for any mad Don Quixote.

Thriving activity

The scene is more than surrealistic, it verges on the bizarre. In the forest of molinos way in the distance looms an enormous black Toro, one of the giant silhouettes of bulls that figure on many a Spanish hilltop. From this far away it looks like a real, gigantic bull, but closer up its supportive scaffolding is visible. In truth these spectacular bulls were originally advertisements for Osborne brandy. Now they are considered a national treasure.

Closer to the little town another type of forest starts to dominate the panorama: rows of building cranes marking construction sites for new homes, new low apartment buildings, and a gleaming new Plaza de Toros (bullring). Above it all, near and far, the wind turbines are busily churning. There are 340 wind turbines, making up one of the largest wind power stations in the world. With a combined capacity of 225 MW they are generating not only clean power, but new life in La Muela.

A sign on a smart new building, a long, one-storey structure in the town, reads: "This residence was inaugurated on June 13, 2002 with the aim of taking care of one of the most important values of La Muela -- its old people. So that they can live with dignity and so that they can stay in their own home town, and so that they can experience the affection of the people who have taken over from them. Being mayor of this town, [signed] Doña Victoria Pinilla Bielsa." A young nurse passing by says with a big smile: "Thanks to the wind and a great mayor!" She is referring to the building's very existence.

The mayor

Doña María Victoria Pinilla Bielsa -- or Mariví as the enthusiastic mostly young staff of the town hall call their mayoress -- is a casual, friendly, no-nonsense sort of character. Her young eyes are brilliantly expressive. Somehow she also makes it clear that getting on the wrong side of her would be a bad idea. She has been mayoress for 17 years, since 1987. "Almost as a joke I put myself up for election, never thinking I might win. And I won! I ran as an independent. I've always been independent," she laughs. "That way I can criticise everybody."

So what is the story with these forests of wind turbines? "When I arrived here, Gamesa came with some Danish material as we're in a zone of a lot of wind. We started to negotiate and came to a simple agreement. They came and made their installation of 16 wind turbines. In total five companies have sown their molinos out there ...." She points towards the fields of wind turbines.


Direct and indirect income from what has since become 340 wind turbines has vastly enriched La Muela and the population has shot up from a steady 800 or so to 3500 in just a few years. La Muela started the 20th century with 729 inhabitants and ended the century with 1136. So the 21st century growth has been sudden, to say the least.

The catalyst for the town's new found economic activity was the fortuitous coming together of La Muela's visionary and energetic young mayor and a young wind industry of great potential. One without the other and La Muela would most likely have remained a declining and forgotten village in the Aragón hinterland.

Of the 340 turbines, 198 are sited on town hall land. Each pays an annual land rent -- for 50 years. The remaining 148 are on land owned privately by La Muela citizens, who also receive rental income. The size of the sum is not something they talk about, but Javier Mur from the town hall proudly showing off the wind facility, says it is about EUR 1800 a year. Taxes on income generated by La Muela's wind power business (there are five separate wind plant operating companies) and associated activities flow into the town hall's coffers alongside the direct income from the wind plant, including tax on sales of electricity to Endesa, income taxes paid by locals working on project construction or in operations and maintenance, and taxes paid by the owners of shops, hotels, garages, builders, and all the other businesses that have expanded to keep up with the demands of the local wind industry. Not least of these is the explosion of housing and building construction. In round figures, the town estimates that direct and indirect income from La Muela's wind powered economic activity amounts to EUR 11 million a year.

A good place to live

The word has got around that La Muela is a good place to live. Nearly all the public services are free and there are lots of them. The old peoples' residence is just one. La Muela has one of the finest sports complexes in the region, health care is excellent, a new school is planned, well-designed parks are dotted all around, inside and outside the town. A new town hall is just about completed.

Among the more exotic perks for citizens is the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Every autumn Mariví invites any La Muela resident who wants to come along to fly off to the Caribbean. They pay what is little more than a token sum towards expenses. When on October 21 last year a jumbo jet hired by the mayoress took off from the Zaragoza airport with 410 locals bound for Cancun, Mexico, it created a national as well as a Mexican sensation. It was only the second time a Boeing 747 had taken off from Zaragoza with passengers -- and when the same plane landed on its return eight days later it was a first. Reportedly, the group had a wonderful time, while María Victoria Pinilla managed to work on improving relations between the Mexican state of Quintana Roo and La Muela.

