Wind turns to gold in remote Romanian region
Cogealac: Strong winds sweeping southeastern Romania have long been seen as a curse but as electricity companies are increasingly turning to renewable energy, the area has become a coveted asset.
Romania's decision to open up its wind-power market has triggered fierce competition among investors, several of whom target the Dobroudja region, described by experts as one of the best sites in Europe.
In June, Czech company CEZ started operating its first wind energy unit in Romania, at Fantanele, 260 kilometres (170 miles) east of Bucharest.
The EUR 1.1 billion (USD 1.45 billion) energy farm, expected to become the biggest in Europe next year, will have a capacity of 600 Megawatts.
But CEZ's plans to expand to the neighbouring village of Cogealac have been hampered by Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, which has set its mind on the same site.
Iberdrola and its local partner Eolica Dobrogea have announced plans to build the world's largest land-based wind-energy farm, with a capacity of 1,600 megawatts. Total investment should top EUR 2.2 billion.
The rivalry between the two groups sparked a violent protest last week, when the mayor of Cogealac backed by several dozen followers, some of them carrying clubs, tried to drive the Czechs away from the village.
Security guards fired rubber bullets, with the protest leaving five people injured, while five others -- including mayor Hristu Cati -- were arrested for disturbing the peace as the project got caught up in allegations of corruption.
Prosecutors said Hristu Cati was arrested for paying villagers take part in the protest against the wind farm.
"Hristu ... is making us lose a lot of money that CEZ would have invested at Cogealac," said Doina, 53, a former local councillor who does not want her family name to be mentioned.
In a region where people hardly make a living by tilling the arid land, the Czech investment was nothing short of a windfall -- the company pays EUR 3,000 a year as rent for every plot of land where it installs a wind turbine.
Sitting at a table in Fantanele's only bar, a beer in front of him, Marin, a driver in his thirties, wishes he was one of the happy few. "Boy, why wasn't I so lucky to have a wind turbine fall from the sky on my land? That would have pulled me out of poverty."
CEZ spokesperson Cosmina Marin said benefits for the local community go far beyond this. "We have repaired the roads, installed running water and plan to build a sewage system and pay for a rubbish dump."
All in all, the company has invested several hundred thousand euros in modernizing the infrastructure of Fantanele, she said, adding that the same could be done at Cogealac if it were not for the mayor's "nonsensical" attitude.
"I don't get him, there's enough wind for everybody here."
But wind power does come with restraints, experts say. Limited grid access is one.
For if Romania enjoys a privileged position on Europe's wind map, with a potential estimated at 14,000 megawatts, the national grid can only take on 3,000 megawatts.
Economy Minister Adriean Videanu said recently the authorities have received requests for a total production of 23,000 megawatts, "far more than the system can take."
Companies such as Enel (Italy), EDP (Portugal) and Petrom-OMV (Austria) figure among the groups planning to invest.
But electricity system operator Transelectrica said that in the absence of major investments, the national grid cannot carry a much bigger load.
"Things could otherwise be risky because wind energy is whimsical."
But for now at least, the market is open -- Romania harnessed just 14 megawatts of wind power in 2009.