Home / General / Who Pays for Wind Energy?

Who Pays for Wind Energy?


eolica 8 santiago

There’s an argument to be made that the issue of climate change is so important, with such horrible potential to transform the planet, that nothing should stand in the way of the transition to clean energy. The reality is that such a statement is overly simplistic because “nothing should stand in the way” means a lot of people get run over. But I get the sentiment. And to some extent I agree. But who pays for energy projects? There’s very little history of local residents ever winning in energy development of any kind. This is a highly capitalized and centralized extractive industry that leaves little room for traditions or democracy. But that means people lose. And inevitably it is poor people and usually people of color losing and corporations, rich nations, and white people winning, reinforcing the structural and overt racism that runs through the United States and most of the rest of the world. The history of oil, coal, and natural gas are full of these stories and are some of the world’s most horrifying and exploitative industries today, as I have repeatedly documented here and in Out of Sight. Nuclear reactors were placed next to people with very little democratic consent. And hydropower forces many people from their homes, often Native Americans and small farmers in the American context. All of these energy projects come at a pretty severe social cost, reinforcing and exacerbating inequality. Whether they are worth it or not is another question, but one most of us are happy to say that it is worth it because we reap all the benefits and pay little to none of the costs.

It’s no different with wind energy. Where do wind turbines go? Who pays? Do people receive fair value for their land? Because wind, like most energy forms, appears in usable forms only in certain parts of the globe, at least to the extent of making it worth the heavy capital investment, resistance to it is also localized. Sometimes this is actually affecting the wealthy, such as those with homes on Cape Cod who don’t want offshore wind turbines in their viewsheds. But most of is will likely replicate the same dispossession of the poor we have seen with other energy regimes. That is certainly what is happening in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, where the geology has created a big wind tunnel in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Multinational corporations, in conjunction with a Mexican government that has basically no interest in considering the plight of the poor in any conceivable way, have moved heavily into the Isthmus, greatly angering many locals who bear all of the costs and receive none of the benefits of this wind energy. That they have effectively contributed nothing to climate change, often to the point of still farming with oxen and not using chemicals, makes the fact they bear the burden all the more problematic.

November 2012. The consortium Mareña Renovables aims to build the largest wind farm in Latin America in the Barra de Santa Teresa, in San Dionisio del Mar, Oaxaca. The Barra is a strip of land that forms the top and bottom lagoon which is connected to the sea in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. In this land, the indigenous Zapotec community Binni Záa and the indigenous Huaves Ikojts, together with the community of Alvaro Obregon, opposed the project.

What was first known as Mareña Renovables project (?)has changed its name and its form several times. The Spanish energy company, called the Preneal group, who had signed exploration contracts and obtained the permits from the state government, sold the rights to the project for $89 million to FEMSA, a subsidiary of The Coca-Cola Company and Macquarie Group, the largest investment bank in Australia. These companies quickly sold part of their stake to Mitsubishi Corporation and Dutch pension fund PGGM, signing at the same time a power purchase agreement with FEMSA-Heineken for 20 years.

They also sought to speculate with the reduction of 825,707 tons of carbon dioxide a year, equivalent to the emissions of 161,903 cars.

“Mother Earth is sick, the disease is global warming. They want to profit with the same disease that they have caused Mother Earth. Under the pretext of reducing global warming, they come to our territories to control our forests, mountains, our sacred places and our water,” said Carlos Sanchez, a self-defined Zapotec community member who participated in the resistance against the installation of wind farm in Barra Santa Teresa Park and the installation of a park by Gas Natural Fenosa in Juchitan de Zaragoza.

Sanchez is also founder and member of the Totopo community radio station , created as a need to report on megaprojects in the region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. During an intermission of his radio programming, we asked Sanchez about what the Zapotec people know about the CDM. “It is a discourse between businessmen. They are labels exchanged between companies to justify their pollution and are do not explain anything to indigenous peoples” he says.

“Could we, with our forests, also sell carbon credits, bypassing these companies? Who will buy? It is no coincidence that only those who understand these mechanisms are the only ones who benefit as employers and the state.” In addition, he states: “We do not even benefit from the energy produced. If you walk by the communities you will notice what the clean development they have brought consists of, and I challenge one of the owners of the companies to see if they want to live in the midst of these turbines. ”

Following the demonstrations made by indigenous peoples, on 8 May 2013, the Secretary of Tourism of the state of Oaxaca, José Zorrilla Diego, announced the cancellation of the proposed Renewable Mareña in the Barra de Santa Teresa. Shortly after the announcement of the cancellation, the state government said the project would continue in other areas of the Isthmus.

