Current updates on the way to large scale wind farms

As electricity price records at the electricity exchange keep getting broken, it may be the right time to develop wind power plants that would diversify the generation capacities and stabilise electricity costs in the long term, mitigating uncontrolled electricity price increase.

The European Green Deal approved by the European Union (EU) includes a set of measures to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. It envisages the development of the electric power industry that mainly uses renewable sources. Latvia's national energy and climate plan for 2021-2030 sets a clear course towards efficient and sustainable use of Latvia's renewable energy sources. This will require the introduction of substantial wind power plant (WPP) capacity, i.e., an increase in generation capacity of at least 25%.

As no WPP farms have been built in Latvia in the last 10 years, it is clear that there are some serious obstacles that hinder the development of WPPs and wind power in Latvia. In the pilot WPP project in Priekule and when commencing the development of high-capacity WPPs, Latvenergo AS discovered obstacles in environmental impact assessment (EIA) procedures. Key of those were the protection of specially protected wild birds and the attitude of the local population (including municipalities). However, successful solutions to these problems can be found.

The opinion of the local population in the regions
The participation and support of the local community is essential for the WPP developer to successfully implement the project. Following a positive EIA opinion, it is the local government that decides whether to allow the implementation of the planned activity. Therefore, the opinion of the public and the local government, as well as the involvement of the public, can have a decisive role in the implementation of projects. The public opinion survey conducted by SKDS showed that overall 76% support the construction of wind farms in Latvia and only 14% are against.

We observe different attitudes towards the construction of WPPs from the local governments and from the public. We have encountered the well-known principle of "not in my back yard". In other words, the local residents are in favour of a proposed activity (construction of a WPP, factory, etc.) as long as it is developed in a neighbouring municipality or, ideally, somewhere even further away. Interest and involvement might be encouraged by more favourable legislation that would allow WPP developers to offer incentives or benefits to local communities and municipalities. This may also shift the focus away from various apparent factors, for example, changes in the landscape.

Conservation of specially protected wild bird species 
Compared to many other EU countries, Latvia has a great biodiversity and abundance of nature – protected bird species, habitats, etc. Nature’s riches, for example, the high density of specially protected bird species, impose significant limitations in the development of WPPs. For each such bird, a buffer zone of at least 1-3 km (depending on the bird species) around the nesting site is recommended, where the construction of WPPs is not allowed. This complicates the planning and construction of WPP farms. However, the problem is twofold – according to ornithologists, there are many nests that have not been identified yet and are not listed in any of the existing natural data records systems. Thus, there is a possibility of encountering such unidentified nests of specially protected bird species at the planned WPP construction site, which may restrict the WPP construction plans.

Another series of issues is related to legislation, its constant changes, communication between environmental institutions and provision of information, resulting in prolonged EIA procedure, creating additional costs and changing the rules of the game already during the project implementation. For example, we have been in a situation where, after more than a year of surveying a site intended for the construction of a WPP, a new protected nest next to the surveyed location suddenly appears in the nature data management system, having been known to the institution for almost a year, but for some reason not made public, meaning that all the work and time invested during this time has been in vain.

What could be the solutions?
It is clear that solutions to the problems mentioned above need to be found in order to successfully develop WPP farms.

In order to reduce public and municipal reluctance towards the development of WPP farms, the legislation requires changes that would allow the developers of WPP farms to create business models that are inclusive for local communities, promoting the involvement of municipalities and residents in renewable energy projects, offering one-time or annual payments based on the annual amount of generated electricity. Such solutions are used in several EU countries (for example, Germany) and ensure a fairer distribution of benefits, thus significantly reducing the negative attitudes of the local public.

Another solution to work on is informing and educating the public about the impact of WPPs. There are many myths, half-truths and a lot of scientifically unproven information about the adverse effects of WPPs on nature and people. Our experience shows that a part of the society does not trust science and research-based data. This requires thoroughly prepared, patient, open and informative work by the experts.

As regards the specially protected bird species, a series of complex solutions and compromises are needed, balancing the interests of nature and renewable energy generation, because it is clear that otherwise successful development of WPPs will be difficult. Here too, one of the actions to be taken would be amending the legislation to reduce the permissible (recommended) distance from the WPP to the nests of specially protected wild birds, as well as introducing compensation measures (similar to those already used in Latvia in other nature conservation areas) where the impact on the protected bird species is low, while the expected restrictions significantly hinder the construction of several WPPs. Mapping of areas suitable for potential wind power development and potential collision risk zones should also be considered to minimise conflict situations between the interests of WPP farm development and bird protection already at the planning stage.

Solutions to mitigate the above-mentioned hurdles have been identified; however, their implementation will not be quick or easy. Nevertheless, the first steps have already been taken and an agreement has been concluded with the Latvian Ornithological Society, also discussing possible joint activities.

Dainis Kanders, Environmental Risks and Development Project Manager of Latvenergo AS