A green versus green dilemma

The development of wind turbines in Germany is a controversial topic. While wind turbines promise to contribute to climate conservation goals in this century, the ongoing negative impact of wind turbines on airborne wildlife such as bats and birds is undeniable. Hence, the situation around wind turbines is labelled by some as a green versus green dilemma. In this exploration we asked two experts, one wildlife biologist and one conservation social scientist the following three questions:

  • In your own words, could you briefly describe the situation to us?
  • Why do you think is it so difficult to find consensus among stakeholders?
  • Considering your expertise, what could be one approach to mitigate this conflict?

Wildlife Biology: Marcus Fritze

I think that it is possible to run wind turbines bird- and bat-friendly and economically acceptable at the same time. The difficulty is greed.

Marcus Fritze conducted his PhD research on bats at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin and is now a postdoctoral researcher at the Universität Greifswald and founder of the Deutsche Fledermauswarte e.V. He has experience from a bat biology perspective as well as from a social perspective due to his engagements with green versus green dilemma stakeholders.

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Marcus Fritze with a dead bat

In your own words, can you explain to us the situation?

From my point of view, the situation about the green-green dilemma is a conflict of people with different interests. Basically, the wind energy lobby fights with conservationists about species conservation because wind turbines can kill many birds and bats when they are built on a wrong site (e.g. close to forest edges or breeding areas) or don’t have certain switch-off times (e.g. during peak migration season).

Why do you think is it so difficult to find consensus among stakeholders?

On the one hand, wind turbines were developed to mitigate climate change by producing green energy, which is also good for conservation. On the other hand, people earn a lot of money with wind energy. This is, in my experience, the main problem because species conservation measures reduce financial revenue and most wind energy companies are not willing to lose even small amounts of their yield. The majority of conservationists are not against wind turbines in general. They perceive and appreciate this technology as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional energy sources. But, they also recognize the greed for money at the expense of species conservation. I think that it is possible to run wind turbines bird- and bat-friendly and economically acceptable at the same time. The difficulty is thus greed. For example, most bat fatalities occur during migration season. To avoid these killings, it is possible to install bat-friendly cut-in wind speeds, which means that the wind turbines do not run during high bat activity (at low wind speed and relatively high temperatures during the night). These highly limited switch-off periods cost approximately only 1–2 % of the annual output. Is this too much if this way we can avoid hundreds of thousands of dead bats per year?

To mitigate the conservation issues, the government could regulate it by legislation. However, the wind energy lobby is gaining power and is influencing conservation politics. At the moment, the wind energy lobby is working hard to influence the future conservation legislation, but only in direction of their financial interests. Conservationists see this happening and this makes them even angrier about the situation, consequently leading to an overall refusal of wind turbines. While the wind energy sector lobbies for its financial interests, conservationists, of course, also lobby for ‘their’ rights and interests (i.e. upholding the international conventions on species conservation). All-in-all a complicated situation.

Considering your expertise, what could be one approach to mitigate this dilemma?

Since we cannot change (greedy) people and the fight continues, we might need to change the system to reduce incompatible interests. A reasonable approach, from my point of view, is “citizen’s wind parks”, in which wind turbines are placed and run by villages and towns, not by private companies. In this approach, sites and conditions for running wind turbines are subject to a democratic process in which citizens, including conservationists, have more power to find good compromises. And, it also addresses the problem that many (other) citizens refuse wind turbines, for example, because they would be living too close to them, are not compensated and/or have no right of co-determination. Citizen’s wind parks would thus speed up a people-, environment- and conservation-friendly energy transition.

Email: fledermauswarte@gmail.com

Human Dimensions: Sophia Kochalski

Compromises can be made by both sides when planning wind farms, either by avoiding certain habitats and migratory corridors and making technical adjustments, or by concentrating protective efforts on particularly vulnerable populations.

Sophia Kochalski obtained her PhD at the University of Liverpool and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries (IGB) in Berlin. As an environmental sociologist, Sophia has worked with different stakeholder groups, examining, in particular, the causes and dynamics of conflicts between them. Since her main focus is on fisheries sustainability, she has been in regular contact with questions about ‘offshore’ wind energy and the green-green dilemma between energy generated by hydro-power and endangered migratory fish species.

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Sophia Kochalski

In your own words, can you explain to us the situation?

