Monday, June 17, 2013

Wind turbine troubles — the Yuanli case

A group of residents in Miaoli County have banded together to halt the construction of wind turbines close to their homes. But corporate interests are getting in the way 

“Where do you want to go?” the old taxi driver inquired as we approached his car outside the Yuanli (苑裡) train station in Miaoli County, a small stop reminiscent of train stations in an old Western movie. “Please take us seaside, where they are building the wind turbines,” we said. 

The driver, assuming we were ordinary tourists, had evidently not expected such a request. “Why would you want to see those?” he asked. “There are much better things to see here — there’s a puppet show.” 

A man walks by the seashore
But we insisted. While driving, he pointed toward a small community behind the vibrantly green rice paddies, right by the seashore. “Those wind turbines are trouble. People are protesting,” he said. 

The residents of Yuanli Township launched their resistance movement against InfraVest GmbH, a German wind power company, in September, after a concerned Chen Ching-hai (陳清海), a local artist and owner of the Xin Diao Ju (心雕居) wood sculpture gallery, attended a pre-construction information session for residents living within 250m of the planned wind turbines. He learned that the firm intended to build 14 wind turbines, each capable of generating 2,300 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy, along the township’s 2km pristine coastline. 

A counter-protest at the site
But something wasn’t altogether right: records of the meeting showed that only 18 people in the four affected communities were present at the briefing. Worried about the density and close proximity of turbines to their homes, Chen and the residents formed the Yuanli Self-Help Group (苑裡反瘋車自救會). In all, of the 7,682 residents of Yuanli, 4,281 signed the petition opposing the construction of so many turbines in their neighborhood, and so close to their homes. It wasn’t hard to imagine why the villagers opposed the plan. (Removed from printed article: On our two-hour train ride from Taipei to Yuanli, we’d encountered several dozens of the 80m-tall structures, the long metallic stems, the egg-shaped cores, bringing to mind scenes from H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. We’d expected laser beams to start zapping all life forms at any instant.) 

Since September, members of the self-help organization have protested at the Bureau of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Executive Yuan, the Control Yuan and in front of the InfraVest office in Taipei. Chen, the leathery-skinned group leader, went on hunger strike for 10 days and had to stop after he began throwing up blood. 

The electronics box
The organization claims that InfraVest manipulated data and paperwork to obtain approval from the EPA. They also allege that the firm submitted a single application for Yuanli, Tongsiao (通宵) and Jhunan (竹南) townships for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to create the illusion of a much larger area for the wind farms and to avoid the 10 percent land usage quota. By doing so, it also avoided having to address the three townships’ idiosyncratic environmental specifications. After receiving conditional EIA approval, InfraVest submitted a Difference of Environmental Impact (DEI) evaluation and requested that five wind turbine sites be shifted to Yuanli, bringing the total there to 14 and above the 10 percent limit. 

The face of opposition
More importantly, the residents accuse InfraVest of not following the distance requirement in the company’s own DEI report, which clearly states that “the wind turbines should ideally be erected away from other structures, and for the wind turbines facing north or south, the turbines should be at least 350m away from each other. For the wind turbines facing east or west, the distance between the turbines should be at least 210m.” 

This feature article, co-written with Ketty Chen, was published today in the Taipei Times and continues here. See this article for my coverage on the thugs hired by InfraVest to scare off protesters ... and journalists. (All photos by the author)

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