Germany’s Wind industry is not like Southern California’s

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1The sheer number of wind turbines in Germany is overwhelming! When the clouds open, they are often visible from the windows of a jet entering the country. Though they are primarily a rural phenomenon, there are about 60 turbines in the city of Hamburg. Some of the behemoths in Mecklenbourg-Verpommern have a capacity of 7.5 MW,  more than twice the 3 MW found in North America. Yet, speaking as one of a group of journalists touring renewable installations recently, unless you are standing directly underneath a turbine was difficult to pick out the “whoosh” of their whirling blades from other ambient sounds. Germany’s wind industry is an integral part of the nation’s energy revolution, which at least 56% of the respondents to a poll taken in 2013 said was “the right thing to do.” Only 10% were actually opposed. Germany’s Wind industry is not like Southern California’s.

Germany’s Wind industry is not like Southern California’s

Image taken from San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s website
Image taken from San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s website

Though most Germans support energiewende, it appears to be a foreign imposition in much of rural California. The idea of building renewable energy facilities in the desert was born in corporate board rooms, which reap the profit. The energy is not used locally, it is transmitted to large population centers. Aside from a few jobs, there is no benefit for the rural communities and native tribes that live there.

“My constituents and I have raised serious concerns for years about the potential impact of industrial-scale energy projects in our backcountry. This isn’t a case of a vocal minority making noise. I hear concerns all across my district, in many communities, that these mammoth projects threaten to destroy natural resources, heighten the risk of wildfire and rob rural communities of their quality of life,” said San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jocab,  an interview last year.

She was outvoted by the other Supervisors, who favored development.

Ocotillo is surrounded by 112 turbines - Jim Pelley photo
Ocotillo is surrounded by 112 turbines – Jim Pelley photo

Many of these projects are slated for Jacob’s district (East County), which has become the center of resistance in San Diego. It did not matter that Boulevard’s community plan prohibited industrial development and dense housing. After their wishes were overruled, the inhabitants launched a series of lawsuits to stave off the influx of  utility scale wind and solar. 65% of the respondents in a poll taken by East County Magazine, said they were opposed to these industrial scale projects. (Virtually all of them favour rooftop solar.)

Ocotillo, in Imperial County, has been inflicted by massive dust storms ever since 112 turbines were built around it.  The desert surface was scraped clean of vegetation as a preparation for the project. Now there is nothing to hold the dust down.

Dust storm descending on Ocotillo - Jim Pelley photo
Dust storm descending on Ocotillo – Jim Pelley photo

That’s not the only complaint. Since the project went online, less than two years ago:

  • 3 turbines have had their gear boxes replaced,
  • 9 turbines have had blade replacements
  • a  173-foot-long-blade flew off one turbine
  • Ocotillo residents have also documented oil leaks in 40% of the turbines. The Department of Toxic substance control subsequently gave the project a summary of violations.

Two Ocotillo residents, Jim Pelley and Parke Ewing, have documented this project on the web. There are hundreds of videos on Pelley’s Youtube site “Save Ocotillo” and  Ewing’s facebook page Ocotillo Wind Turbine Destruction is a visual chronicle of this project and related materials.

The Noise Factor: California vs Germany

Listening to Pelley’s video (below), one has to agree that the wind turbine does sound like a jet engine – but why is it so different from the ones we saw in Germany? Could it have something to do with the lack of ambient noise? or the fact it is meant for areas where there is less wind?

Parke Ewing agreed that the lack of ambient sounds in Ocotillo may contribute to the problem.

“The noise torture here in the desert is not a natural sound, maybe because it has a factory type of rhythm that is not natural here in the desert. And the noise is torture,” he explained.

This was the opposite of what I experienced, as one of the  journalists traveling to renewable sites in Germany. I saw hundreds of wind turbines, but only heard two. I’ve wondered if the feathered I saw on the blades on the 7.5 MW turbines could help explain the difference?

“The feathered edge on the 7.5 MW turbine (Enercon) has a huge influence on the amount of noise,” wrote Susann of WIND Projekt.

She added, “The operating condition of a wind turbine and thus their noise emission is depending on many factors, e.g. air humidity, wind speed, type of turbine (yaw moment) or rotor-height. So it is possible that on different days there are different amounts of noise you can hear. But nevertheless this won’t exceed the limit of allowed emission of noise.”

(Susann is in Germany, I wonder if developers are as careful in North America.)

Complaints About Ocotillo

Most of Pelley’s reports mentions wind speeds of between 0-4 miles per hour at Ocotillo. That is not enough to power the turbines. So why, he asks, why was this $600 million project ever built?

