Machines in the Garden

Harnessing the wind to produce energy will undoubtedly temper the environmental and social damage unfolding all around us. But at what cost to rural economies and ecologies?

Town in rural valley with castle on steep hill in the center.
Montánchez from the south, 2020. [Joop Kleuskens]

Montánchez, a picturesque hilltop town in rural Extremadura in western Spain, has a resident population of about 2,000.  It is famous for its jamón, its eighth-century Moorish castle, its Roman watermills and pathways. It also has a rich birdlife (this sierra is a key point on the migration route between Europe and Africa), and a largely agricultural economy based on a mix of olive groves, vineyards, upland pastures, and lowland dehesa, a highly specific ecosystem of holm oaks, cork trees, and mixed grazing. The two-week fiesta celebrating Nuestra Señora de la Consolación del Castillo brings together extended Montanchego families from all over the country and beyond, for reunions at the end of summer. The mountain caminos attract walkers, cyclists, and ornithologists year-round.

Here, on the periphery of what was once the Roman Empire, there remains a landscape lightly touched yet not subsumed. For the moment, at least.

Sitting on the terrace of our family house at the edge of the town, I look east onto row upon row of sierras, fading into mist even as the sun begins to burn it off. In the foreground are olive groves and bosques of oak, flanking a camino that winds down to Torre de Santa Maria and its pastureland. Beyond the valley, the Sierra de Montánchez rises up; the Cancho Blanco (White Boulder) radar station at its summit squats above the olive terraces and the village of Valdemorales. Further away, still swathed in mist, is the blue-gray profile of the Villuercas range, and, hidden behind a ridge, the home of La Virgen de Guadalupe. On a clear day — most days — I can turn my gaze north and see the Gredos range, snow-topped until well into spring. At night, under a starlit sky, we see the villages of the plain, lit up like cruise ships moored in a dark sea. The Cancho Blanco winks its little red eye as much to us as to the few passing aircraft. The silence seems infinite.

Hills, oaks, valleys, and pastureland.
Montánchez from La Recuera, 2019. [Hubert Murray]

Intricately terraced hillside.
The view down the Garganta de los Molinos to Arroyomollinos, 2013. Wind turbines are planned for the upper ridge. [Hubert Murray]

This landscape has been worked for millennia. The Romans irrigated the lowlands and built grain mills powered by mountain streams. Walls and terraces that climb the hills today date from the time of the Moors, meticulously maintained from the Reconquista to the present. The network of caminos and senderos is still used by drovers moving donkeys, goats, sheep, and cows — and, increasingly, by the walkers and mountain bikers. Locals define their sense of place by topographic facts like water sources (la fuente Los Perros, the Dogs’ Spring) or rocks (el cancho que se menea, the trembling boulder) or trees, singly and in groups (la morera, los robledos; the mulberry, the oakwoods). Eagles, vultures, and hawks ride the thermals; martins, swallows, and swifts swoop in formation to feast on insects in the cool evenings. Here, on the western peripheries of what was once the Roman Empire — and then the Baghdad Caliphate — and then European Christendom — and now the European Union — there remains a landscape lightly touched by all yet subsumed by none. For the moment, at least.

In 2006 and again in 2019, a development consortium put forward proposals to construct wind turbines in the Sierra de Montánchez. Neither bid was successful. Now, a restructured consortium is trying again, having submitted revised plans to build sixteen turbines arrayed across the range that we look out on, above the villages of Robledillo de Trujillo, Zarza de Montánchez, Ibahernando, and Santa Ana. Another ten, closer, are planned for ridges to the east and south, above the village of Montánchez and its chestnut woods, stretching five kilometers over to Arroyomolinos, at elevations between 2,500 to 3,000 feet. Each windmill stands 600 feet high at the top of the blade (about the height of a 42-story office building), and 345 feet at the turbine hub. There will be 26 in total, producing 117 megawatts of electricity. Two electrical substations in the valley will be connected to the turbines and to each other via 27 pylons, each more than 80 feet tall, with another 59 pylons running fourteen miles to an extensive electrical-distribution center and solar field at the edge of the historic town of Trujillo. 1  The concrete foundation for each turbine mast measures 215 feet square by ten feet deep; concrete laydown areas for assembling each of these machines range from 16,000 to 22,000 square feet. Paved access roads through ancient terraces will be sixteen feet wide with a minimum curve radius of 115 feet. When complete, each discrete “farm” will be fenced to prevent unauthorized entry.

Each windmill stands 600 feet high at the top of the blade, about the height of a 42-story office building. There will be 26 in total.

