A Fair Wind

Wind turbine, Diksmuide (Photo: Triple11)

Down to Earth 87, December 2010

An Indonesian activist perspective on renewable energy, following a visit to a community wind project in Belgium.
By Siti Maimunah & Kahar Al Bahri - JATAM

It's autumn in Brussels. The leaves on the trees are changing colour and some are beginning to fall. The paths in the parks are  brown, littered with fallen leaves. The weather forecast predicts dropping temperatures for the coming days. Winter is fast approaching.

On the morning of 15 October 2010, it's still cold, but we set out for Brussels' Midi station nevertheless. Today we are meeting Steven Camertijn, head of "Beauvent". In French, 'beau vent' means 'fair wind'. Beauvent is a cooperative in Diksmuide which has 1400 members. They have agreed to reduce their energy consumption and are trying to meet their demand for electricity and fuel from renewable energy sources.

There are nine of us going to Diksmuide: two from Indonesia - myself and Ocha [Kahar] - one Englishman, and six Belgians. At 8.15am we are ready assembled at the station.

Steven is picking us up from Diksmuide station, one and a half hours from Brussels, the Belgian capital. It is a large, mainly rural municipality in West Flanders Province in northern Belgium.

He arrives in a white van which is decorated with the image of wind turbines in the middle of a field of yellow rapeseed. At the bottom of the image, large letters state: Beauvent ZonneWinDT. "This van is running on fuel from rapeseed", he says proudly as he invites us to climb in. He and his friends at Beauvent are promoting the use of renewable energy from wind turbines, solar panels and the agrofuel rapeseed oil.

After a short ride, just 10 minutes from the station, we arrive at our destination: A modest meeting room next to a café, "This is the community meeting space. Beauvent bought it and it can be used by anyone who needs it, as long as they help to look after space," he explains.



The Beauvent cooperative was founded on 21 June 2001. It began as the idea of three men from the same village, who were renovating their houses together.  The three of them also often discussed housekeeping matters, as they were staying home while their wives had paid jobs. Talking about home renovations got them thinking about the need for energy and fuel, and climate change. They decided to try and find a way to use energy more efficiently.

They started working on energy-saving ideas and building support for the provision of renewable energy in their village.

Diksmuide is one of the windiest places in Belgium. They believed the wind could bring benefit to the village - that's when Beauvent was born.
"Beauvent initially focused on wind power," says Steven. "We had three goals: to get the cooperative members to use less energy, use renewable energy, and safeguard the interests of the next generation."

But building a wind turbine is really not that easy, even in Belgium - at the heart of the European Union. They had to work very hard. Only four years after Beauvent was founded did they succeed in building its first wind turbine. 

 "We were busy organising for several years to make sure that the public understood and agreed to the building of wind turbines in the area. We also needed permission from at least 10 agencies, including the bird conservation body, the national aviation agency, and of course the military."

Judging from Steven's experience, getting permission to build wind turbines in order to obtain renewable energy requires 3 to 10 years in Belgium - that's a long time, despite the fact that EU provisions require the use of renewable energy to increase to 20 percent by 2020. Other industrialised countries in Europe have been asked to radically reduce their emissions since the Kyoto protocol on climate change was signed.

Currently, Belgium meets 56 percent of its energy needs from nuclear power, 38% from fossil fuels and the remaining 6% from renewable energy sources. Up to now there are no signs that the country will speed up the provision of renewable energy.

The other tough job, says Steven, was how to raise funds for building the wind turbines and feeding the electricity into the national grid and to the customer.

"We mobilised the members of the cooperative to buy shares, at 250 Euros per share. To prevent any majority shareholding, each person was only allowed to own up to seven shares. And each person only has one vote at the annual meeting of the cooperative", he says.

The first turbine was built in April 2005. Two turbines were built, with a combined capacity of 1.6 MW. They can supply around 1150 houses. A house in Belgium on average uses 3,500 kilowatt per year.  The price for electricity in Belgium is around 0,18 Euro per kilowatt.



