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Wind power: Clean energy, dirty business?

In the developing world, where land-intensive wind turbines are being rapidly constructed, wind power has often turned clean energy into dirty business.

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While energy and environmental experts note that the conflicts are still relatively few, they are cautionary lessons for the industry.

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Wind takes off

"Much of Africa, Asia Pacific, and Latin America – as far as we see it – is on the verge of taking off," says Shruti Shukla, policy director of the Global Wind Energy Council.

The growth of wind power is driven partly by demand: China's electric power demand has doubled in just a decade, and India's peak demand is 12 percent higher than its available supply.

But also, national and international subsidies and incentives – such as carbon offsets that allow companies to invest in clean energy to "offset" carbon emissions in their dirtier businesses – have driven wind industry growth. Critics of the incentives say that every new turbine represents a blank check to pollute elsewhere. Supporters say it's a market-based solution meant to ease business into clean energy.

For Kyoto signatory nations it has meant a global rush to acquire land for wind turbines. Wind projects have been successful – notably, in Tamil Nadu, India, which experts like Ms. Shukla and Mr. Kammen cite as a model of responsiveness to local need and manageable scale.

Indeed, wind energy projects do generally inject economic benefits wherever they're built, but the development process often sparks anger, especially among poor landowners.

"What we see in many places, if not most places around the world, is very much what I would describe as the colonial model, where Europeans would go to Africa and other places and they say 'OK, we are going to develop this,' " says James Anaya, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. "And the deal that is being offered, in the end, is not a good one."

In 2001, Mr. Anaya won a landmark case in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that involved logging rights in Nicaragua and established that indigenous people have exclusive right to their lands. He says that too often a government or business acquires land through unequal negotiations, in which indigenous people aren't given all the information or options.

Negotiating any wind contract is complex. Often in the developing world, communities are poorly educated or largely illiterate and don't understand the implications of a contract. They may simply have no access to legal and technical advice and they may be powerless to negotiate. And because parcels are small, they can be destroyed by turbine construction.

Kammen, a strong supporter of wind power, says that by comparison, biofuels have a far worse record than wind development for land grabs. Rampant abuses in Tanzania, he says, recently led to a ban there on all new biofuel investment. He says that most conflicts involving wind energy deal with land occupied ­– but not owned – by indigenous groups, such as in the Kutch District of India, where a case pitting local herders against Indian wind giant Suzlon Energy Ltd. went to the high court there. He worries about such conflicts arising with Morocco's nomadic herders.

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