New area snarled in local opposition

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While the Castile and León government tries to usher about 3000 MW of new wind power into areas of low environmental impact, ecologist groups fear that more of the region's environmentally sensitive hilltops will be handed over to developers

The central-north region of Castile and León is Spain's last big region where the wind power potential has yet to be divvied up among industry players. The combined capacity of project applications seeking government approval has soared from the around 6000 MW registered when the region's wind development strategy plan came into force in autumn 1999, to today's 20,000 MW -- with new contenders still registering their interest. Castile and León is seeking a mere 2980 MW.

By March, the region had 425 MW on-line, 197 MW building and a further 347 MW authorised. The regional industry department says 124 MW of new capacity went up last year. Fernando Ferrando of the local wind group, Asociación de Promotores Eólicos en Castilla y León (Apecyl), says there is "real reason to view the future with optimism." Just over a year ago, Apecyl was complaining that the rate of development was dangerously slow and that development applications might well be withdrawn unless the government got a move on with realising its strategy plan.

Castile and León's regional government, or Junta, is now hacking away at its 20,000 MW bottleneck. Industry department director, Carlos Escudero, is optimistic that the plan's objective will be reached. Indeed, the Junta has every reason to make sure it is reached. According to Manuel Ordóñez of Castile and León's energy agency, Ente Regional de la Energía (EREN), 2500-3000 MW is enough to create massive local investment and around 2500 direct jobs, 9000 indirectly. The Junta's determination to see the plan realised is reflected in a recent declaration by industry minister, Jose Luis González. He expects Castile and León to become Spain's largest wind power producing region within about two years.

Such assurances are helping regional wind players breathe more easily. All major suppliers of wind turbines to the Spanish market have signed industrial contracts with the regional government. Spain's own Ecotècnia is currently delivering 99 MW of its 750 kW machine to the region's largest development to date, in Párramo de Poza. It is also putting the finishing touches to a tower fabrication facility in Zamora province. Utility Endesa's turbine affiliate, Made, whose only factory in Spain is in the Castile and León town of Medina del Campo, has clinched the first two deals for its 1.3 MW machine in the region (page 24). And Spain's largest turbine manufacturer, Gamesa Eólica, has turbines totalling 290 MW already turning in the region -- 43.6 MW of which was developed by sister company Gamesa Energía -- and a blade making facility there. From overseas, Enron Wind and NEG Micon have consolidated industrial plans for the region, according to a year-old EREN report, which also said that Nordex and DeWind have negotiated contracts.

Few problems

Escudero's optimism is partially based on the decision by wind developers to mainly go for sites where environmental impact will be kept to a minimum. Some 80% of projects are proposed for areas of "low" or "medium" environmental sensitivity. Not only will this help speed developments through the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) stage, but it will also promote the use of higher capacity turbines designed to efficiently capture energy in low winds. The development of these turbines will give Castile and León a technological lead, he says.

With more than enough grid capacity to cope with the plan's objectives, Escudero says construction of interconnection lines and substations are the only remaining hurdle. Collaboration with national grid operator Red Eléctrica Española (REE) is "excellent," he adds. A year ago, however, REE's Luis Martin said he felt the region's installed wind capacity goal was too high, given that the national grid can only accommodate 10,000 MW of wind. Today the grid operator declines to comment on the situation in Castile and León.

Not binding

Despite the industry and government optimism, environmental and neighbourhood groups, operating from a platform dubbed the Mesa Eólica, are not happy. Over the past two years the Mesa has complained about the regional plan and specific projects, especially those in Burgos province by developer Corporación Eólica SA (CESA), the region's largest wind plant operator. CESA has 171 MW turning in Castile and León, 48 MW of which is in areas of extreme sensitivity. Until recently it was also developing three further projects in areas with the same environmental designation, grouped near existing plant in Burgos and totalling 84 MW. All were rejected last month on environmental grounds.

The rejection is possible because the Castile and León wind plan does not have decree status, as in some other regions. It is just a co-ordination and consultative tool, the sum of nine provincial documents co-ordinated by EREN. Their original purpose was to establish environmental criteria for processing wind development applications, rather than forming the basis of a regional wind strategy. The mainstay of the nine plans is their categorisation of the entire region into four layers of environmental sensitivity: low, medium, high and extreme.

Escudero explains that a non-legally binding plan offers flexibility for studying exceptional cases in more environmentally sensitive areas. As it stands, the plan allows for wind projects even in extreme sensitivity areas, provided they can prove exceptional wind resources and a contribution to the local economy. The Mesa counters that the around 45 MW already turning in areas of extreme sensitivity -- mostly in Burgos -- can hardly be called an exception. Nonetheless, the group's Carlos Palma insists the Mesa is supportive of wind power, "as long as development is subject to appropriate industrial regulation."

Indeed, in a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) study for Castile and León, the regional wind plan is castigated for "lack of early public participation, the lack of adequate notification mechanisms, and the lack of rigour with which the assessment was carried out." Mainly the plan "did not meet its main objectives of assessing the potential environmental impacts of alternatives for the development of wind farms in the region."

Between two stools

Palma believes the Junta is increasingly finding itself between two stools. First, it is under pressure to approve projects presented prior to the wind plan, many of which were in sensitive hilltops and most of which are also linked with industrial agreements, he says. Second, the government must gain public support for such a visible energy source. Ferrando also sees this as "fundamental" and rests much hope for future development on an intensive public information campaign in conjunction with EREN.

Which stool the Junta will plump for is a main question facing regional wind development. The refusal of a permit for CESA's 84 MW in Burgos came as a surprise to the Mesa, which feels the decision could be a sign of more environmental sensitivity from the government. But the Mesa is not about to let up on its campaign against wind development in environmentally sensitive areas, (box). And with only 14% of the regional wind plan's objectives on-line, the fight over Castile and León's wind resource may well have only just begun.

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