Wind Energy

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By Alexander Dunlap    Wind Energy is undoubtedly my favorite of all the energy systems, which retains an immense potential for eco-logical sustainability. This potential, however, can be utopic, dystopic or somewhere in between, which is intimately intertwined with the futures people wish to create. Before moving to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region in Oaxaca, Mexico to investigate the impact of renewable energy on semi-subsistent Indigenous groups (Zapotec and Ikoot), I knew that wind projects triggered, what is known in political ecology as, ecological distribution conflicts. These are conflicts arising from development projects that affirm regional power inequalities, unequal distribution of benefits and negative ecological impacts without adequate compensation. This type of conflict was visible in the Isthmus, intertwining with the regional historical and institutional context. That said there are other far reaching and often neglected implications of wind energy development.

What is the real difference between renewable energy and fossils fuel-based energy generation? Do not misunderstand this question as advocating for coal, nuclear or hydraulic fracturing (‘Fracking’). To the contrary, this question attempts to hold wind energy accountable to the hopes of establishing liberating social and ecological relationships between humans and their environments. People forget that every aspect of industrial-scale wind energy is derived from non-renewable fossil fuels. Yes, there is an important renewable aspect, but in must be acknowledged that every aspect of wind turbines are derived from fossil fuels and energy intensive processing. From the large-quantities of steel rebar used for the 7-12 meter deep concrete foundations; the production and transport of concrete; the 25-100 meter tall steel towers; the fibre glass or stainless steel blades; plastic and metal gear box components; magnets from rare earth minerals (dysprosium); oil lubricants for the blades; oil based water proofing resins; above ground and/or subterranean power lines; and the transport and construction of this infrastructure.

This means wind energy requires mining of rare earth minerals, copper, steel, aluminium (electrical infrastructure) and oil for their operation. Additionally, depending on their placement, location and quantity there are severe ecological, marine and animal/human impacts that are well-documented.[1] This raises a series of questions. How come environmental activists are not talking about this? Meanwhile, Indigenous groups fighting pipeline construction in North America only talk about fossil fuels when Zapotec, Ikoot and others struggle against wind energy in the Isthmus? Is it politically unpopular? Or is this a by-product of our collective denial or apathy regarding the operations of the industrial economy?

Now, more than ever, might be a good time for people to reflect. Not only on energy grids themselves, but also on our lives— what we feel and what type of life and relationships we want to have. Wind energy according to econometrics reduces carbon, but it is really just saving the industrial economy and its consequent ecological degradations and lifestyles. Wind energy is opening markets, commodifying new resources and advancing new technologies of population control by redesigning urban environments for monitoring the habits, movements and energy consumption of populations.[2] While this might be utopian for city planners, police departments and enterprise, in reality it feels like public and private institutions are actively working to create a gentrified technological nightmare, akin to the one depicted in the television show Black Mirror. This is what wind energy is powering.

Nonetheless, there is another potential for wind energy. This is the deployment of autonomous and decentralized wind systems on the micro and community-scale. This includes actively using recycled car parts (starters, batteries, etc.) to dscf0322generate our electricity, creating and taking space to develop alter-natives without interference and/or political repression from institutions. No doubt this is difficult, but it could create new engagements with our environments, understanding their wasteful and anti-social design, while discovering al-ternatives. The grid must be challenged, industrial-scale renewable energy needs reconsideration especially for social justice and environmental activists, while squatting (rural or urban) with aims to create ecological autonomy ought to receive direct and indirect popular support. This might look like state institutions de-criminalizing squatting, encouraging the unmediated participation of citizens asserting control over their environments and (re)designing them with ecological sustainability in mind. Undoubtedly this is a challenging task, but the current direction of industrial progress is catastrophic.

[1] Tabassum-Abbasi, Premalatha M, Abbasi T, et al. (2014) Wind energy: Increasing deployment, rising environmental concerns. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 31: 270-288.

[2] For short articles see Bristol, Britain’s Flagship ‘Smart City’ (available at: https://rabble.org.uk/bristol-britains-flagship-smart-city/) and Wakefield, S and Bruce Braun (2014) ‘Governing the resilient city’ in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol. 32 (1).

 Alexander Dunlap is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. His research focus has been on the social impact of wind energy projects in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico. Here he lived for over four months assessing the problems and social conflict generated by wind projects. 

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