The Strange Case of the Climate Scientists Fighting a Wind Farm

The Strange Case of the Climate Scientists Fighting a Wind Farm
Photo: Stav Dimitropoulos

On the edge of the Aegean Sea lies Antikythera, a bone-dry, windswept rock of 22 square kilometres and 22 inhabitants. Despite appearances, this unforgiving land holds immense ecological importance.

A NATURA-protected area, it is a migration hot spot for birds, with more than 200 species from Africa reposing there each spring and fall before heading north and south respectively; it is home to the world’s largest colony of Eleonora’s falcon; it is the westernmost site in the world where the isabelline wheatear breeds; it is one of the very few places in the central Mediterranean where 28 different species plus four to five subspecies of birds of prey, occur during both migration periods, with some of them, like the marsh harrier and the honey buzzard, seen in the thousands.

The Hellenic Ornithological Society (HOS), a conservation non-governmental organisation, has been doing the recording and tagging these birds since Greece lacks a government agency for the protection of birds. In November 2020, HOS and other environmental organisations lodged an appeal to the Greek Council of State to overturn an August 2020 decision of the Ministry of Environment and Energy, which doubled the installed power capacity a wind farm may have without having the obligation to conduct an environmental impact assessment study. The reason? An anemometer, which was installed on the island of Antikythera in the summer of 2020 to collect data for a possible wind farm.

While renewables absolutely have a role to play in protecting the climate and creatures like those on Antikythera and elsewhere, the struggle shows the challenge of where to site wind and solar farms. The local impacts could end up doing harm to the rare species that call Antikythera home.

By 2030, the European Union aspires to produce 32% of its total energy from renewable energy sources. By the same year, member-state Greece must hit a national target of harnessing 7,000 megawatts from wind power. “This can be done without intervening in high-sensitivity areas like Antikythera,” said Apostolis Kaltsis, a biologist and conservation program coordinator at HOS. Research published earlier this year found that Greece already generates 4,000 megawatts of wind power, and that the non-NATURA sites that have been selected to be outfitted with wind turbines across the country could produce four to six times more than the remaining 3,000 megawatts mandated.

“When you have this data, it is nonsensical if not downright malpractice, to install a wind turbine in one of Greece’s three major bird migration spots,” Kaltsis said.

But there are more than conservation dynamics at play. The EU has a powerful wind energy lobby in the form of turbine manufacturers. An early June 2021 article that appeared in the print version of Greek energy trade publication Energy Press said that manufacturers have been bidding against each other to secure Greek mountains and islands for future wind turbine installation.

“For some mountains, two different wind companies have submitted applications for future wind turbine setups; our mountains and islands are not enough to cover the mounting interest,” the publication wrote.

In a different article, the same outlet mentioned that several big manufacturers and wind farm operators from the EU and around the world are preparing to act when Greek legislation relaxes, not naming the players, but pointing to Norway’s Equinor, Denmark’s Copenhagen Offshore Partners, Germany’s E.ON’s subsidiary Innogy, and U.S.’s Principle Power. Meanwhile, the Greek government reportedly plans to use 58% of the approximately $US38.2 ($52) billion it will receive from the EU Recovery Fund — the $US896 ($1,219) billion stimulus package the European Commission launched as a response to covid-19 — on funding green and digital transformation projects, including the infrastructure needed for wind farms.

Though it might take a good two years for any manufacturing company to jump through the licensing hoops of the Greek government, Kaltsis said ornithologists must act fast. “In this way, nobody will tell us we didn’t warn them in advance,” he continued.

The island is a special protection area, meaning it was selected by the ecological network of NATURA and its birds directive to protect one or more rare, threatened, or vulnerable bird species or specific regularly occurring migratory species. A report the HOS published in March 2020 found that erecting wind turbines will have detrimental consequences for Antikythera’s biodiversity. Among the impacts, the group found that fatigued birds reaching the island after having crossed the Mediterranean could be killed by the wind turbines or avoid the island altogether and eventually die from exhaustion further out to sea; protected species could have less of a chance of mating success due to loss of critical nesting sites; and that other endemic and endangered species such Lepidoptera, flamboyant Greek butterflies and moths, could be harmed by the scale of industrial activity. Even large wildlife such as bears and wolves might be forced to relocate, according to the report.

“We are helping the company save time and money as installing a wind turbine in an area where incredible populations of vultures pass will most probably be rejected (it is against the EU proper siting guidance after all),” Kaltsis adamantly stated.

The activism of HOS and the other environmental organisations that joined the November 2020 appeal has already borne fruit: “The Ministry recently handed down a decree which forbids companies to slice large wind farms into several smaller [ones] in order to bypass proper environmental licensing,” said Kaltsis. “This is a step in the right direction, but the road is long until we persuade the Greek government to see us as important stakeholders and not some sort of trivial special interest group.”

