Will New Windfarm Ruin One of Europe's Greatest Surfing Spots?

Tony Butt

by on

Updated 109d ago

The other day I received an interesting piece of news. A new offshore windfarm off Viana do Castelo in Northern Portugal has just become fully operational. It is called Windfloat Atlantic and is the first floating windfarm in continental Europe.

The three giant windmills are 190 metres high and each one generates a maximum of 8.4 MW of power. Each one is mounted on triangular, three-column floating platform, 30 metres high and 50 metres across, anchored to the sea bed. The windfarm is deployed 20 km from the coast, with sub-sea cables carrying the electricity to the shore where it is injected into Portugal’s national power grid. Presumably, Windfloat Atlantic will help save us from the climate emergency.

Where to surf in Galicia

Could structures like this impact wave quality? Is it a necessary sacrifice to help save the planet during a climate crisis?

Could structures like this impact wave quality? Is it a necessary sacrifice to help save the planet during a climate crisis?

At the same time, I received a message from a reader in northwest Galicia. He told me about a possible future plan to install many more of these same devices around the coast of Galicia. He was concerned that nobody had done any tests to see whether or not these devices would affect the waves for surfing. Galicia is home to some of the best surf in Europe. It also has a thriving surf community and a booming surf industry, with more and more people making a living out of surfing.

I couldn’t find any tests to see if the surf would be affected. I knew from previous work I had done with Surfers Against Sewage that, if any tests or simulations had been made, they probably would have been very basic. That work was related to a planned deployment of wave energy converters near a surf spot in Scotland. The developers had done some calculations to see how much the presence of those devices would reduce the wave height – which turned out to be not much. I pointed out to them that wave-height reduction wasn’t really the problem; it was the shape and quality of the waves that really mattered. I recommended that an independent, unbiased person do much more comprehensive tests including real-time measurements and spectral modelling under a broad range of conditions. They never got back to me. I recommended that an independent, unbiased person do much more comprehensive tests including real-time measurements and spectral modelling under a broad range of conditions. They never got back to me

In the case of offshore wind turbines on large semi-floating platforms like Windfloat Atlantic, the waves might be affected if enough of the devices were deployed in the swell-window of a particular surf spot. However, just like the Scotland case, we wouldn’t know for sure until comprehensive, independent modelling was done.

If it turned out that the waves would be affected at a spot such as Pantín (the most famous Galician surf spot and home of the longest-running surf event in Europe), what would happen? Would the local community protest, or would they just accept it? After all, offshore windfarms emit zero pollution and generate free energy, and that’s what we need to avoid the climate crisis and save the planet. And to save the planet, we are going to have to make some sacrifices, including environmental ones. But do those sacrifices have to include surf spots?

Or is there another way? Could we avert the climate crisis without installing giant offshore windfarms requiring millions of euros worth of cabling and other infrastructure, astronomical installation and maintenance costs, and mostly unknown effects on the environment, off every coastline? And to save the planet, we are going to have to make some sacrifices, including environmental ones. But do those sacrifices have to include surf spots?

Large renewable energy projects tend to be owned by the same people who bring us fossil-fuel generated electricity. Windfloat Atlantic is 19 per cent owned by Spanish oil giant Repsol and 54 per cent owned by Energías de Portugal (EDP); and the vast Seagreen windfarm in Scotland is 51 per cent owned by the French oil giant Total.

I call them ‘Big Energy’, like ‘Big Oil’ or ‘Big Tobacco’, or if you wanted to be really cynical you could call them ‘Big Power’. Their websites explain really well how investing in offshore wind can make you rich, but they rarely go into the details of how these schemes will replace fossil-fuel generated power, and help to save the planet.

A little monolithic.

A little monolithic.

I couldn’t help wondering what was wrong with small-scale, off-grid electricity generation, and why we still have to have these gargantuan, centralised schemes. I tried to find an unbiased study to find out what would happen if we completely decentralised the generation of electricity and just had lots of small, independent wind or solar electricity generators. What would be the present and future environmental and social costs, as well as the monetary costs to the whole of society, compared with the present ‘Big Energy’ model above?

I couldn’t find a study like that. But I knew of a similar one, related to the Portuguese National Dam Program. Just like Windfloat Atlantic and Seagreen, the Portuguese National Dam Program is controlled by Big Energy, with its main investor being EDP. A group of scientists from the New University of Lisbon, led by Dr João Joanaz de Melo, calculated that you could end up with the same result using two different methods: (a) generate electricity using dams and therefore not burn x amount of fossil fuels or (b) use energy-efficiency measures, like insulating homes, and therefore not burn x amount of fossil fuels.

The difference, they found, was that the second method would cost ten times less than the first. And that’s just the monetary cost, not the environmental and social cost (hydropower causes a lot of environmental problems, including ecosystem and habitat destruction, displacement of human communities, water pollution and coastal erosion). While EDP were trying to convince the Portuguese public that building giant dams was unquestionably necessary if we wanted to save the planet, the study showed that that just wasn’t the case.

On the positive side, going off grid has recently become more and more feasible in Spain and Portugal. Up until a few years ago, the governments made it very difficult for anybody to generate and use their own electrical energy, but now things are easier. The new laws apply more specifically to solar energy than wind, but the principal is the same: it is now possible for each household to generate its own electricity and to consume it on the spot. It is also possible for several households to get together and build a small, local grid. That concept is analogous to a small, organic farm that supplies locally-grown food to a number of local families, instead of a giant, centralised supermarket owned by a large multinational.

Around 100kms east of Pantin is Illa Pancha and a couple of years back, an inaugural tow-only event threw down. The diversity of the Galician coast is vast.

Around 100kms east of Pantin is Illa Pancha and a couple of years back, an inaugural tow-only event threw down. The diversity of the Galician coast is vast.

One thing that comes up time and time again with going off-grid, is the issue of intermittency. Thanks to fossil fuels, we have come to expect electricity to be available whenever we want it. With wind and solar, the electricity is only available if there is wind or if there is sunshine. That is why we are told we must still rely on coal, gas and nuclear power plants to fill in the gaps. And that, of course, means relying on the grid, controlled by Big Energy.

But that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. Firstly, engineers are working hard to bring us ever more efficient batteries and other storage devices, so that intermittency will soon cease to be an issue. Secondly – and this is a bit harder to swallow – perhaps we should consider adjusting our demands to fit the supply instead of modifying the supply to fit our demands. In other words, adjust our lifestyles so that we make the most of the power when it is available, and not worry when it is not. If you are a surfer, this concept should be a bit easier to grasp, because your life already revolves around the cycles of the swells, tides and winds.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against renewable energy and I think it will definitely help to bring us out of the climate crisis. But I think that putting too much reliance on a centralised large-scale model controlled by the same multinational corporations that deal in fossil-fuel energy, could be asking for trouble. Allowing them to build bigger and bigger machines that change the landscape and seascape, letting them convince us that one part of the environment (including surf spots) must be sacrificed to save the rest of it, while they happen to be making a huge profit, just doesn’t seem quite right.