The wind did bring benefits. Since the first two turbines performed well, in 2007, Beauvent managed to build a third turbine, this time as a joint-venture with another cooperative, Ecopower. Beauvent has a share of one third of the energy produced by this turbine - only about 0.77 megawatts - and can supply a total of 450 homes.

"We learnt a lot from building the first turbine, meaning that the community consultation stage and the obtaining of permits could be done much faster, " he says.


Impact analysis

There are many steps on the way to building wind turbines. Beauvent had to ensure that the turbines, which are 48 meters high, do not disturb surrounding residents and the environment. They prepared an environmental impact assessment for wind turbine development and analysed the use of land for setting up the turbines, the noise from the rotating blades and even the way in which the shadow of the turbines would impact on the homes of residents. "We leased the residents' land for 25 years for the establishment of the turbines. We even agreed to turn them off if farmers felt disturbed by the shadows created by the turbine when the sun rises."


Steel and energy

As well as the risks in Diksmuide, Steven and the supporters of wind power had to take into account where the building materials for the turbines come from.

One wind turbine consisting of a foundation, tower, generator, rotor, nacelle and blades, requires at least 147 tonnes of steel, as well as more than 200 tonnes of cement, sand and other materials. It's similar for solar panels or cells, whose fabrication requires quartz sand. In Diksmuide, the main material for solar cells is silicon. Every 1 to 2 square meters of solar cells weighs about 15 kilograms. They have to be replaced after 25 to 30 years of use.

Steel for the windmills requires iron ore, which has to be mined somewhere; similarly, the cement for the foundation needs to come from a quarry somewhere else. Coal - a fossil fuel - is also needed to process these raw materials further.

Supposing we needed 100 wind turbines for a renewable energy programme. It would take more than 14,700 tonnes of steel, and at least 23,000 tones of other mining products to build these.  Where would these raw materials come from, and what sources of energy would be used to process and transport them?

What if the iron ore came from Penago village in Bengkulu, where the mining of the iron sands has left gaping holes in the land and created social conflicts? What if the cement came from Lafarge in Aceh, where the company is responsible for the destruction of surrounding forests? Or what if the coal came from the PT Kaltim Prima coal mine in East Kalimantan, which is owned by Aburizal Bakrie and is linked to the impoverishment of the Basap Dayak community, whose people have been displaced from the vicinity of the mine?

What if the materials used to generate a supply of renewable energy also created problems like human rights violations and environmental disasters on the other side of the globe? The same question applies to the extraction of fossil fuels, which has long been associated with such problems.

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy is urgently needed. But more urgently, how do we ensure that the way this energy is generated does not endanger the safety of local people? Community safety cannot be valued in cash terms. It cannot be replaced by a Corporate Responsibility Programme; it can't be compensated by revenues from oil, gas or coal, or by corporate and government transparency initiatives. It must be respected and guaranteed in full by the state,


Reduce consumption

That is why replacing fossil energy with renewable energy or energy that creates fewer emissions, while failing to address our high-consumption lifestyles is not enough. It means demand for energy will keep on rising, along with the need for these other materials. The most important and responsible course is to change our way of life in order to use less energy, in addition to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Moreover, renewable energy is not cheap. "We spent a million Euros on our first wind turbine five years ago, and another 1.6 million euros on the next two turbines. By 2050 the turbines in Diksmuide will need to be decommissioned. After 25 years, the contracts and land use agreements will expire and the wind turbines will have to be dismantled."

"If the farmers are willing to extend the land lease, we will build a new turbine in the same place. We can be sure that in 20 years from now, the technology for wind power generation will have developed a lot further, and it won't make economic sense to continue running an old turbine."

However, should the farmers object, then the 48 meter high structure will need to be removed, without being replaced. The good news is that the steel from the turbines can still be used. Reportedly, over 90 percent of materials used to make solar cells and wind turbines can be recycled. The bad news is that the recycling is, of course, expensive and energy-intensive.

