More Norwegians saying “not in my backyard” to onshore wind farms

Lars Erik Taraldsen, Lars Paulsson and Jesper Starn December 09, 2020
Norwegian energy minister Tina Bru
Norwegian energy minister Tina Bru

OSLO (Bloomberg) - After being harassed on social media and told repeatedly that she’s a traitor who should be in jail, Norway’s 34-year-old energy minister is bracing for a controversial election campaign.

In the country that has amassed a trillion-dollar fortune built on the revenue from oil and natural gas exports, it’s the green energy revolution that is stoking one of the loudest debates. Wind power could be a vital part of Norway’s plan to slash pollution, but many voters have had enough of the machines that stand as tall as skyscrapers. Tina Bru is getting abuse both online and when out on foot.

“I’m not afraid of the angry messages, but I can be worried about the general political debate, how hard it can be in some cases, such as with wind power,” Bru said in an interview. “I’m not exclusively positive nor negative, but we know we need more renewable energy in this country.”

The protests stem from last decade’s installation boom. Wind output has risen almost six-fold and now feeds about 4% of Norway’s total electricity, with hydro-electric plants supplying most of the rest. By the mid-2020s, a vast amount of Norway’s substantial oil industry will be powered by renewables, according to the energy regulators. The grid company Statnett SF expects a 30% jump in demand by 2040 with the urge to electrify both industry and transport.

While the cost of wind power is falling, a growing number of voters want to see less of it. They’d rather see alternatives like more hydro or even fossil fuels -- which would clash with the government’s environmental goals. A survey in November showed that only 36% were favorable about onshore wind as an energy source, down from as much as 84% in 2011. Oil’s popularity has increased to 29% from just 16% five years ago, according to Kantar’s Climate Barometer, which polled 2,085 people.

The backlash among the public and lawmakers has gone so far that industry consultant StormGeo Nena Analysis said last month that it’s unlikely any more wind farms will be built on land in the decade to 2034. Statnett is even more skeptical, seeing no further large scale developments ever except for offshore.

Renewable Growth

Wind farm opponents come from all walks of life. They include environmentalists worried about the impact on nature and wildlife and people who work in the oil and gas industry.

The election is due in September, and the main political parties are starting to adjust their programs. Some that previously backed onshore wind are now against it, including traditional climate parties the Socialist Left Party, the Green Party and the Liberals.

The Socialist Left had turbines on the front page of their program in 2013, but are now going for a ban. While Bru’s ruling Conservative Party plans to improve licensing to give local communities a voice and greater consideration to the environment, both the far right and far left have made no to wind their main platform.

Eivind Salen, a teacher and chairman of resistance group Motvind, says they should all go even further. “We want to choke it completely.”

While most people settle for peaceful demonstrations, there have been some serious incidents, said Andreas Thon Aasheim, a special adviser at the Norwegian wind lobby organization.

“Car brakes have been tampered with. Excavators have been set on fire. Plugs on machines have been taken off, causing diesel and fluid leaks,” he said.

Industry executives say that companies could fold as a result of the growing resistance. That would also upend the specialist construction sector that installs the machines, threatening thousands of jobs and ultimately the nation’s electrification plan.

“It will not be possible at all,” said Espen Borgir Christophersen, a partner at Stormvind AS. “Those who think otherwise, please prove me wrong.”

Growth Forecast

Bru sees a need for more electricity and faster cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Everyone is going to drive an electric car,” said Bru. “Lots of things are set to switch to electricity. It is important that politicians plan for how to meet that need.”

Environmentalists are lining up with oil industry supporters against wind. Jorgen Randers, the former head of WWF Norway and a retired physics professor, would prefer to see more hydro power. Hogne Hongset, who worked as an adviser to the national oil company and one of the energy workers unions, says Norway should keep producing oil and gas. This year, the 80-year-old got in trouble with the police for the first time in his life at a wind demonstration and was fined 6,000 kroner ($685). “It was worth it,” said Hongset.

Bru is preparing for next year’s election campaign, still smarting from an encounter last summer when she was prevented from going into a meeting in Haugesund, just north of the oil capital Stavanger. It was the first time she ever felt uncomfortable doing her job as a politician, and she’s still getting hate-messages almost daily.

“There’s no doubt that wind power involves significant encroachments on nature,” Bru said. “But so does any type of power development. That’s important to keep in mind.”

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