From a hill overlooking lush pastures on Chiloé Island in Chile, Gicella Saldivia and her family manage a small organic farm and restaurant. Bird watchers arrive by the busload to marvel at the mix of native and migratory species on nearby Mar Brava Beach. You might assume that a scene this bucolic and an energy source as clean as wind power would be a good fit. But Saldivia and many of the 160,000 other residents of this 3,000-sq.-mi. (8,000 sq km) Patagonian isle are at odds, and in court, with Chilean energy company Ecopower over plans to build a $235 million, 56-turbine wind park on Mar Brava. "Chile has a wealth of natural resources to protect that other countries don't," says Saldivia. "This is going to affect my tranquility."
Peace of mind was exactly what alternative-energy sources like wind were supposed to give enviro-conscious citizens like Saldivia. But the Chiloé dispute is a reminder that wind power, like hydroelectric power, has its own potential negatives. That's not what the government of a near developed but energy-starved nation like Chile wants to hear, especially when its booming economy compels it to double its power output to 30,000 megawatts by 2025. What's more, it creates an awkward p.r. dilemma for the environmental movement, which has long been badgering developing countries to move away from fossil fuels. As Barbara Galletti, president of the Cetacean Conservation Center, one of several environmental groups trying to halt Ecopower's Chiloé project, concedes: "Absolutely everybody opposed to the location of this wind park is in favor of and promotes the use of renewable nonconventional energy."
But location, say environmentalists, is precisely the problematic factor when it comes to wind farms, as it is with some controversial hydroelectric dams being built in South America. Galletti, for example, is quick to point out that other wind-energy projects planned for Chiloé have generated none of the backlash that Mar Brava has. But in December, she delivered to Chilean President Sebastián Piñera a letter, supported by marine-mammal specialists, calling for an executive decision to stop Ecopower's Chiloé park. The reason: Mar Brava, though an ideal site for capturing the Pacific Ocean's robust gusts, is also host to myriad vulnerable avian species, from native kelp gulls and Chilean flamingos to migratory whimbrels and sanderlings. At the same time, the area is one of the southern hemisphere's most important feeding grounds for great blue whales.
Wind turbines are increasingly recognized as a lethal hazard for birds, but some scientists now think they're also harmful to marine life. From half a mile (less than 1 km) away, the whooshing turbines emit an acceptable noise level of around 50 decibels. But if some of the Ecopower turbines are placed as close as 30 ft. (10 m) from the Mar Brava shoreline, scientists say, levels for ocean life could approach if not exceed a more harmful 100 decibels like standing next to a running lawnmower. That, the environmentalists argue, could disrupt the highly sensitive communication systems of animals like whales, which in turn could interfere with their critical migratory and feeding patterns. To complicate matters, Mar Brava is also home to one of South America's oldest burial sites, about 6,000 years old.
Eco-groups and Chiloé residents have asked the Chilean courts to halt the Ecopower venture at least until a detailed environmental-impact study can be completed. But last month the Supreme Court overruled lower-court legal injunctions against the wind farm. Even so, says Juan Alberto Molina, an attorney who represents the project's opponents, "We will not surrender without a fight."
Recent events make it harder to dismiss that threat. Last year, for example, tens of thousands of Chileans marched on La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, to oppose a large project of hydroelectric dams in ecologically sensitive Patagonia. The government's silence was deafening, however, which helped contribute to a deep slump in Piñera's approval ratings. Still, the hydroelectric protests sparked a national discussion over the future of energy generation in Chile and may have influenced the more recent opposition campaign in Chiloé. "Chile only recently began dealing with issues of modernity," says Ricardo Israel, a political analyst at the Autonomous University of Chile. "But it hasn't yet found a good formula for discussing, much less resolving, them."
Right now, imported fuel and coal-fired plants supply most of Chile's energy needs. Greener alternative sources account for only around 3% of the matrix, but the country's potential for renewable energy like geothermal, solar and wind is vast. Among government and business leaders, one of the concerns regarding opposition to the Mar Brava project, which is supposed to produce more than 110 megawatts, is the precedent it could set in Chile, where wind turbines are beginning to appear on just about every stretch of the country's 2,600-mi. (4,000 km) coastline.
Another is what critics call the less-than-rock-solid scientific evidence behind the opposition's charges and a fear that Chiloé residents and environmentalists are demonstrating a knee-jerk response to anything that might alter Mar Brava's idyllic ambience. "If we follow the logic that noise from turbines affects whales," says Ecopower general manager Julio Albarrán, who insists the company has adhered to environmental law, "then we'd have to remove all the boats in the ocean."
During a recent speech to energy-industry leaders, Piñera forecast "serious problems" in the near term as Chile scrambles to meet the demands of 6% economic growth and rapid urbanization. The government has said all options are on the table, including regional integration with Colombia, Peru and Argentina, a greater reliance on hydroelectric power and incentives for renewable-energy investment. Still, says Israel, "the [energy] decisionmaking process is very antiquated. It will be very difficult for Chile to continue progressing if it doesn't change these mental processes." Which means, for starters, Santiago and Chilean communities like Chiloé need to blow less political wind at each other and more problem-solving breezes.