Unfortunately, all the technologies mentioned above are not owned by the farmers, or any other large groups of people, or even the government. All components necessary for wind turbines and solar panels is supplied by multinational companies from Germany, Spain, the United States and Denmark. According to 2005 data, two thirds of the world's wind turbines are supplied by just four European companies: VESTAS Wind Systems (Denmark), Enercon (Germany), NEG Micon (Denmark) and Gamesa (Spain).

"This is the reason why Beauvent is campaigning for a reduction of energy use, not just a switch to renewable energy", says Steven.
 We agree with him. We even suggest energy rationing. Companies that are not concerned with people's productivity and welfare should have their energy use rationed. Those companies that use up too many natural resources should be shut down. Gold mining, for example, is greedy on land, water and energy, and most of the gold produced ends up as jewellery.

What's more, the problem of carbon emissions and global energy use is not a problem of energy being in short supply, but rather the unfair distribution of energy use among the nations of the world. The world's richest 20 percent consume 80 percent of available energy sources.

Who are these 20 percent? The populations of industrialised countries. "Among the world's nations, Belgium's ecological footprint ranks fourth, according to a recent WWF study. If we want to continue to live as we are now, we need more than one planet," says Steven.



The members of the cooperative believe that energy use should not solely depend on one type of energy source. Between 2005 and 2009 they therefore reintroduced a native plant that can provide oil: rapeseed.

Local farmers were forced to grow rape during the war. "We had to convince people back here and train them to plant local seeds again. More farmers are willing to plant rape again. In 2005, only 3.5 ha were planted, but now we have reached 5.5 hectares.”

Steven stresses that the rape is not planted on land previously used for food crops - it is merely planted where these is space between the main crops. It is now the fourth crop, after corn, potatoes and wheat.

Rapeseed can first be harvested after 11 months; and must be replaced each year. Each hectare planted with rape can produce 1,400 litres of oil. If used as fuel, this would cover a distance of 25,000 km per year.

Steven shows us what rape seeds looks like. They're black and about half the size of peppercorns. "These seeds are pressed mechanically. At home, I sometimes also use the oil for frying eggs," he smiles. Then he opens a plastic bottle filled with a condensed yellow liquid - rapeseed oil.

He sticks his finger into the bottle, dips it into the oil, and licks it: "It has a high glycerine content - delicious!" We are handed the plastic bottle and take turns trying the rapeseed oil. It has an unfamiliar taste, perhaps a little like olive oil.

But the oil cannot be used to fuel vehicles in this form. "If the engine has not been adjusted the oil must be converted into a biofuel, with the same consistency as normal petrol."

This conversion, however, requires further technology and is usually done on a large scale. "That's not in accordance with our mission here at Beauvent, so in the end we decided to adjust the vehicle engines.  We can provide a mechanic who can adjust the car engine. We also provide the machine needed to press the oil from the seeds."

Unfortunately, not many people are willing to use rape seed fuel. "Currently, only ten people are willing to use it as fuel, but we need about 40 more drivers to make the farming of rapeseed plants economically viable."

Our last stop in Diksmuide is Beauvent's wind turbine. Sadly, there is no wind, so the blades are not rotating. Steven invites us into the structure and explains how it works.

An hour later we are leaving. From the road, we can see Beauvent's towering, green-coloured wind turbine. Every day, its blades spin, generating electricity to supply the villagers' homes, and indeed, bringing benefit to the community.  



Siti Maimunah and Kahar Al Bahri are JATAM activists who have been travelling in Europe for the Deadly Coal campaign since the beginning of October.

This is a slightly abridged translation of an Indonesian article which was published in the Kaltim Pos.  The full article is on the DTE website.

The Europe tour was facilitated by DTE, 11.11.11-Belgium, London Mining Network, SEAD and FoE Netherlands among other groups.