Resistance can lead to an isolated victory but the war is very much still on. The Mexican government’s response to this resistance is its typical response to grassroots opposition–harassment, intimidation, shutting down radio stations, using legal means to throw poor people off their land or push forward with the project without even telling local people, many of whom do not speak Spanish, that they are even occurring. In other words, the creation of large-scale wind energy in Oaxaca is a tremendously undemocratic and unjust process.

Now, you can say this is worth it because “we” need the wind energy so badly. But who will really receive the benefits from this energy? What responsibility do we have to ensure that our energy is produced without oppressing others? What about our companies that are investing in Mexico and using that energy there? What responsibility do we have to hold them accountable? What compensation should people receive for necessary energy projects that affects them in awful ways? These are all questions we should not only be asking but also searching for real answers.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Denverite

    My understanding was that in the US most wind turbines are put on farmland, which I always assumed was owned by relatively wealthy individuals or agribusiness? (I may be basing this too much on my personal experience driving back and forth between Denver and Chicago and seeing the massive wind farms in Iowa.)

    • On the Plains, it is happening with the consent of the owners, yes. Mostly, they are happy to make any kind of money possible off their land and it doesn’t stop them from farming too much of it.

      • ploeg

        The land owners also don’t mind very much if the wind power helps their electric bill, which can be considerable (grain drying, livestock facilities, etc.). And it’s also popular locally with the maintenance jobs that windmills provide. Cheap electricity is good for a local economy.

        Matters are a little different when they start proposing HVDC power lines to send the cheap electricity directly to metro areas.

    • There was a wind farm being built off the coast in Massachusetts, though I think it’s stalled.

      • Lee Rudolph

        Cape Wind, in Nantucket Sound. It “stalled” with considerable help from rich folks on Cape Cod whose view it would have impinged upon, including the Kennedy family and David Koch (which latter may perhaps have had other motivations as well).

        However, the one offshore of Block Island, RI, appears to be on schedule.

        • joe from Lowell

          Do you mean the designation of the Wind Energy Area, or is there a particular project off Block Island in addition to that federal designation?

          • Lee Rudolph

            I’ve been out of the house, and am now rushing off again. This is what I’m talking about; the link is not guaranteed to be responsive to your questions.

            • joe from Lowell

              Awesome, that’s an individual project being built, not just the designation.

              It’s also not in the Wind Energy Area, which contains a “Block Island Shelf” part, but is well to the east of the Block Island Wind Farm site. Hence my initial confusion.

    • Area Man

      Roughly half of all land area in the continental US is cropland, ranch land, or timberland. Even if you just plucked down wind turbines at random, half would end up on farms of some sort. Because they aren’t placed at random, nearly all are.

      As mentioned, most farmers absolutely love this because the footprints are relatively small and the rents are excellent. There is no reason for this to be a problem. If there is a problem in Mexico or elsewhere, it’s a particular political problem, not one endemic to wind energy.

  • sibusisodan

    That’s very thought-provoking.

    I’d appreciate it if you could expand on “will likely replicate the same dispossession of the poor we have seen with other energy regimes.”

    Is it the case that the most promising wind sites are, on average, possessed by poorer people, or is it that – all else equal – it’s easier to to build there than do an end run round the wealthy?

    • In the U.S., for the most part, wind farms are not primarily being built in poor communities. This is largely because of where high winds are located–the West and the Great Plains, where you have landowning farmers happy to make more money or in some cases it is public land, and the coasts, where rich people have homes. But where U.S. companies are investing in wind outside the United States is something very much worth watching, as we are seeing in Oaxaca. And yes, when possible, companies prefer to build near people who do not have the power to resist. This is at the core of environmental racism, where companies intentionally target communities of color for toxic waste dumps and the like.

      • sibusisodan

        Thanks. That’s helpful.

        I can imagine a situation where ‘lots of wind’ plus ‘well how many lawyers can they hire anyway?’ is not going to end well.

      • addicted44

        Is there a reasonable argument to be made along the lines of wind not having as negative effects as nuclear, coal, natural gas and the like?

        In support of this point, you see farmers allowing for the installation of wind turbines on their lands while you would never see them allowing for the installation of generators from those other sources of energy (unless they sell off their land to the company).

  • ajay

    Worth making the point that the benefits of these projects, if they are successful, will also go disproportionately to the world’s poor – because they are the ones who stand to lose most if climate change starts to have catastrophic effects. The poor are more likely to live on marginal land which is at risk from sea level rise, flash floods, landslides etc.r They spend more of their income on food and are therefore far more exposed to spikes in food costs. They are less likely to have good medical care and are thus more at risk from emerging diseases. If they have to move, they will become penniless climate refugees. If resource pressures lead to conflicts over (for example) water resources, they will take most of the damage. And so on.