These installations are not yet a fait accompli. But massive investments in renewables are already underway in Extremadura, underwritten by policy and funding from the European Union. In the run-up to COP21 in 2015 and following the Paris Agreement of 2016, the E.U. enjoined member countries to achieve a 55 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, and net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. Under this plan, Spain has committed to a 23 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030, and carbon neutrality by 2050. 2 Additional goals include deriving just under three quarters of all Spanish energy production from electricity, which is to come completely from renewable sources. These ambitious aims recall, apparently without irony, Lenin’s dictum: “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” 3

Mountain path with stone walls, electrical transmission tower, and in the background a hilltop castle.
A 30-foot transmission tower on a camino, 2021. The Montánchez castillo is in the background. [Hubert Murray]

View of six wind turbines and two pylons against hillside.
Merengue I, a development of fifteen wind turbines in Plasencia, 2019. [Hubert Murray]

It’s true that Spain has a lot of catching up to do; in the Climate Change Performance Index of 61 major emitting countries, it ranks 41st. 4 On the other hand, in 2019, greenhouse-gas emissions per inhabitant in Spain were below the E.U. average. 5 Moreover, the population of Spain is rising while that in much of the rest of Europe is falling, and it may be that, in the near future, Spanish emissions per capita will look more even more favorable (or at least less unfavorable) in comparison to those of its neighbors.

Meanwhile, whether by design or coincidence, almost simultaneous global conventions were held under the auspices of the United Nations in 2021, highlighting some of the complexities and contradictions that permeate the pursuit of a fossil-free future. In mid-October, the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP15) adopted the Kunming Agreement in pursuit of three main goals: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components; and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. 6 From the end of October to mid-November, COP26 in Glasgow brought together delegates from all over the world to commit to halving global carbon emissions by 2030 and to achieving net-zero by 2050. The fact that COP15 in Kunming received little global publicity while COP26 has enjoyed international coverage suggests that the preservation of biodiversity in the process of preserving the planet, while at the same time maintaining economic growth, remains a contradiction the world prefers to ignore.

Preserving biodiversity while maintaining economic growth remains a contradiction the world prefers to ignore.

And so, as I contemplate the landscape before me and think about the organic economy of these villages, the way of life here in Extremadura, and the threats posed by the introduction of the turbines and their associated apparatus, I am contemplating likewise the global imperative to reduce the effects of heat, sea-level rise, torrential rains, and violent winds. I cannot doubt the causal connection between a ravenous international fossil-fuel economy and the massive effects on entire populations of food insecurity, warfare, and mass migrations. Harnessing the wind to produce energy is undoubtedly one way of tempering the environmental and social damage unfolding before us. But at what cost to communities like Montánchez?

At stake is the conservation of a landscape that is at once a work of nature and a human construction, fashioned into its present form over millennia of farming, and land- and animal-husbandry. Installation of the wind parks will entail the destruction of dry-stone walls, terraces, and olive groves dating back to the Romans and the Moors, and with them the devastation of natural and social ecologies that have proved resilient for centuries. Protection of this landscape is therefore equally entwined with the mitigation of climate crisis and with the preservation of contemporary village communities — the living generations whose labor and knowledge represent an inheritance from those who have co-created and existed in harmony with these lands before.

If we are to talk meaningfully of sustainability and biodiversity, in short, we must include humans.

These are the perspectives of an “outsider,” but such thoughts are not inconsistent with those of the majority in Montánchez and neighboring villages. In August 2019 a few months after the second-generation proposals for wind parks had been announced, a referendum was held by secret ballot in the Montánchez Ayuntamiento, the town hall, attended by a policeman and the priest. Of 800 votes cast, 86 percent voted no. Summer visitors like us were allowed to participate, and voters were split into resident and nonresident groups, in order to pre-empt objections to undue influence from the latter. But the percentage in each category who rejected the windmills came within one tenth of a point of each other. Farmers, shopkeepers, bar owners, the owners of casas rurales, homemakers — all overwhelmingly repudiated the proposed despoliation of their countryside, their economy, and their way of life. A demonstration was organized, and more than 300 people made a procession to the sierra, led up by riders on horseback and back down to the village by two young children riding a donkey. A few months ago, in response to the latest proposals, a similar demonstration was held, walking through the chestnut woods in autumnal rain.

Group of officials in city hall, with policeman observing.
Counting votes in the referendum in Montánchez August 7, 2019. The village priest is seated at the far left; the mayor is standing, in black. [Hubert Murray]

Two children on a donkey, demonstrators in matching t-shirts, priest in foreground.
Demonstrators entering the Plazuela Altozano, Montánchez, August 10, 2019. [Hubert Murray]

The local citizens’ group organizing opposition is known as the Plataforma Civica Sierra de Montánchez-Natura. One of the organizers, Francisco Pulido Martin, tells me that the wind park would mean “the end of one of the emblems of Montánchez and its region: the sierra.” Members of the Plataforma meet in person, often on the Plaza, as well as on social media. Posting on the group’s Facebook page in October of last year, Francisco declared:

