Asian wind power development faces growing storm with local communities

A South Korean law to ease tensions with fisherfolk could face months of delays after missing the legislative polls deadline, while more conflicts are surfacing in the Philippines. Can tighter financing criteria help avoid disputes?

China offshore wind
Offshore wind turbines in China. The country leads Asia's deployment of wind power, but many of its neighbours now want in on big developments. Image: Flickr/ Climate Group.

Wind turbines hold much promise for Asia’s energy future: they spew almost no emissions when generating power, can be installed faster than traditional fossil-powered plants, and in many gusty coastal areas produce electricity around the clock.

But such benefits have not stopped local communities from railing against new projects in some countries, putting ambitious wind development pipelines in jeopardy. The situation highlights how even the most vaunted decarbonisation solutions cannot fly without including social safeguards and appeasing influential stakeholders.

Fisherfolk have rallied against new offshore projects in South Korea, while civil society groups in the Philippines decry the loss of land and pristine nature. In Japan, wind developers are negotiating with several fishing cooperatives over turbine and subsea cable works, with the concern that one dissenting group can scupper an entire venture, local newspaper Nikkei reported.

“Fishing community engagement and public acceptance are very, very big issues for offshore wind,” said Qiao Liming, Asia head for the Global Wind Energy Council. Such problems are less visible in the Philippines and Vietnam today because projects have not yet scaled to the extent they have in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, Qiao said.

Wind energy’s conflict with local communities is not a particularly new problem, nor an uniquely Asian one: countries in the West have had to deal with the not-in-my-backyard mentality for years, with noise, biodiversity and political concerns stymieing wind projects.

But with economic inequalty and lagging governance, experts fear that disputes with wind power developers in Asia will only grow in the years ahead – though major financiers could help to discipline markets with standardised environmental and social rules.

Simmering dissent

Perhaps nowhere in Asia has the conflict been as public as in South Korea. Fishing groups have been protesting against new marine wind power development for years, fearing loss of fisheries from construction activities and safety zones around turbines that keeps boats away from fertile waters. Major projects have faced years of delays as a result.

Lawmakers have responded by proposing a much-anticipated law – called the “Special Act for Promotion of Wind Power Distribution” – that would clarify maritime zoning, give the government a bigger role in leading community engagement, and form a “one-stop shop” authority for wind projects under the Prime Minister’s office.

But the bill did not pass before the end of the national assembly term last week, despite winning support from the two main political groups through years of talks. The administrative delay is expected to last months while a new parliament is formed and lawmaking processes are reset.

Meanwhile, the country’s influential National Federation of Fisheries Cooperatives published guidlines earlier this year for how members can bargain for better rights in wind projects, according to The Korea Times.

The current issue, some say, stems from wind project developers being able to choose their own sites before seeking state approval, which increases the risk of incursion into the country’s many fishing grounds. There is also confusion over proper procedures for community engagement.

“Fishermen can say okay to a project at the initial change, then change their opinion later. Local communities can also jump in to add their opinion at a later stage,” said Yebin Yang, researcher at nonprofit Solutions for Our Climate (SFOC).

The community acceptance woes add to several financing and supply chain constraints the offshore wind industry is already facing. South Korea has a target for 14.3 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind by 2030, and has given initial approval for over 27GW worth of projects. However, less than 0.2GW has been installed today.

More emerging Asian economies are also keen to scale up their wind energy capacity. Thailand wants 3GW by 2036, the Philippines is targeting 5GW by 2030, Vietnam thinks it can do 28GW this decade.

In the Philippines, two land-based wind projects have made news this year for antagonising local groups: a project in the northern Luzon region is accused of encroaching into the Masungi forest reserve, while another in central Visayas is said to endanger the Nabaoy river. In both cases, the developers say proper certifications have been secured, and the government has thus far backed the projects.

Some believe the state-led sustainability standards are not stringent enough. Maris Cardenas, executive director of local nonprofit CentRE, pointed to renewable energy projects under 100 megawatts (MW) requiring only an initial environmental examination, in place of a more detailed impact statement.

“There have been wind projects in the past, and even recently approved contracts for onshore wind, that fall into this category,” Cardenas said.

For instance, the Visayas project by Thai-Philippine joint venture PetroWind stands at 14 MW. The Luzon project by Rizal Wind Energy Corporation, owned by Singapore-based Vena Energy, is said to number 12 onshore wind turbines, which will unlikely reach the 100 MW threshold.

The concern is that wind project construction on hilltops can destroy pristine rainforests and farmers’ fruit trees, said Marvin Lagonera, energy transition expert at nonprofit Forum for the Future. Induced commercialisation resulting from the projects could also impact local communities, he added.

Mixed awareness

The awareness among wind project developers for social and environmental risks remains varied in Asia, with international developers having an edge over domestic players, said Megan Lawson, Asia renewables partner at sustainability consultancy Environmental Resources Management (ERM).

It could be a recipe for future hiccups. Lawson noted that wind projects are often sited in areas where communities are already disadvantaged. Meanwhile, expectations on compensation from energy developers are increasing as awareness of negative impacts grows.

“So it takes a higher level of mitigation and management measures to satisfy stakeholder sentiments,” Lawson said.

Project financiers could help. Nearly 130 lenders worldwide have signed on the Equator Principles, a risk management framework that spells out criteria in areas such as impact assessments, stakeholder mechanism and independent monitoring. This private-sector initiative runs parallel to the World Bank’s performance standards on social and environmental sustainability.

This means project developers may need to tighten their own sustainability assessments to secure funding from reputable financiers for their ventures.

In the Philippines at least, Lagonera said there should be greater sensitivity around Indigenous and customary land ownership, along with greater attention in creating proper grievance mechanisms.

Stakeholder engagement is always muddied by politics, Lawson noted, and advises developers to plan engagements and project design tweaks based on various parties’ influence and importance.

In Europe and China, researchers are exploring pairing offshore wind farms with aquaculture to improve local livelihoods, though few trials are currently underway. Fishing generally remains prohibited, with concern among developers that the use of drag nets and anchors could destroy subsea power infrastructure.

Wind energy’s image problem has caught the attention of global energy industry leaders. The Global Wind Energy Council is studying both how developers can better engage local communities, and the positive impact projects can bring to coastal groups. There won’t be one clear solution for everything, Qiao said, but she hopes the analyses can help to facilitate discussions.

In any case, the industry cannot be given a free pass on social and environmental impacts just because of its decarbonisation potential, said Cardenas of CentRE. 

“There is that notion that renewable energy is green, so the process of installing the systems, and [what happens in] the value chain is not [scrutinised],” she said.

“It is time to take a serious look not only at the renewable energy output…but also the whole process from the sourcing of materials to the delivery, construction and end-of-life treatment, to make it a more sustainable and resilient system,” Cardenas added.

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