Storm of protest over siting proposal -- Afsluitdijk solution branded ridiculous and absurd

Cabinet backing for a 300 MW wind farm to be built in the waters of the Wadden Sea and Ijsselmeer along the Afsluitdijk dyke has taken many in the Dutch wind community by surprise and has sparked fierce debate in the media. Originally launched amid a storm of controversy in 1997, the plans for the Inter-Provincial Project Windpark Afsluitdijk (IPWA) were last seen at the centre of a diplomatic spat between central and regional governments in March 2000, after which they disappeared in the corridors of bureaucracy.

A month ago, however, plans for a two phase project proposed by the Provinces of Friesland and Noord Holland in conjunction with local authorities of Wieringermeer, Harlingen and Woenseradeel received full cabinet backing and have now moved into the public consultation phase, where they have sparked a media furore.

In the first phase, a block formation of 49, 2 MW turbines will be built to the North of the Kornwederzand in the environmentally sensitive Wadden Sea. In the second phase, two rows of 60, 3 MW turbines are planned for both sides of the Afsluitdijk, which connects the provinces of Noord Holland and Friesland. Total costs are estimated at NLG 600-900 million, which compares with the NLG 450 million budget of the government's proposed 100 MW Near Shore Wind farm.

According to Jan Wittink, head of the IPWA core team, a two phase approach is to allow for possible developments in wind turbine technology. "Considering the problems of building wind plant on land, the Afsluitdijk project is absolutely necessary for the government and the provinces if they are to reach the targets set out in BLOW," says Wittink, referring to the National Administrative Agreement on Wind energy Development.

Under BLOW -- an agreement between all levels of government signed in July to make provision for 1500 MW on land by 2010 -- Friesland has covenanted to build 200 MW while Noord Holland has promised to make provision for 205 MW. Without IPWA neither province is likely to meet its target.

The social debate has got off to a lively start with protests against the wind plant's impact on one of Europe's unique landscapes being heard both at home and abroad. At a meeting of the international Waddenzee Group in Denmark in October, the Danish minister of energy and environment Svend Auken described the plans as "controversial," while a representative of the German World Wildlife Fund dismissed them as "ridiculous." At home, the decision to build in the Wadden Sea has united the Dutch conservationists -- nominally in favour of wind energy -- against the project. "Building 100 wind turbines in the most important bird area in north west Europe is just absurd," says Henk Peeters of the Dutch bird protection society.

"We have chosen to build in this location -- rather than simply in the IJsselmeer -- precisely to minimise bird kills," says Wittink. "The environmental impact report is very favourable, the plans meet nearly all the requirements of European guidelines on bird and habitat preservation. We have every confidence that we will be able to win any legal action brought by the environmentalists."

He admits, however, that winning the social argument will be no easy task. Even the Dutch wind community is divided. Jaap Langenbach of Wind Service Holland argues that the project is ill advised because it contravenes so many planning regulations and international agreements that it has little chance of being built. "It is an admission of failure -- an all or nothing attempt to reach their targets. But in this case it's going to be nothing," he says, alluding to the government's failure to make substantial progress towards its goal of building 1500 MW onshore by 2010. He further criticises the double row design as "ugly" and regards the planner's own avian mortality figure of 15,000 birds per year as a "guesstimate" which may prove disastrous if wrong. "If a rare bird species is affected by collision with a turbine, the whole project could be closed down," he cautions.

Spirited defence

Ada Wildekamp, parliamentary representative for Noord Holland and responsible for the province's wind planning policy, is adamant in her defence of the proposals. "As a government we are convinced that we have to do as much as possible to implement wind energy because at the moment it is the only form of renewable energy that is economically viable. In getting approval for our plans we had to prove that it would not be possible for Noord Holland to build 205 MW on land."

She also dismisses charges of horizon pollution. "The Afsluitdijk is a testament to Dutch engineering skills, a piece of Holland's glory. Adding wind mills makes it an even more typically Dutch landscape," she says. Nor is she fazed by the bird death argument. "The environmental impact report shows that only three species will be significantly affected by the turbines -- and for these species deaths will be in the region of a few hundred to a thousand a year. Against that you have to balance the wider social benefit of large scale wind energy production."

The project's environmental impact report will be officially presented to the regional authorities this month, after which the plans will be opened to public discussion. Central government will then seek EU approval for the project giving a realistic starting date for tendering of 2004 to 2005. "Whether the project will be opened for tender is still unresolved," says Jan Wittink. "The plan was originally worked out in conjunction with a power company and they would like to undertake its development, but there are other parties interested." The power company is Dutch power marketer Nuon in conjunction with regional utility ENW.