Sunday, May 22, 2005

Villagers find riches in 'the wind and the stone'

Villagers find riches in 'the wind and the stone'

Dale Fuchs in Sisante meets the farmers who have helped Spain to become a leader in green energy

Sunday May 22, 2005
The Observer

Some might complain about the spindly white towers or the incessant whoosh of the turbine blades, but Carmela Martinez Moratalla looks fondly at the wind farm in her rural Spanish town. It makes her think about buying presents for her grandchildren.
Two years ago, the 68-year-old grain farmer leased part of her property to the multinational Iberdrola, which planted three slender windmills on her land. She is one of roughly 50 residents in tiny Sisante who have let the Spanish utility use their property to harness the wind.

Iberdrola, one of the world's largest wind park operators, pays Martinez Moratalla €3,000 (about £2,000) a year per turbine.

'My only complaint is that instead of three turbines, they didn't give me 30,' she said on leaving the town church, restored in part with the additional revenue the wind blew in.

'The windmills only take up a few metres and you can keep planting around them,' she added. 'You hardly hear any noise. The money doesn't change my life, but I can afford one more luxury, one more present to my grandchildren.'

The goodwill of small-time farmers such as Martinez Moratalla has helped Spain to become one of the world's leaders in the production of wind energy, along with the US, Germany and Denmark. But a €45 million wind farm - the typical price tag, according to Iberdrola - is not built on love alone; employment is an important perk. Building and maintaining those oversized pinwheels creates jobs for between 15,000 and 20,000 Spaniards, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).

The government encourages investment by fixing prices, guaranteeing wind energy is given priority status in the overall electricity mix and, most recently, upping targets for renewable energy production beyond European Union goals. By 2010, Spain is expecting to generate 15 per cent of its energy from wind power.

'The wind isn't better in Spain or Germany, but the political climate is,' said Corin Millais, chief executive of the EWEA.

This has been especially beneficial in the arid central La Mancha region, where Don Quixote once tilted against windmills. Four hundred years after Miguel de Cervantes's novel was published, few specimens remain of those squat mills. But the breeze is still big business. Iberdrola alone has 37 wind farms in the region.

'We get petitions daily from city halls wanting wind parks,' said a company spokesman. 'It's like when oil was discovered in the United States, every town wants a well.'

If wind energy is oil for this poor region, then the town of Higueruela, near Sisante, hit a gusher. The 1,300 residents share the land with 244 modern windmills, each more than 45 metres high, perched on the hilltops around the town. But Higueruela's residents are not concerned about the view. They are more interested in the profit they made by selling their fallow land to Iberdrola.

For city hall, the park is also a windfall - roughly €400,000 a year in taxes, licences and rent. Isabel Gotor, mayor of Maranchón, approved the construction of 80 turbines, which she expects will generate enough money to repair the town's water system, street lamps and historic homes.

'All we have here,' she said, 'is air and stone - and now the air is going to benefit us.'