The best, [most] extraordinary, wonderful thing about the Sierra de Montánchez-Natura Civic Platform is that it is formed by all the residents of Montánchez. But also [it has support] from the rest of the towns of the Region. It does not matter if we vote for Vox or Podemos; if we are farmers, ranchers, officials, or doctors. Here we are all together. 7

Nor is Montánchez unique in its opposition. 8 Indeed, resistance to this variety of development has been growing across Spain. A national consortium of over 190 local organizations, plataformas, and asociacións assembled in Madrid (also in October) for a massive demonstration to protest what has been called una fiebre eolica, a “wind fever.” This consortium, ALIENTE, or La Alianza Energía y Territorio, comprises groups from Galícia, Aragón, Cataluña, Andalucía, and many areas in between; their slogan is RENOVABLES SÍ, PERO NO ASÍ (“Yes to renewables, but not like this”). The current round of proposals for our part of Extremadura includes development in the Sierras de Gata, in Las Hurdes (known to students of Luís Buñuel from his film of that name), and in the UNESCO-designated global geopark, Villuercas Ibora and Jara. The only wind park already up and running in the region is an array of fifteen turbines on the crest of a sierra above the town of Plasencia. Known as Merengue I, generating 40 megawatts, it is to be followed in 2022 by Merengue II, adding a further 49.5 megawatts to the Plasencia location. 9

This expansion, too, is summoning push-back. In response to yet another proposal, protest meetings are being held in Garciaz, a small town in the heart of Villuercas. I have heard many of the same arguments there that I have heard in Montánchez, regarding the light flicker and vibrations caused by rotating blades; the destruction of landscape heritage and the farming economy; the devastation of habitat and displacement of wildlife; and the undermining of the environmentally sensitive tourism that has, over the last 20 years, emerged as central to the regional economy — tourism promoted by the same regional government currently advocating for the wind parks. This is the kind of doublethink called out by ALIENTE’s “not like this”: Not only does the proposal for the Montánchez turbines fail to give a comprehensive view of the entire project, but the ecological and sociocultural complexity of the affected area has been largely ignored.

Farmers, shopkeepers, bar owners, homemakers — all repudiated the proposed despoliation of their countryside, economy, and way of life.

Fair financial treatment has not received much attention either. Another organization speaking out against similar proposals is El Club Senior de Extremadura, a group of senior academics and businessmen. In March 2021, they published a report with the provocative title How to Avoid the Third Energy Colonization of Extremadura. 10 El Club Senior advocates for job creation, and is not against windmills per se; members endorse the use of renewables, but show no particular interest in preservation of the countryside or the rural economy. Their charge of colonization is prompted by fact that the nation’s poorest region has been exploited for decades to support the enrichment of its urban and industrialized neighbors, an exploitation that the current projects are poised to intensify.

Layout of proposed wind parks and transmission lines. Google Earth base map; overlay by Jose Miguel Senso Galán. [Hubert Murray]

Global Wind Atlas map showing areas of wind activity: high (red), lower (yellow), and lowest (green), 2021. The sierra of Montánchez and adjoining ridges enjoy relatively low and irregular winds. [Maps via Global Wind Atlas, under license CC BY 4.0]

The nominal proponent for these massive investments in wind is the Instituto de Energías Renovables, based in Madrid. According to company records, in 2017, IER had three employees, a turnover of €123,498, and a slender credit line of €50,000. (Those with a dark sense of humor may note that a controlling interest in IER is owned by Parcesa, a developer of funeral homes and graveyards known as Parques de la Paz, Parks of Peace — you couldn’t make this up.) In their renewed proposal, IER has been joined by more substantial financial backers, the renewable-energy startup Reolum and the telecom company Hybrex, to comprise the developers’ consortium. The turbines are to be built by Vestas, a Danish multinational that (with Siemens) dominates the European market. The ultimate owner will be large electrical-generation-and-distribution companies. Iberdrola, for instance, is a Spanish multinational that controls 70 percent of electrical production in Extremadura, proposing to double its capacity in the region from 2000 to 4000 megawatts by the end of 2022. 11

Yet these energy projects are only the most recent in a long line of such installations in the region. Starting with construction in the 1960s, twelve major dams have been built (mainly on the two largest rivers, the Tajo and Guadiana). There are also fifteen smaller ones — including Proserpina, built by the Romans in the first century A.D. Altogether these dams place Extremadura third in the nation for production of hydropower. The region is currently first for photovoltaics (contributing 25 percent of national production), and second for both nuclear and solar-thermal power. Extremadura produces more than four times the energy it consumes (the rest being exported to other parts of the country) and production of electricity accounts for half the region’s economic output.

