In rural Jordan, pulling power from the wind to make change on the ground

Taylor Luck
Camels graze underneath wind turbines on pastoral lands in the region of Tafila, Jordan, April 25, 2018.
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In the town of Tafila and surrounding villages 100 miles south of Amman, Jordan, 96,000 residents have long endured low employment, with little investment or industry. Most relied on government jobs and the rest on farming and shepherding. When the Arab Spring hit in 2011, Tafila became a center of protests. “There was a sense of despair and that … we either had no future or a limited future,” says one resident. But the region of exposed hilly plains did have wind, the strongest in the country. And so the Jordan Wind Project Company was selected to build the first commercial wind farm in the Arab world in Tafila. Few residents had heard of the technology, let alone considered turbines standing in the middle of their pastoral lands. But the project won over landowners and residents with income, employment, and the hope for more. “People believe one wind farm will sort out unemployment alone,” says the company chairman. “It doesn’t, but 20 projects like it could.” Several other firms are now looking to follow suit. Says one landowner: “If we can make electricity from the air, then we can make change on the ground.”

Why We Wrote This

In southern Jordan, our correspondent found an impoverished rural area that felt neglected by the government and had been the site of sustained protests not many years ago. Today it is the site of a commercial wind farm, an innovative marriage of emerging green power technology with a hopeful start to curing social inequities. Still, it wasn't the easiest sell.

Mohammed, 14, walks, as he does every day each spring, with his flock of 200 sheep along the still-green slopes of southern Jordan.

Above them, fan blades 170 feet long whirl in the sky.

“That is the future,” he says, pointing his wooden staff toward the wind turbines. He nods to his sheep. “And this is our present. Side-by-side.”

Why We Wrote This

In southern Jordan, our correspondent found an impoverished rural area that felt neglected by the government and had been the site of sustained protests not many years ago. Today it is the site of a commercial wind farm, an innovative marriage of emerging green power technology with a hopeful start to curing social inequities. Still, it wasn't the easiest sell.

In a troubled tribal town in Jordan, residents are turning to wind energy to lift the region up from underdevelopment, unemployment, and unrest, and as a model for green energy.

In the town of Tafila and surrounding villages, known collectively as the Tafila governorate, 100 miles south of Amman, some 96,000 residents have long lived in the shadow of the capital.

There is little investment or industry. Most private-sector enterprises are farms and mom-and-pop grocery and supply stores. Most Tafila residents have long relied on government jobs such as the police and the army. The rest rely on farming and shepherding sheep and camels.

Unemployment in the region has consistently been among the highest in the kingdom: as of late 2017, unemployment in Tafila hovered close to 25 percent, well above the national average of 18.3 percent. Youth unemployment is over 40 percent.

The lack of jobs, investment, and, say residents, respect and attention from the government led Tafila to become an epicenter of a nationwide protest movement when the Arab Spring hit Jordan in 2011.

For three years, young men marched through the town’s main street on a weekly – and at times, daily – basis, demanding jobs, price controls, a democratic opening, and an end to corruption.

“There was a sense of despair and that, for us as young Jordanians in Tafila, we either had no future or a limited future,” says Rakan Arrfou, 27, who, although he did not take part in the protests, had many friends and university classmates who took to the streets.

It was amid this atmosphere of frustration, disillusionment, and public anger that a company quietly began pitching a very unusual project: a wind farm.

The Jordan Wind Project Company (JWPC), a consortium of Jordanian, French, Cypriot, and Emirati firms, had been selected by the Jordanian government in 2011 to build the country’s first-ever wind farm.

Tafila, with its exposed hilly plains and dramatic gorges that open westward onto the Jordan Valley below, is home to the highest annual wind speed in Jordan at more than 7 meters (23 feet) per second. With such potential, the JWPC was set to build a 117-megawatt wind farm in Tafila’s agricultural plains.

There was only one problem: No one had ever built a commercial wind farm in the Arab world before, and certainly not in rural southern Jordan. Very few in Tafila had heard of the technology, let alone considered 100-meter-tall wind turbines standing in the middle of their ancestral pastoral lands.

Overcoming distrust

“Here we are coming to a conservative, largely farming society and telling them that we are going to build wind turbines – something many cannot even picture in their minds,” says Samer S. Judeh, JWPC chairman.

“It is not an easy sale in the US or Europe, how do you do it in rural Jordan?”

The JWPC also had another obstacle: distrust. Jordan’s outlying governorates have a long history of bold mega-projects billed by the government as cure-alls that either never materialize, arrive decades late, are tainted with corruption, employ few locals, or do not employ locals at all.

To sway skeptical residents and community leaders, for months the JWPC held town-hall meetings with community leaders, the business community, teachers, university students, and average citizens. Explanations were given on the economic benefits of wind energy, the minimal impact on the environment, and cuts in carbon emissions.

Taylor Luck
Mamdouh Al Rafoua, a community leader in Tafila in southern Jordan, stands amid rows of barley on his farm, which he has leased to the Tafila Wind Farm, April 25, 2018.