An estimated 140,000 to 500,000 bird deaths occur per year due to turbine collisions. “This is low compared to the impacts of buildings, bridges, and cats,” said Peter Fiekowsky, founder and chairman emeritus at the Foundation for Climate Restoration, a nonprofit that’s mission is to catalyze action to restore the climate by 2050. Other human activities like agriculture as well as climate change have contributed to the precipitous decline in bird populations. (So have fossil fuels, which have killed more wildlife than clean energy.)

As a technologist, he said he prefers to assess projects such wind farms on a pros and cons basis: should the number of birds killed be small relative to other causes of death, then objectively it is not significant; should the wind farm threaten a species with extinction, then there’s reason for pause and reevaluation. “In the grand scheme of life, a wind turbine is normally a very minor intrusion — unless the bird population affected might be led to extinction,” Fiekowsky concluded.

Brian Helmuth, professor of marine and environmental sciences at Northeastern University, agreed there are always trade-offs when installing renewable energy at scale. He is the HOS’s activism, though, is not without merit. “Staying away from sensitive areas where turbines can cause damage through bird strikes is certainly step one to creating clean energy solutions smartly, while addressing competing concerns and needs,” he said. “There are other factors such as the height of the turbine, the lighting used, and even the colour of the blades, which can reduce impacts.”

For an islet somewhat forgotten by humans, Antikythera plays a strategic role not only in the preservation of birds, but in understanding the planet as a whole. Situated “at the crossroads of air masses from all continents,” according to Vassilis Amiridis, climate scientist and director of research at the National Observatory of Athens, it is where dust from different places converges. This can tell us a great many things about dust transport processes, extreme weather, and, most of all, climate change.

Since 2017, climate scientists from the Panhellenic Geophysical observatory of Antikythera (Pangea), a research infrastructure of the U.S. National Observatory of Athens (NOA), have been installing high-tech lidar systems, photometers, solar polarimeters, and other instruments on the island, with the aim of turning it into a global climate supersite.

Manolis Plionis, research director at NOA and president of the board of directors, is fiercely opposed to the installation of a wind turbine on Antikythera. Such a turn of events would be detrimental not only to the rare species of birds that frequent the island, but apparently to the global fight against climate change.

Photo: Stav Dimitropoulos Photo: Stav Dimitropoulos

“The wind turbine will alter Pangea’s tremendously important atmospheric and greenhouse gas measurements (among many others), or create non-representative measurements,” Plionis said. Pangea has already received funding of about $US25 ($34) million from the EU and is collaborating with NASA and the European Space Agency. The group has also been inviting elite international climate science and research talent to experiment on-site.

“A wind turbine could lead to the cancelation of this huge project,” said Plionis. “Pangea is at stake.”

The fight over Antikythera is one that could play out not just on other parts of the Greek coast, but on coastlines around the world. An ocean away, 14 miles (22.5 kilometers) off the coast of Massachusetts, the Biden administration approved the Vineyard Wind project in May. The 84 turbines expected to be built for the mega-project will generate enough electricity to power 400,000 homes in New England. It’s part of Biden’s plan to expand U.S. offshore wind capacity from just 42 megawatts today to 30 gigawatts by 2030.

Not everyone embraced Vineyard Wind warmly, though. The fishing industry protested that the wind farm will dramatically impact fish stocks and vessel traffic, but was reportedly “met with silence” by government officials. A similar fight is playing out in Maine where angry lobstermen and women have hounded a company planning a pilot floating wind turbine project in recent months.

“It’s been a longstanding tradition in the U.S. to have special interest groups push back against industry through litigation, which has the additional downside of creating polarised camps, and creates the false impression that the needs of nature are pitted against those of business and the economy,” said Helmuth. Yet, he added, this creates the huge risk of missing other key considerations, like the fact that the dirtiest industries are usually located in communities of colour and economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Solutions might exist, though, that could let offshore wind and ecologically sensitive areas and industries each win.

A great case study, Helmuth suggested, where all of the considerations were taken into account was the Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island, the U.S.’s first commercial offshore wind farm. Here, the local Sea Grant program ran a so-called special area management plan, through which they consulted with diverse stakeholders in a transparent way.

“It was a long process, but in the end, everyone’s concerns were heard and the project was able to move forward,” said Helmuth.

The key is to adopt a holistic, systems-thinking approach. The Block Island project could serve as a template for mediating the differences between industry and environmentalists early on in the planning process, said Helmuth. Note the magic word: “early.” Rising seas and more extreme weather are looming, and we are losing the privilege of time to reduce the emissions causing them. At the same time, nature is also facing mounting pressure. Addressing the causes of climate change without factoring in stress on the natural world could mean clean energy solutions end up creating new problems, to say nothing of the impact on people’s livelihoods. That means we might need to master the art of walking multiple fine lines at once.

“We have to recognise that whatever choices we make will have consequences,” said Helmuth. “At the same time, we have to learn to listen to the people who try to protect healthy ecosystems without classifying them in our minds as special interest groups.”

Stav Dimitropoulos contributes regularly to BBC, and has written for National Geographic, Nature, Scientific American, Science, Runner’s World, and more.