With all this infrastructure, the number of people actually employed in the energy sector in Extremadura today is only 1,690, five percent of all regional industrial employment. 12 Against this backdrop, How to Avoid the Third Energy Colonization reads like a manifesto for development but against extraction of natural resources. The authors argue that the coming third wave of energy investment should be taken as an opportunity to invest in other industries (e.g. steel fabrication or turbine and battery production) and skilled jobs (e.g. for electricians and construction workers) leading to the production of green energy. Unfortunately, this may be wishful thinking, as steel-production prices are governed largely by low-wage manufacturing in southeast Asia, and sophisticated turbine design and manufacturing technologies (and profits) are tightly held, in Europe at least, by the Danish and German manufacturers already mentioned. 13

Failures in governance and environmental stewardship are compounded by damage to the fiscal trust crucial to any functioning democracy.

Back at the national level, a group of 23 Spanish scientists have publicly expressed their concern regarding the development of wind and photovoltaics, arguing that such projects are leading to an irreversible loss of biodiversity. 14 This group advocates nothing more radical than reform of the environmental-assessment process, along with comprehensive planning to include impacts on plant and animal life in the development of renewables — just as the COP15 Kunming Agreement requires of member nations.

Remnants of stone tower in rocky countryside.
Remains of a Roman water-powered grain mill in the Garganta de Molinos, 2021. [Hubert Murray]

Dam in the background with roman bridge in the foreground.
The Jose Maria de Oriol hydroelectric power plant at Alcántara, 2019. Commissioned in 1969 and sited at the confluence of the Tajo and Alagón rivers, it produces 915.20 megawatts of “clean” electricity. The reservoir covers 10,400 hectares. Downstream, in the foreground is Trajan’s Bridge, built in 104-106 AD. The place name is derived from the Arabic al-Qantarah (the arch). [Hubert Murray]

The scientists’ recommendations, however modest, are directly relevant to the developers’ proposals for Montánchez. In a sleight of hand designed to minimize review and oversight, the IER consortium has made five separate proposals, submitted on different dates, for what is manifestly a single project. The reason for this bundling is that, by Spanish law, any development proposing to generate 50 megawatts of energy or more is subject to review by national rather than regional authorities. In this case, each of the four windmill packages (the fifth is for the substations) is planned, tellingly, to yield 45 megawatts or less, for a total of 117 megawatts. It does not stretch the boundaries of credibility to suppose that regional politicians and bureaucrats — particularly in poorer parts of the country — are more suggestible than their national counterparts when it comes to bending rules in this fashion.

The failures in governance and responsible stewardship of the environment are thus compounded by damage to the fiscal trust crucial to any functioning democracy. Electricity prices in Spain have risen 35 percent in 2021 over the previous year. This has been due partly to a rise in the price of natural gas. But problems in the electrical distribution-and-pricing system were brought into sharp relief at the height of a heatwave in August of last year when, just as demand was reaching an all-time peak, two dams producing low-cost hydroelectricity were drained dry by the owner-supplier Iberdrola, riding the wave of higher prices (and increased corporate revenue). Meanwhile, villages in Caceres and Zamora provinces, dependent on the dams, were left without water for drinking, cooking, washing, and bathing. These machinations were technically legal, but for the Spanish public they heightened cynicism about the priorities of the large energy companies, and about the government agencies whose job it is to protect the public interest.

As one longtime resident puts it, pan para hoy y hambre para mañana (‘bread for today, and hunger for tomorrow.’)

Neither are real benefits coming to the region in the form of reduced energy costs, nor in new employment opportunities. Representatives of IER/Reolum/Hybrex have offered to build a photovoltaic field and to give a 30 percent discount on the price of energy, to “donate” some funding upfront to the Ayuntamiento, and to provide compensation for farmers whose land is taken. While these offers have been submitted to the Ayuntamiento, they are vague (for instance, who gets the 30 percent discount?), and are notably not part of the formal submission under review. The consortium is also promising, in the most general terms, hundreds of well-paying jobs. But, as a 2019 study of job creation in the wind-power industry indicates, in this sector the engineering, manufacturing, and project-management jobs are offsite. 15 Onsite construction work is temporary, and employment in operations and maintenance, although ongoing, is relatively light.

Moreover, neither the proposals nor the environmental review have considered the livelihoods that would be lost. While some landlords in Montánchez may stand to gain from renting to construction workers, others, whose income depends on tourism, will almost certainly lose. As one longtime resident, Jose-Miguel Senso, puts it, quoting a Spanish proverb, “pan para hoy y hambre para mañana” (bread for today, and hunger for tomorrow.) “After the installation of the [wind]mills, the economy, mountains, and our way of life will be irrecoverable. There will be no future for young people in a destroyed landscape. … The wealth of Extremadura in general, and of Montánchez in particular, is the environment and the landscape. This project, destroying the environment and our heritage, is killing the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

Four pages of newspaper travel story with photographs of sierra and village.
Tourist literature extolling the virtues of nature, fresh air, and clear skies, published by the Montánchez Ayuntamiento, 2019. [Hubert Murray]

Two photographs of crowded plaza in the evening, one with flower-covered altar with statue of Virgin and Child being carried through the crowd.
Left: Fiesta time in Montánchez, 2013. Right: Descent of Nuestra Señora de la Consolación del Castillo to mark the beginning of the fiesta, 2019. [Both images Hubert Murray]

Montánchez, like so many Spanish villages, has seen an outflow of population in recent years. 16 But there has also been a trend in outsiders buying and modernizing properties, while the establishment of casas rurales throughout the village and surrounding countryside attract a steady flow of tourists. The visitors bring business to the village, visible every Saturday morning in the street market, and on the plaza any evening. The groups of young and old taking the evening paseo are an indicator of communal good health.

