Windfall: How turbines have stirred up rural Spain

For years La Muela was only known for a stiff wind that brought cold winters. Now, alternative energy has generated an extraordinary economic boom. Elizabeth Nash reports
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The Independent Online

As you approach the village of La Muela, the white, energy-producing windmills with their spinning blades appear in splendid geometric formation. They rise up to dominate the horizon, ranging across the jagged ridges and barren windswept plains like a forest of slender mechanical trees: the symbols of an extraordinary wind-assisted renaissance in this impoverished corner of rural Spain.

As you approach the village of La Muela, the white, energy-producing windmills with their spinning blades appear in splendid geometric formation. They rise up to dominate the horizon, ranging across the jagged ridges and barren windswept plains like a forest of slender mechanical trees: the symbols of an extraordinary wind-assisted renaissance in this impoverished corner of rural Spain.

Over the past decade, 500 wind machines have sprouted around the little hamlet, which lies 15 miles (25km) from Zaragoza. Once a forgotten village in one of Spain's poorest regions, La Muela has become a capital of wind-assisted energy production. And the windmills have not only transformed the landscape. From the moment the first blades began to whir, the good times for La Muela's 3,000 inhabitants began to roll.

Each year, the giant electricity companies that run the windmills pay about € 1m (£600,000) to La Muela's local council in royalties and land rents, and another €500,000 to private landowners, who receive €2,000 or €3,000 annually per windmill, according to their power. Most turbines generate between 600 and 800kw per hour but some as tall as 24-storey skyscrapers produce 2,000kw/h.

After knowing only hardship for generations, La Muela's residents have stumbled on a windfall that has changed their lives. The fierce north wind that gives La Muela its Siberian winters has also made its fortune.

The council has ploughed its money into, among other ventures, a booming industrial park outside the village that produces goods including rustic furniture, Ferrari automobile parts and field tents for the Spanish army. The surrounding area enjoys the use of three heated indoor swimming pools - one Olympic-sized - three jacuzzis, three outdoor pools and a cafeteria. The second phase of the sports complex - being built - includes a football pitch, tennis, squash and pelota courts, and running tracks.

Opposite is a new concert hall, and the bull ring, and, near by, one can find the interactive Museum of the Wind.

Not surprisingly, the population of La Muela has tripled. The new town hall, opened four months ago, is designed on a scale and with an airy elegance comparable to the new high-speed train station at Zaragoza. Then there are the holidays. The town hall has launched a lavish programme of luxury holidays, undercutting travel agents by arranging bulk bookings.

The trips are frequent and exotic. Celina Lobez, 54, wife of La Muela's butcher, sharpens her knife vigorously as she recounts in ringing tones the highlights of her trip last year to Brazil. "They organised special fiestas for us, and put out huge banners saying 'Welcome to the people of La Muela'. There were 240 of us. We flew direct in a plane specially chartered from Zaragoza.

"I brought back wonderful souvenirs, precious stones, emeralds and aquamarines. I'd like to show you but we're making blood sausage in the back."

She carves a mountain of pork fillets, while continuing: "Two years ago, we went to Santo Domingo, then to Mexico. It was fantastic. We stayed in a private bungalow each time. In Brazil, we stayed in a five-star hotel. I don't know where we'll go this year, but I'll sign up anyway."

Her husband, Adalberto, emerges from the back of the butcher's shop, wiping his arms. "Those trips are the best part of the year," he beams. "We go with all our friends, including the village doctor, so we have our own private doctor. My sons prefer the winter trips to Finland and Canada but give me the sun anytime." He disappears again.

Celina hands a packet of pork to a waiting customer: "This was a very poor village because we had nothing but air. They had to bring in water in lorries and store it in underground cisterns. There was a lot of poverty. If you were lucky enough to have land you could grow olives or cereals. But this land ... you have to work it hard. And when the rains failed there was no harvest."

"I've only got one mill. I wish I had five or six," says Teresa Andres, director of La Muela's care home for the elderly, which the town hall opened five years ago. "The wind park has benefited all of us by producing an economic boom in La Muela. We have grants for our children to study at university, a good library, a proper school, good teachers, all subsidised."

In the village bar, El Puerto (the Port), the walls are hung with oars and lifebelts - incongruously for this arid spot so far from the sea. Maricarmen Cuartero, 58, and her friend, Pilar Lopez, 75, order milky coffee and a chocolate-covered breakfast bar. Maricarmen has no land and no windmills, but she enjoys their benefits. Her son works in the windpark and last year she joined the trip to Santo Domingo, which she described as "gorgeous".