Wind energy is one of the figureheads for climate-friendly energy generation and the green environmental movement as a whole. The goal conflict between avoiding immediate negative socio-economic consequences (noise, visual distortion of the landscape, falling property prices) and long-term sustainability considerations has led to numerous stakeholder conflicts since the start of the “wind rush” in Europe in the early 2000s[1]; the conflicts are commonly known under the slogan “not-in-my-backyard”. In addition, wind energy has negative ecological effects: birds and bats collide with the wind turbines, lose their habitat and have to change their migratory routes, which is associated with the need for increased physiological effort.

Why do you think is it so difficult to find consensus among stakeholders?

As always, this conservation conflict takes place between groups of people (and not between turbines and birds). An early study on this topic identified a coalition of energy companies, national governments and international NGOs as supporters of wind energy[2]. This coalition is at odds with local residents because of negative socioeconomic consequences of wind farms[3] and with nature conservation groups because of negative ecological impacts. Nature conservation groups lend their agency to the animal world but are themselves internally conflicted when they have to weigh the long-term effects of climate change on wildlife against the immediate effects of wind energy. Therefore, one can speak of a green-green dilemma when it comes to wind energy.

I suggest that deadlocked conflicts related to wind energy and wildlife protection can be traced back to conflicts having been brought from a technical to a value level. On a technical level, the reconciliation of wind energy and wild animals is not an isolated issue and not a zero-sum game: energy can come from different sources, and there are other, often more harmful causes of mortality for wild animals. Compromises can be made by both sides when planning wind farms, either by avoiding certain habitats and migratory corridors and making technical adjustments or by concentrating protective efforts on, particularly vulnerable populations. On a value level, however, if climate change is understood as the one dominating global threat while the protection of wild animals is understood as an “every life must be preserved” ethical responsibility, then compromise is no longer possible. Instead of a planning problem, we face a clash of paradigms. In the language of conflict research, the conflict has become indivisible.

Considering your expertise, what could be one approach to mitigate this dilemma?

Solving conservation conflicts is about how to treat each other, what specific measures from the conflict resolution “toolbox” should be taken, and how to institutionally support the process. For conflicts about wind energy and wildlife, the participation of the public and nature conservation groups in the planning phase, joint fact-finding about the local effects of wind turbines on wildlife, and recognition of the validity of the other group’s values and goals appear to be essential. Any of these measures must be accompanied by a warning message: conservation conflicts are deeply political issues and ultimately a question of power. And as the previous description of the conflict coalitions suggests, power is not equally distributed. For solving green-green dilemmas and conservation conflicts, I would call above all for decision-makers to be aware of different perspectives as well as their one paradigms and keep in mind unequal power structures.

Twitter: @SophiaKochalski

[1] Directive 2001/77/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 27 September 2001 on the promotion of electricity produced from renewable energy sources in the internal electricity market.

[2] Szarka, J. (2004). Wind power, discourse coalitions and climate change: breaking the stalemate?. European Environment, 14(6), 317–330.

[3] Gee, K., & Burkhard, B. (2010). Cultural ecosystem services in the context of offshore wind farming: a case study from the west coast of Schleswig-Holstein. Ecological Complexity, 7(3), 349–358.

Synthesis

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A dead bat next to a wind turbine — ©Marcus Fritze

We are very grateful to our two explorers for taking the time to share their perspective on this conservation conflict with us. In both explorations, the situation with wind turbines is clearly described as a human-human conflict. This means that involved groups have different interests and views and it is difficult to find alignment. Finding alignment, however, will be crucial to move forward and to find solutions for this conflict. The situation describes a typical ‘wicked problem’, i.e. the involvement of various stakeholders and no one and clear solution to a problem. As both experts also state, the difficult part of this dilemma, besides the involvement of various interest groups, is the power imbalance which hinders effective collaborations and solution-finding. The first expert suggests a very practical solution to the power imbalance (i.e. citizen wind parks) which would empower citizens in this whole process. The second expert states a very clear call to decision-makers to be aware of their own paradigms and perspectives when approaching this situation.

Wind turbines are not per se positive or negative, but as this exploration shows again, a situation can become a ‘dilemma’ or ‘wicked’ as soon as different interests and views about how to move forward arise. And especially when a power imbalance is added to it. Working together to find solutions to ‘wicked’ situations requires time. But it can also be a chance to build trust and to find more creative solutions by considering different experiences, knowledge and views, instead of working individually.

Call for additional perspectives

We value sharing perspectives from different sides. If you have a different perspective from those shared above and you would like to share this, please contact us.

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©Peter Franken, Unsplash

Exploring various perspectives on conservation conflicts, including Conservation Biology, Moral Philosophy & Human Dimensions. Moderated by Tanja & Lysanne.

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