The bedrock of the village economy and culture, however, consists of permanent residents, the families who have lived in Montánchez for generations; who have adapted in many ways to the economy of the outside world but retain deep ties to agriculture, to the cycle of seasons, and to the landscape more generally. Antonio, a saxophone player and former bricklayer now in his eighties, still walks two kilometers each way from his house in the village to tend to his olive grove. Paco, grandfather in a family that has run a cabinetry business for five generations, feeds sons, grandchildren, and cousins from his huerta of tomatoes, beans, chickpeas, and squash; the horses and chickens are in pens at the back of the woodworking shop, and in the hills he has a finca with olives and nut and fruit trees. Andres runs a metal shop, making doors, windows, gates, and agricultural implements. He too has figs and olives, as well as horses and a burra (who spends time with us, keeping the grass cropped). These are just three of our neighbors. Talking with any one of them about the business in hand — about masonry, joinery, or steelwork — comes with supplementary advice about the best way to keep brambles under control; about the state of the olive trees; or how to harvest and dry the figs. Andres even showed me how to cure the donkey’s croup by getting her to swallow a snakeskin wrapped around dried figs.

Right-wing climate deniers instrumentalize similar arguments. So advocates of renewable energies must address the social environment in meaningful detail.

The urge to preserve this landscape rich in the mixed ecology of the dehesa, the groves and vineyards, the wildlife and birdlife, the Roman pathways and Moorish walls — not to mention the deep ties and intimate knowledge of the people who live here: Is this simply a romantic illusion? The mixed economy of the villages — a complexity of lifeways in which artisans and professionals educated in the 21st century can also maintain fincas inherited from their forebears, and even those who have had to emigrate find work— to Madrid, or Catalunya, or maybe Holland — travel back for visits and festivals: Is this to be discarded? The mountain trails, stargazing and birdwatching open to all comers: Are these to be accorded no value? Why are villagers and campesinos in Montánchez, and throughout Spain, being asked to drastically change their way of living while executives and politicians are not compelled — by themselves or by others — to compromise in any way? Have we learned nothing from over two hundred years of urban and industrial encroachment on the countryside?

Elderly man in green field with grape vines.
Francisco Galán García (Paco) in his huerta, 2018.

Middle-aged man in orchard, smiling at the camera.
Andres Lozano Herruzo, 2018. [Hubert Murray]

Farmer wrangling herd of goats.
A farmer brings his goats to shelter, 2018. [Vicente Beltrán Chiva]

It is worth remarking that right-wing climate deniers may cynically instrumentalize similar arguments to frustrate carbon-reduction policies. This makes it all the more important that advocates of renewable energies address the strengths and vulnerabilities of the social environment in meaningful detail. John Berger writes of the peasantry as a class of survivors, those who “continue to live when others have disappeared or perished.” 17 If we, the global population as represented by well-credentialed advocates in COP26 in Glasgow, are serious about planetary survival, who better to consult than people of the country, who most intimately understand the natural world? Those who would dismiss this way of life as the reverie of an incurable romantic are dead wrong.

Three Principles

The discussion does not have to be so polarized. The supposed dichotomies between city and country, and between conservation of the countryside and preservation of the planet are neither constructive nor necessary. From my discussions with farmers, townspeople, and alternative-energy engineers, I have distilled three core principles, relevant not only to Montánchez but to other parts of Spain and to the world.

Firstly, clearly, we must reduce energy demand. Over and beyond burgeoning carbon emissions, there are limits to growth on planet Earth. The 1972 study The Limits to Growth, commissioned by the Club of Rome and researched by a team from MIT, has since been amply substantiated; in more narrowly focused detail, Antonio Valero Capilla and Alicia Valero Delgado, in their book Thanatia (2014), present a projected exhaustion date for each element in the periodic table. 18 The magnets used in wind turbines place a high demand on the supply of specific elements; thus the highly disruptive opening of lithium mines in Cañamero, in the heart of the Villuercas geopark, and the exploitation of wolfram (tungsten) in Almoharín, a village in the center of the Sierra de Montánchez. Of course, the operative term in the extraction of such rare earths is “rare,” the very opposite of “renewable.”

We must reduce energy demand. And opportunities for energy reduction, even in a village, are not insignificant.

