International condemnation threatens Spain’s first offshore wind farm

World Conservation Congress resolution against Ebro delta project on seabird habitat fears

Marine wind energy in Spain never seems to get off the beach. The first experimental project off the coast of Tarragona received an international setback in the form of a resolution of the World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, South Korea, earlier this month. The objection is that the project affects the principal habitat of the Balearic Shearwater (Puffinus Mauritanicus).

Though the resolution has no binding character, it does have sufficient symbolic power to hinder financing from the European Investment Bank, and to sow doubts about the project. The regional government of Catalonia, promoter of the two wind-power generators, observes that, to judge by the fuss, this would seem to be the chief environmental problem in Spain.

The ecologist NGO SEO/Birdlife brought before the congress of the International Union for Conservation (UICN) a motion calling for the relocation of the Zefir project, an experimental marine wind farm with which Catalonia aims to enter the marine wind energy field.

The UICN is a strange organization, made up of 170 countries and hundreds of NGOs, resulting in huge congresses where more than a hundred resolutions are debated. These need only be approved by a majority of countries and NGOS, so most of them prosper.

"Good project, wrong place"

The resolution that proved most controversial from Spain's point of view was presented by SEO/Birdlife. It called on the Catalan and Spanish governments "not to authorize the Zefir wind farm project on the Ebro delta," considering it incompatible with the conservation of the Balearic Shearwater. The area is important for the conservation of 11 marine species, and SEO/Birdlife's report recommends a search for an alternative area.

Juan Carlos Atienza, of SEO/Birdlife, says his objection is not to marine wind energy per se, but to the location. "The project is a good one, but it could be put anywhere [...] The Ebro delta is the most important space for marine birds in the whole Mediterranean. Not only does it harbor many threatened species, it contains very high percentages of their total populations, so an unexpected impact can drive a species or a population to the edge of extinction."

Atienza notes that the Iberian Peninsula has thousands of kilometers of coastline, and that "the lessons learned in land wind energy tell us that in wind parks, even only a few windmills can be very dangerous [10 percent of windmills produce 70 percent of the total bird kill]."

SEO/Birdlife was the only Spanish NGO at the congress while Catalonia was the only Spanish region to send a representative to Jeju. In the corridors, politely but warily, Atienza would meet Marta Subirà, the Catalan general director of environmental policy, who was annoyed at having to defend the experimental project (two generators, and another two later) as if it were Spain's most serious environmental problem. "It is an experimental pilot project promoted by a public research center, aimed precisely at testing its viability before undertaking any larger wind farm project," says Subirà.

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