Then there was the question of land.

Land is a sensitive subject for Jordanian tribes, whose livelihood is based on farms and grazing lands, part of a harmonious cycle for centuries.

Families elsewhere in the country have accused the government and influential investors of using pressure to push them off tribal lands or seizing land plots in the name of the state, only to sell them as a privatization scheme.

Landowner rights

The JWPC made a decision: it was not going to buy or take away land. Instead, it would lease land from local residents for a 20-year period.

The company made an important stipulation: landowners would retain the right to continue to use their land as they see fit, save for the quarter-acre plot each wind turbine stood on.

Landowners also retained the right to sell or rent their land at any point during the rental agreement, as long as the new owners or tenets agree to the wind farm’s conditions.

Those who rented their land could continue to plant crops, graze sheep and camels, and set up tents during the summer.

In late 2011, Mamdouh Al Rafoua, former mayor of the nearby village of Buseira, became the first to sign a lease. Seeing a trusted community leader sign up, dozens more took the plunge. Now the Tafila Wind Farm rents over 1,000 acres from the local community for 38 turbines.

Today Mr. Al Rafoua grows hills of barley and stalks of wheat over 25 acres, which are home to three turbines. He continues to harvest most of the crops, leaving a third for local shepherds’ flocks to graze on, continuing a centuries-old arrangement.

“Right now, I am renting 25 acres of land, but have only lost a quarter acre of productivity,” Al Rafoua says, standing between rows of three-foot-high green barley stalks swaying in the shadows of a wind turbine.

“There is no smoke, no dust, no pollution, and plenty of economic opportunity,” he says. “This is a deal too good for anyone to pass up.”

Urban flight

During the construction phase, the Tafila Wind Farm created 360 temporary jobs, handed out some $30 million in contracts to local contractors, rented more than 300 pieces of heavy equipment, and pumped more than $10 million directly into the region’s economy.

Yet project staff cautioned Tafila residents from the onset: The project was not a cure-all, nor would it create hundreds of permanent jobs.

Since it opened in 2015, the Tafila Wind Farm has hired 60 workers, 90 percent of whom are from Tafila, including 11 engineers to run the plant. The project has even contracted three full-time bird watchers to monitor migratory birds and endangered birds residing at the nearby Dana Biosphere Reserve.

Despite its modest numbers, for many families the wind farm was a much-needed lifeline and led to a reversal in the growing migration of young residents to the capital.

For years, engineering graduates in Tafila had two options: stay unemployed at home or leave for the big city. Neither option was too appealing.

Often, the only jobs available to Tafila engineers were in plastic factories in Amman and Zarqa. The $400 monthly salary would barely cover the cost of rent in the capital, food, and transportation. Tafila residents were unable to save money, help their family, or plan to marry. Currently, there are more than 400 unemployed engineers in Tafila alone.

Now, for the first time in a generation, Tafila’s best and brightest can return home.

“We grew up believing that we would have to leave home to make a living,” says Mohammad al-Mahasneh, 33, who after working at a conventional power plant in Zarqa was appointed as an electric engineering manager at the Tafila Wind Farm.

“Now I can be at my door within 15 minutes.”

Arrfou, the 27-year-old Tafila resident, spent two years living in his parents’ home applying for jobs before the call came: Tafila Wind Farm was hiring.

“If it wasn’t for this opportunity, I would still be at home like most of my classmates,” says Arrfou, who is entering his third year with the wind farm.

More wind farms on tap

Wind farm staff caution that the jobs are a modest contribution, but also the beginning of a much-needed turnaround for Tafila’s fortunes.

“People believe one wind farm will sort out unemployment alone,” says Mr. Judeh, the JWCP chairman. “It doesn’t, but 20 projects like it could, and that is what we are paving the way for.”

Sure enough, encouraged by the success of the wind farm and community buy-in, several other local and international firms are looking to follow suit and tap into Tafila’s wind energy potential.

Several large-scale wind farms are either under construction, in the pipeline, or being considered in Tafila, with a 100-megawatt wind farm from GE to be completed in 2019 and a 49-megawatt Korean wind power plant in 2020.

With all these wind projects in the pipelines, firms are looking to employ dozens of Tafila engineers, contractors, construction workers, security guards, and birdwatchers. And the Tafila Wind Farm is serving as the perfect training ground for a new generation of wind energy experts.

In cooperation with the local Tafila Technical University, the wind farm is taking on a half-dozen engineering students each semester, giving them over 200 hours of training and hands-on experience in wind energy and management.

On-the-job training at the Middle East’s only large-scale commercial wind farm is making Tafila university graduates a hot commodity, with tens already being hired by the new projects.

“We have shown that Tafila residents have the same qualifications and skills of those from Amman and Western capitals,” says Al Rafoua, the landowner and community leader.

“If we can make electricity from the air, then we can make change on the ground.”

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