At the same time, the opportunities for energy reduction even in a rural village such as Montánchez are not insignificant. Situated at the centroid of the triangle formed by Caceres (the provincial capital), Trujillo (an unspoilt medieval town just off the main autovía linking Madrid to Badajoz and Lisbon), and Mérida (with many government offices), there is heavy demand here for transportation to access healthcare, shopping, and higher education. Electrification of buses and an increase in service would reduce the use of single-occupancy vehicles and the associated carbon emissions. Most residences are old and have very poor thermal performance, so insulation would reduce heating and cooling loads. Street lighting and residential lighting offer more possibilities for energy reduction. The point is that, as limited as opportunities in rural areas may be, these are the places to start, using every means to bend the consumption curve downwards.

Group of people walking a mountain road, with long vista of valleys and mountains in the distance.
Demonstration on the Canaleja de la Torre, a trail on the Sierra de Montánchez, August 10, 2019. [Hubert Murray]

Gathering of people with signs, e.g. "nosotros unidos contra los molinos."
Demonstration in the Plaza de España in Montánchez on August 10, 2019. [Joop Kleuskens]

Secondly, energy must be produced closer to where it is consumed. In Spain, as elsewhere, cities and industrial areas are the big consumers, so production must be concentrated in such areas. (Take note, Madrid. 19 ) On industrial or institutional scales, this means installing wind, solar, and other carbon-free generation onsite. Hospitals in Europe and the United States are the most voracious of energy consumers. 20 Many have already realized the substantial benefits of onsite co-generation (supplying both electricity and heat), which allows not only greater efficiency but greater resiliency if the main grid shuts down.

For individual residences and for neighborhoods, this policy would mean installing photovoltaics, small turbines, biodigesters, and the like. Rooftops in every village — on agricultural sheds, schools, sports facilities, and social halls — represent hundreds of square meters of real estate ripe for energy generation. An added advantage of local, distributed production would be a sharp reduction in the need for overhead transmission lines. Composting plants to digest agricultural byproducts such as olive stones, almond husks, prunings, and animal dung would contribute to local energy capacity and reduce “waste” at the same time. Montánchez could institute every one of these opportunities for distributed power generation with minimal disruption to Montanchegos’ way of life.

In these first two principles, we see a distinction between social and environmental criteria for evaluating carbon-reduction projects (favoring smaller-scale, less intrusive, distributed installations), and corporate imperatives to maximize profit (favoring centralized, large-scale interventions). It’s also true that centralized planning of large-scale installations is a favorite of old-time socialists unacquainted with the advantages of cyber control in managing distributed systems. The challenge to energy providers, then, is to rethink both current business models and dated models of state sponsorship, to reward reduced consumption and to incentivize local production.

In Spain, as elsewhere, cities and industrial areas are the big consumers, so production must be concentrated in such areas.

Paradoxically, even as Spain attempts to build more renewable capacity, there is actually an energy surplus in the country, giving rise to distortions in the market. Pablo del Río and Luis Janeiro argue in a paper published in the Journal of Energy in 2016 that energy overcapacity in Spain has led to the underutilization of conventional power plants and disincentives for investment in renewables. 21 As recently as 2019, Reuters reported that “Spanish authorities fear that a speculative rush threatens to hold back the development of renewable energy, saying coveted rights to connect to the national power grid are being secured with the sole aim of selling them on for a profit.” 22 In the push for changing over to renewable technologies, undercapitalized speculators have entered the field simply to trade in the value of the licenses.

Electrical pylon photographed from its base.
An 80-foot pylon near Zarza de Montánchez, 2014. [Hubert Murray]

The third principle is local control. An anecdote recorded by Etienne de Bourbon, a 13th-century Dominican friar, tells of the construction of a watermill immediately across the river from a monastery. The abbot, disturbed by the intrusion on prayer and meditation, instructed his procurator (or bursar) to tell the miller to desist. The clatter of the grindstone, the rumble of carts carrying corn, and the neighing of horses continued unabated, yet the procurator soon reported that the problem had been solved. “What do you mean?” the abbot demanded. “The noise is as bad as ever.” “Yes,” replied the bursar, “but we bought the mill. It is our noise now.” 23 In telling this story, I have asked neighbors and colleagues in the village if their views on the wind park would be different if they collectively owned the company. Most looked doubtful. But all recognized that this threatened invasion of their home would benefit remote shareholders, and that this latest instance of “energy colonization” is indeed part of the problem.

The Danish island of Samsø presents a celebrated example of resistance to such alienation of resources. 24 In a 1997 competition sponsored by the Danish government, Samsø proposed a plan for achieving carbon neutrality within a decade. The presentation earned them grants to invest in wind, solar, and biomass, with the result that by 2007 the population of less than 4,000 had become 100 percent self-sufficient with renewables, and able to export surplus energy. Residents of Samsø are now CO2 negative, recording minus 3.7 tons of CO2e per year per person. Building on this achievement, the second and third phases for the island aim to eliminate all dependency on fossil fuels and to achieve zero waste by 2030.

