Democracy & Wind

14 Sep

imagesRead an article today in Technology Review about how China is poised to become the world leader in wind-generated power.  It’s something like a decade ahead of schedule in building wind farms and updating the energy grid to handle the intermittent nature of wind power.

Toward the end of the piece, this paragraph caught my eye:

McElroy says China’s political situation may also lend itself to adding the required transmission lines. Wind-rich regions such as the ethnically Uyghur northwest are among China’s poorest, and the government has an interest in promoting their economic development. McElroy adds that local opposition, which has stymied transmission projects in North America and Europe for years, is unlikely to stop China’s wind power surge. “The government probably has more power to institute a plan once it’s approved.”

This raises a few interesting questions.  First, broadly speaking, is democracy an impediment to renewable energy?  In other words, does the ability of citizens to speak out and organize and freely demonstrate and lobby politicians hamper the advent of clean, renewable energy more than it helps?

I’d like to think not.  After all, as Thomas Friedman often argues, a big part of what’s made the US a global superpower is the freedom of its citizens to question assumed truths and to innovate and create without fearing government and/or religious reprisals.

Yet here’s China, apparently forging ahead with massive wind power projects while Europe and the US fall behind.  So is there something to be said for a government like China’s that can conceive and implement plans–renewable energy and otherwise–on a massive scale without political opposition?

Maybe.  But here’s a Wall St. Journal piece cautioning that while China may be sprinting ahead, they may not be headed in the right direction.  In their haste to build wind farms, China hasn’t allowed many companies to compete for the work, so Chinese wind technology may not be the most efficient.  European and US wind initiatives may be gummed up by grassroots opposition, but there are also dozens of companies competing and innovating to improve wind technology.  Maybe this is a better strategy in the long run.

I suppose we’ll find out in the next few decades.  It’s not clear, at least for me, how much of an impediment anti-wind groups in the US and Europe actually are.  Groups like Artists Against Wind Farms,, and, at least based on the quality of their websites, don’t appear to be so very powerful.

According to this article on, though, in England, more than 200 anti-wind farm groups have stymied the installation of more than 4000 turbines.  The protesters are often artists and environmentalists who claim that turbines mar the landscape and pose a threat to birds and bats.  And check out this piece about how rotating turbine blades can mess up meteorologists’ forecasts.

I don’t know.  Personally, I think wind turbines are visually interesting and even beautiful.  Compared to an ethanol refinery or solar farm, a wind farm is positively sculptural.

Anyhow, it’s interesting how renewable energy is about much more than just the technology.  It’s political and cultural and aesthetic.  Of course it is.


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