"There's been a 360-degree change," she says as she dunks her cereal bar into her coffee. "Villagers would rather serve wine rather than water, because water was so precious. The first thing the town hall did was to bring everybody piped water. It changed everything.

"And now," she says, licking her fingers, "we're going to the gymnasium for our pilates class and then a swim, perhaps a massage. Come on, we'll take you."

A walk back to the village centre, takes the visitor past street after new street of handsome two-storey brick villas. Some are still being built in clouds of dust. Others boast sturdy oak doors, brass Georgian-style knockers, balconies decorated with scarlet bobbing geraniums, double garages, and an Audi on the forecourt.

On a fine spring day, the breeze barely turns the windmills' giant triple arms that catch your eye from every direction. They flick lethargically, hypnotically, against the bright sky. But there's nothing lethargic about the constant roar of construction that drowns the birdsong of the village. Mechanical earth-movers and tractors trundle to and fro, 4x4s bulge through narrow lanes, squeezing passers-by against the medieval walls. Inside the village supermarket, the checkout operator Maria Pinilla, 27, says she enjoyed her winter trips to Finland and Canada and wishes she had more time to spend in the swimming pools and jacuzzis. She has a minor complaint. "We need more social life in the village. At weekends it's dead. People have bought or rented houses here to enjoy the benefits of the village, but mostly they live in Zaragoza. Perhaps it's extra quiet this week because the abuelos [oldies] are all on a trip to Tenerife."

La Muela's experience, while exceptional, is not unique. Wind energy is booming in Spain. The country's production is second in Europe only to Germany. Eight per cent of Spanish energy is produced by wind, a level expected to reach 15 per cent by 2010. But targets are constantly outstripped and predictions revised upwards as energy companies big and small scramble for a share of the action.

Environmental campaigners welcome the accelerated drive towards wind power. "We support wind energy because it's clean and renewable, and we want this kind of power to replace dirtier and more dangerous forms like nuclear," says Carlos Martin, a spokesman in Aragon for the campaigning group Ecologists in Action. "But we don't want windmills installed in places of natural value or special interest and we have campaigned successfully in many cases against windfarms. We've negotiated with the companies to protect birds' migration routes. We think the risk to bird movements is mostly not great."

Some critics - although there are none to be found in La Muela - argue that the windmills are visually obtrusive. Mr Martin counters: "The visual impact of a thermal or nuclear plant is much more obtrusive. And a windpark can be dismantled without leaving contaminated waste which lasts for a millennium."

Opposite La Muela's town hall (and funded by it) is the cool and airy cultural centre, where elderly men concentrate on card games. Posters in the hallway invite you to sign up for English classes, music lessons, computer courses, tailoring and furniture restoration. Upstairs, in a studio with a door open to a terrace, Evani Sebastian, 39, supervises a women's art workshop. Evani is among those who returned to La Muela, reversing the dispiriting trend of depopulation that blights small villages throughout rural Spain.

"My parents left for Zaragoza when I was little, and used their house here only for the summer. But I decided to come back, so I did up the old house and settled in it. I've got two small children in the local school, so I'm helping to bring life back to the village" she says.

"My aunt has six windmills. That means someone with a basic pension of some €400 a month now has extra €1,000 monthly, or more. That's a big increase. People here are austere folk, used to a hard life, and don't change their habits. But they indulge themselves with more parties, foreign trips, a better car."

Evani, too, enjoyed the village outing to Santo Domingo two years ago, and to EuroDisney four years ago. Like many, she struggles to remember other tempting trips on offer, and recalls one to the Arctic to see the House of Father Christmas. "The council chartered a flight to the funeral of the Pope," she adds, "but they closed the airport in Rome so it had to be cancelled."

The fact that villagers travel together encourages them to sign up, she says. "My mother is a widow, and would never travel on her own. But she has a companion and they travel together, and she never misses the annual holidays to Benidorm and the Canaries."

Evani owes her council-funded job - teaching some 40 women basketmaking, collage and painting - to the windmill money. "It's been well organised, a long-term investment that benefits us all."

She urges me to stay until sunset, to see the horizon dotted with points of light, "like Martians landing. It's beautiful".

But it's still sunny when I leave, and I meet Alfonso Arroyo, 89, in one of the streets. He's too old to travel now, he confesses, and he long gave up cultivating his small plot. But he reflects with pleasure that, with one windmill, his land is more profitable now than in all the decades he toiled on it by himself with only the help of a horse and cart.

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