She is eager to talk about her plans for La Muela. "We're at 3500 now. And we're going to grow a lot more. I think that in about eight years we'll arrive at 30,000," she says. Revenues from the first municipal taxes to start flowing from the wind farms was ploughed into the infrastructure for a four-square kilometre industrial estate. Nearly all the plots are already sold to a variety of business, ranging from heavy steel and metal working, through transport, general services, computers and wires and cabling. "People will mostly come from Zaragoza and they are already building homes here in La Muela," says María Victoria Pinilla. The attraction of La Muela's industrial park lies in its relatively low rental prices -- thanks to the wind generated down payment on the infrastructure -- and the convenient geographical location: near Zaragoza and on the main road to Barcelona.

Preserving a balance

La Muela's dedicated mayoress is focused on getting the balance right between rapid growth and preserving La Muela's soul. "We are only twenty-three kilometres from Zaragoza, right on the Barcelona-Madrid highway, so even if we didn't want any progress it is inevitable. What I have tried to do is leave the old village centre; I have tried to leave it as it is -- a village with a village atmosphere," she says.

"The new residents will be settled around the industrial zone about three kilometres from the centre. They will also be Muelanos [as the locals call themselves] but the life of the village will not be disturbed as it will be all spread out. As you can see we are restoring some of the old parts of town so they will be exactly as they were."

Preserving the past is far from her sole interest. "And now I want to construct housing for 200 young people. Cheap but good. And a very important project is a big golf course, a riding school, and a new school will open, hopefully in September." Awaiting permission from the slow-moving Spanish bureaucracy, is a new private university to be called Universidad de Aragón. It will specialise in studies not available at the university in Zaragoza.

Not that María Victoria Pinilla has forgotten about wind power. The regional government of Aragón has called a halt to further development of large wind farms until the grid infrastructure and utilities in the region can catch up with the wind industry's demands. But she wants La Muela to own at least some wind turbines for itself. "In July, on a piece of land that we own we have started building a municipal wind park. All with our own money. No national or international companies will be involved. The electricity produced by this park will be deducted from the electricity bills of the local residents," she says. But even a mayoress has her fair share of red tape to wade through. "Bureaucracy has been slowing us down. I have fought a paper battle for about three years now but I just got the permit.... We hope to inaugurate our own wind park of four turbines at Christmas." The machines are being supplied by Gamesa.

A wind museum

Until the arrival of the present mayoress and the wind turbines, La Muela was not famous for anything except its excellent olive oil. The new Museo del Aceite de La Muela -- the Museum of Olive Oil -- proudly honours the history of the area up until the time when La Muela became a Mecca of renewable energy. The building has now been joined by a Museo del Viento -- Museum of the Wind, 18 years after the first modern wind turbine was installed by Gamesa for Electricas Reunidas de Zaragoza. The museum was dedicated by María Victoria Pinilla on June 13.

"The wind has given La Muela a lot. Now La Muela wants to return to the wind some of what it has received, offering to the people a didactic, technological and cultural centre. I'm sure that this step forward will be of great help for the future of this town as we have placed ourselves in the vanguard and have become a centre of attention and interest," she says. At a cost of EUR 2.4 million this monument to the wind is built in the shape of an inverted keel of a boat, appropriately facing a forest of wind turbines. The interior displays are placed in airy bright spaces, inventive and easy to understand.

The rapid pace of progress inevitably has its cost and many say that La Muela is growing too fast. Village priest Angel Alares Diaz is worried. "We watch people in the streets and realise that the majority of them we don't know. Naturally this is inevitable, but what we miss is the greeting, the hola that we all exchanged when we met in the street. It wasn't just a courtesy, it was a sign of true affection and fondness and this is something we are losing, not only among the people who come from outside but even between the young people of our own town."

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