Four black and red pigs on a country camino bordered by stone wall and oak trees.
Pigs on a typical camino on the sierra, 2019. [Joop Kleuskens]

Narrow unpaved road through pastureland toward mountain ridge.
The view from la Ruta de Donde Nace (the route from “where it is born”) up to the chestnut woods and ridge of the Sierra de Montánchez, 2021. An array of ten wind turbines is proposed across this ridge. [Hubert Murray]

Grassy track down hill into valley, with mountains in the distance.
The Camino de la Fuente, from Montánchez to Torre de Santa Maria, 2016. [Hubert Murray]

Samsø remains a leader, but there are by now other examples throughout Europe. 25 At a modest scale in Spain, the DUS 5000 program has been set up as of 2021 to finance municipal clean-energy projects for small communities at risk of depopulation. 26 In Extremadura, EnVerde is an energy cooperative founded in 2020, the first in the region. 27 Seeking to break the grip of energy oligopolies and to serve members at cost, the organization has three main commitments: achievement of energy sovereignty, production of 100-percent renewable energy, and preservation of the environment and the land. The group defines energy sovereignty as “the right of individuals, communities, and peoples to make their own decisions regarding the generation, distribution and consumption of energy, so that these are appropriate to their ecological, social, economic, and cultural circumstances.” With 50 founding members and the financial support of other energy cooperatives in Spain, EnVerde will start serving users in January 2022. This seems to be an excellent model — although the question remains as to whether such relatively small-scale cooperatives can compete economically with the large for-profit companies, or dictate terms consonant with their founding principles. 28

Solutions cannot be exclusively technical or economic. True resiliency must embrace the potential for social and economic change.

The lesson from Denmark is this: National government established the goals, but devolved the brainstorming for achievement of those goals onto the localities, to people who know their own communities and their landscape in its broadest sense. Crucially, the winners were backed with money to execute their plans. The top-down imposition of a carbon-reduction policy, whether emanating from the bureaucrats of Brussels or a ruling majority in Madrid, will meet with opposition as long as small communities are sidelined as the objects of government fiat, forced to accept projects implemented by speculators and multinationals. Furthermore, to address the pressing issues of carbon reduction, solutions cannot be exclusively technical or economic. True resiliency must fully embrace the potential for social and economic change beyond the threadbare procedure of a planning consultation period conducted in the interests of corporate shareholders.

It is possible to preserve the planet and the landscape, with all that the latter implies of culture and way of life. Reducing the demand for energy and resources, decentralizing and downsizing energy production, and placing a value on the quality of life embedded in a place are, at the very least, guidelines for a just and humane way toward a fossil-free future — and the preservation of a landscape for the ages.

Author's Note

Many thanks to Miguel Angel Caballero, Vicente Beltrán Chiva, Joop Kleuskens, Francisco Pulido Martín, Maribel Lázaro Mateos, Alexander Murray, Pedro Pazos, Miguel Angel Peña, Larry Rosenberg, Jose Miguel Senso, Alwyn Vanderlinde, Dennis Villanueva, and Gisela Radant Wood for their help and constructive criticism.