The Ocotillo Express Wind Project is also an abomination to many of the local tribes. It sits on top of land the California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) recognizes as a sacred Native American cultural landscape and burial ground. Its’ Quechan name is “Valley of Death.” Hundreds of significant Native American cultural resource sites have been documented, including cremation sites, petroglyphs, geoglyphs, ancient villages and prehistoric trails.

ocotillo-vigil-ramada
Native Americans occupying Ocotillo Wind Project site prior to construction – Courtesy East County Magazine

Chairman Anthony Pico, of the Veijas, claims “hundreds of artifacts were removed” from Ocotillo and “there is no merit to (the developer) Pattern’s claim that sites were adequately protected.”

Quechan President Keeny Escalanti said, “the Ocotillo Wind was constructed on top of the graves of our ancestors” and approval of the project has been a “violation of trust to the Quechan people.”

German Models

A totally different story comes from Feldheim, one of the windiest villages in Germany.  Energiequelle GmbH installed 47 turbines beside this little village of 120 people. Though much of this energy is fed into the grid,  Feldheim obtains 90% of its electricity from wind energy! When the local utility (E.ON) tried to stop this, Feldheim built its own microgrid. They have been supplementing their wind energy with biogas, from their farms, since 2008. All of their electricity is produced in the village and 100% renewable. The residents of Feldheim currently pay 17.4 euro cents per kWh, at a time when the rest of Germany is paying 28 euro cents per kWh.

Inside one of the turbines at Feldheim - Roy L Hales photo
Inside one of the turbines at Feldheim – Roy L Hales photo

I took the photo to the left while inside one of Felheim’s turbines. We could not hear the whirling blades. This may have been in part because of another machine, near the door, but you could not even hear that after you drew away from the turbine. One of the other journalists was Zach Shahan, who comments on the lack of noise in the video below.    (Access his report)

This is not the only community profiting from renewable energy. Wildpoldsried, in Bavaria, generates 500% of the energy it needs. The village collects millions of euros in revenue every year.

Mecklenburg-West Pomerania is drafting a law whereby neighboring villagers will be given the right to purchase up to 20% ownership of the wind energy facilities in their midst.

The Adoption of Renewable Energy

There is greater resistance to renewable energy in the US. According to Patrick Jenevein, CEO of the Tang Energy Group, politics, rather than feasibility, has been the driving force. He does not believe that  California, which isn’t even in the “wind belt,” should be the nation’s second largest producer of wind energy.

One of the most often repeated arguments against wind (and solar) is that they have not retired a single fossil fuel burning plant. It has been said they ensure that natural gas and coal will continue on to be used as their back-ups.

Yet the number of coal plants is steadily dropping and the number of renewable plants keeps increasing. As you will see in the video below, Sierra Club celebrated the retirement of America’s 150th coal plant last July.On their “Beyond Coal” page, the Sierra Club states that 178 coal plants are now out of service.  Approximately 75,334 “dirty” MW have been retired and 66,400 MW of renewable energy have taken their place.

Around 13% of US electricity came from renewables in 2013. The second biggest source was wind energy, which produced about 4% of and is expected to produce close to 5% by the end of this year.

Screenshot 2014-10-18 11.57.43
Absolute change in electricity production, first 9 mo. 2014 vs 2013 – Courtesy Fraunhofer ISE

The numbers are much higher in Germany, where the renewable sector produced 31% of the nation’s electricity during the first 9 months of 2014. Only three sectors show an increase over last year: wind (+8%), solar (+7.7%) and biomass (+11%). Fossil fuel usage has dropped dramatically.

Expect this trend to continue as more battery storage facilities come online.

Schwerin’s 5 MW battery storage plant is the prototype of a technology designed to replace the conventional plants that utilities use when they need to ramp up fast. The software designer, Younicos, claims they can replace 25 fossil fuel plants.

A hydrogen storage facility was built alongside the wind farm at RH2-WKA in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. This both frees the wind farm from the necessity of drawing energy from the grid in slow periods and feeds a more even supply of energy into the grid.

Social License: California vs Germany

Staring up at the giant 200 meter Nordex Turbine at Hamburg Wasser - Roy L Hales photo
The  3 MW Nordex Turbine at Hamburg Wasser, in the city of Hamburg – Roy L Hales photo

Energiewende is one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s key domestic  policies, yet she continues to retain the support of her people. A poll taken last last August reported an 74% approval rating.

“No country of Germany’s scale has pursued such a radical shift in its energy supply. I’m convinced that if any country can successfully implement the Energiewende, it’s Germany,” she said in a speech earlier this year.

Though most US polls also show support for renewable technologies, utility scale projects do not appear to be welcome in the rural areas of Southern California. They remain an intrusive technology, whose benefits are enjoyed by outsiders while the inhabitants are left with the problems.

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