    • sibusisodan

      will also go disproportionately to the world’s poor – because they are the ones who stand to lose most if climate change starts to have catastrophic effects

      I was trying to figure out something like this – and it’s correct, sure, but lacks a certain something.

      Because we don’t have to site wind farms in areas which disproportionally impact the poorest. We can get lots – most? – of the benefits of wind power, without selling out the poor too.

      • ajay

        Because we don’t have to site wind farms in areas which disproportionally impact the poorest. We can get lots – most? – of the benefits of wind power, without selling out the poor too.

        Well, for a start, the “impact” of wind power is far less severe than the impact of conventional or hydropower. No one is getting their village flooded because of a windfarm, or getting to live downwind of a fly ash plume. The biggest impact in the article is “they’re building a wind farm near me and I’m not seeing any money from it!”

        And the places where you want to build windfarms will tend to be places where there’s a lot of constant wind, up in the mountains. Poor farming country, in other words. You won’t build them in the middle of the city because the buildings get in the way.
        The absolute best place is probably offshore, but not everyone has the industrial base to support offshore wind (or, indeed, a shore).

    • twbb

      They’d also be more likely (though not guaranteed) to benefit from better electricity infrastructure.

  • joe from Lowell

    Yeah, some tough questions. So…I’ll dodge them.

    Someone credible told me that the opposition of the Massachusetts rich to Cape Wind wasn’t actually about the view sheds. The towers would be barely-visible inch-high items on the horizon.

    Rather, it was about the effect of the installation on local wind patterns. It would have made sailing off the south coast of the Cape less fun.

    • liberalrob


      Hey, turn the towers into a sailing-slalom course. That’d be fun, wouldn’t it? With the added frisson of the possibility of your yacht getting smacked by the blades…oh, hard luck, Chauncey!

      • joe from Lowell

        Seriously! I went into a duck-boat-tour place on Cape Cod, and they had a “stop Cape Wind” collection bucket. I think that’s crazy. People would have paid them to take them out to see the wind turbines up close.

  • What actual harm is being done to the farmers? Wind turbines have a small footprint, about 100 sq metres per tower. With modern 100m towers, you really have to work at it to hear the noise that offends objectors. Are the peasants landowners being paid rent, or tenants? If the latter, it’s an issue of land reform, not energy policy. Are the local authorities getting property taxes? Rents plus property taxes generate enough of a community interest to justify many developments. The ideal is wind farms owned by community cooperatives, common in Germany. The current German government is dismantling the incentives that supported these, and switching from FITs to the auctions beloved of neo-liberals, which exclude small players through high transactions costs.

    You do have to set the very small damage done by wind and solar developments against the genocidal scale of the climate crisis and the urgency of a response. If the price of the energy transition were a dictatorship and human sacrifices in the Forum – both of which which the Roman Republic resorted to after Cannae, the former with great success – I’d reluctantly have to go along with them. But it does not.

    • shah8

      Because most renewable projects, particularly hydro-electric facilities and oil palms, in the third world are about monetizing other people’s assets and seizure of related lands besides what is needed for the immediate facility.

      I suspect that the actual problem with wind facilities in Oaxaca (from the view of Mexico City) is that they are more expensive to guard and maintain relative to what the project will deliver.

      On a broader point though, people should understand that scaling up renewables to the sort of energy output demanded by our civilization will introduce some pretty severe problems in and of themselves. It’s no panacea.

    • liberalrob

      The human sacrifices will be on the order of billions if we as a species don’t start to take this issue seriously.

  • Nick Conway

    Super interesting stuff. Not the same at all, but it’s also interesting that the 3 recent California National Monuments that were named by Obama were named in part to protect against development of wind and solar in pristine areas. Dianne Feinstein was a big pusher of the bill to protect those areas, and was really trying to find a balance between renewable energy development and preservation of natural areas:


    So not only is it important to make sure that the burden of wind and solar development is not falling on the poor, but also that wind and solar development is not destroying or disrupting natural areas. These trade-offs really don’t get talked about much so thanks for posting the article.

  • liberalrob

    That they have effectively contributed nothing to climate change, often to the point of still farming with oxen and not using chemicals

    They do, however, still engage in slash-and-burn agriculture. The smoke is an annual visitor here in Northeast Texas. While not necessarily bad from the standpoint of deforestation, it is a massive release of CO2.

    Orthogonal to your point, but important to note, I thought.

It is main inner container footer text