  1. These proposals have been revised from the original 2018-19 submission, largely in response to public opposition. In Montánchez itself, the number of turbines has been reduced from 22 to ten, with the deficit to be made up by increasing turbine size from 3 and 3.5 megawatts to 4.5 megawatts. A photovoltaic field is also promised, but as of this writing, its size and location have not been determined.
  2. See “What is the Paris Agreement?” from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; “European Green Deal” from the European Commission on Climate Action; and Jonathan Gleave, “Spain passes climate bill roadmap to carbon neutrality,” Argus Media, April 9, 2021.
  3. V.I. Lenin, Report at the Eighth All-Russia Congress of Soviets: Part II — Report on the Work of the Council of People’s Commissars, December 22, 1920.
  4. The Climate Change Performance Index ranks countries according to fourteen indicators in four categories: Greenhouse Gas Emissions (40 percent of the overall score), Renewable Energy (20 percent), Energy Use (20 percent), and Climate Policy (20 percent). For perspective: The United States ranks dead last, at no. 61.
  5. The Spanish average was 7.1 tons of CO2 equivalent (tCO2e) per capita, as against the E.U. average of 8.4 tons.  See the report from the European Parliamentary Research Service, Climate Action in Spain: Latest State of Play, April 2021.
  6. See the press release from the Convention on Biological Diversity, October 13, 2021.
  7. See the Facebook page for Plataforma Cívica Sierra de Montánchez-Natura. Vox is a rightist party founded in 2013; Podemos, founded in 2014, is leftist social-democratic.
  8. There is a growing awareness of the power imbalance between developers, many of them multinationals with funds from the E.U. (€3.9 billion committed over the next five years, to 2026), and the dissipated power of rural constituencies. In Málaga in the years 2007-2010, for instance, landowners— mostly farmers — were to receive a percentage of total revenue (sales plus public subsidy) from electrical production. This worked until the law was changed in 2013 to redefine revenue as net, excluding subsidy. Landowners are now exposed to market fluctuations, while power companies enjoy both sales revenue and the stability of government support. See Energías Renovables, “Los abusos de la eólica con los proprietarios de terrenos,” July 2, 2017.
  9. The naming of these projects reflects a cynical irony. Merengue as a musical form originates in the Dominican Republic, the (colonized) homeland of one of the project’s proponents; Alijares, one of five proposals for the Sierra de Montánchez, is named for the wild peonies that grow on the sierra, which would be destroyed by the installation. Merengue I and II are being developed by IER and associated companies; the owner-operator is Naturgy.
  10. Club Senior de Extremadura, Cómo Evitar La Tercera Colonización Energética de la Región / El Sector de las Energías y su Compromiso con el Desarollo de Extremadura (Badajoz, 2021).
  11. In 2019, Iberdrola installed a 590-megawatt photovoltaic field just south of Trujillo occupying 3,200 acres, the largest in Europe. The overhead transmission lines crosshatch the sky like a 270-degree cat’s cradle. The other leading companies are Endesa, EDP, and Naturgy.
  12. Club Senior de Extremadura, Cómo Evitar La Tercera Colonización Energética de la Región, 10.
  13. For a discussion of the manufacturing economy of wind turbines, see James Meek, “Who Holds the Welding Rod?,” London Review of Books, vol. 43, no. 14, July 15, 2021.
  14. David Serrano et al., “Renewables in Spain threaten biodiversity,” Science, no. 6522 (December 2020), 1282-1283,
  15. Luigi Aldieri, et al., “Wind Power and Job Creation,” MDPI, December 19, 2019,
  16. There are approximately 3,000 “abandoned” villages in Spain, many of which have attracted foreign speculators. See Sandra López Letón, “Thinking of buying a deserted village in Spain? Hurry, prices are going up,” El País, January 7, 2019.
  17. John Berger, Pig Earth (London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1979), 199. The term “peasant” has connotations in English of feudal structures that detract from the argument that the people of the country, campesinos, are the repositories of knowledge about the land. “Countryman” — if shorn of national connotation — may be the better word in English.
  18. D.H. Meadows et al., The Limits to Growth (New York: Universe Books, 1972); Antonio Valero Capilla and Alicia Valero Delgado, Thanatia: Los límites minerals del planeta (Zaragoza: Prensas de la Universidad de Zaragoza, 2014).
  19. As Gerald Brenan points out in The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Spanish Civil War (London: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Madrid has historically been principally a seat of government living off wealth generated by the periphery, from the riches of the New World (entering through Seville) to the production of industrial centers such as Bilbao and Barcelona. In the age of global capital, the Madrid stock exchange has come into its own as a funnel for wealth accumulation. What remains constant is the exploitative relationship between the city and the hinterland of rural Spain and its campesinos.
  20. Hospitals in the United States account for the second most energy-intensive building use (after food services), consuming two to four times as much energy as typical commercial premises. See the Energy Star Portfolio Manager.
  21. Pablo del Río and Luis Janeiro, “Overcapacity as a Barrier to Renewable Energy Deployment: The Spanish Case,” Journal of Energy, 2016,
  22. Isla Binnie, “Spain struggles to regulate renewable energy gold rush,” Reuters, July 19, 2019.
  23. A different version of this story tells of a “certain advocate of a certain bishop,” a property manager of sorts. The bishop owned a riverside residence with a mill nearby. The grinding never stopped, day or night, making it hard to sleep; the bishop rarely visited this house, largely for that reason, and the advocate encouraged his employer in this attitude. Eventually the bishop gave the mill to the advocate — who increased the work, since it was now bringing him profit, and slept better there than anywhere else. See A. Lecoy de la Marche, Anecdotes historiques, legendes et apologues, tirés du recueil inédit d’Etienne de Bourbon (Paris: Societé de l’Histoire de France, 1877).
  24. For more on this project, see the website of Energi Akademiet.
  25. The Baywind Energy Cooperative and the Westmill Wind Farm Cooperative in the U.K. are examples of energy co-ops whose profits feed back into local communities. There are many examples in Germany, including the Community Energy Cooperative in Schönau.
  26. See the program description at the website of the Instituto para la Diversificación y Ahorro de la Energía.
  27. See the EnVerde website.
  28. Whether community-based cooperatives can compete with larger mulitnationals is discussed in Hockenos, “Can Europe’s community-owned renewables compete with Big Energy?,” Green Biz, January 28, 2021.
Hubert Murray, “Machines in the Garden,” Places Journal, January 2022. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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