Mont-Saint-Michel, on the Normandy coast of France, is the sight of new conflict.  The most recent battle is not in a medieval setting, but a modern struggle against two good, but opposed environmental causes.  On one side are those who want to reduce carbon emissions by installing windmills.  On the other side stand ecologists who suggest that windmills churning above the tidal flats of Mont-Saint-Michel would distract from the natural beauty of the medieval monument and potentially destroy the landscape in the future.

France is on an ambitious route to expand its use of windmills in renewable energy.  Currently there are 2500 windmills producing 4500 megawatts per year; the goal is to have 8500 windmills producing 25000 megawatts by 2020.  Windmills are becoming increasingly sought after by EU goals to limit greenhouse gases.  Last week, the EU recommended that it invest $ 70 million in clean energy over the coming decade, tripling windmill construction to produce 20 % of Europe’s electricity.

Those against the windmills near Mont-Saint-Michel have nothing against the quest for clean energy but rather argue that windmills above the ridgeline are not the way to achieve this goal.  Allies have formed across France, and an ambitious campaign to prove the windmills would desecrate the vista has begun.

The mayor of Mont-Saint-Michel, Eric Vannier, has stayed out of the debate for the most part, but 600 locals have pooled finances to hire lawyers to sue local government.  They expect a court ruling in Spring 2010.  If the group wins the lawsuit, “they’ll have to put everything back beyond 30 km (~18.5 miles),” said Corinne Gressier, who runs the group “Windmills: Turbulences.”  But she also realizes, “if we lose, it’s over.”

French law bans windmills closer than 1500 feet from historical monuments.  The current court case in will be on trial in Nantes.  It concerns plans to build 300 foot high windmills on farmland in Argouges, on a plateau a bit more than 10 miles southeast of Mont-Saint-Michel.  The monument attracts about 3 million visitors each year to admire the rock-top monastery.  Andre Antolini, president of renewable Energies Syndicate, told reporters last month that, “at the proposed distance, tourists to the monument would only see tiny blades peeking over the horizon.”

But for protesters like Gressier and the national alliance of environmental groups, the three windmills at Argouges would just be the tip of the iceberg if building is permitted.  There are current plans for an additional 80 towers in farming communities across the entire ridgeline above Mont-Saint-Michel.

The complicating issue is that farmers and village counters tend to embrace proposals to install windmills in their fields because of the payments they receive.  They get stipends for use of the land and villages are provided tax revenue on income from electricity, which is sold to the national grid.  “It’s a flourishing business,” said Jean-Louis Butre, president of the Durable Environmental Federation, based in Paris.

At present France gets about 80 percent of its energy from nuclear reactors and an additional 12 percent from hydraulic generators.  That leaves a balance of 8 percent that must be filled by oil, coal, natural gas, solar, or wind.  Butre explains that if government decided to fill that gap with windmills, it would have so many that they would be part of the scenery in more than a third of the country.

In fact last year, Butre challenged president Sarkozy’s strong push for wind energy in the book “Fraud: why windmills are a danger for France.”  The former President Velery Giscard d’Estaing, a supporter for nuclear power, wrote the preface to the book.  He denounced windmills as an “unacceptable use of public funds, a deceptive public discourse, and often questionable business.”

Now the delegation from Argouges, with support from groups around France, waits to see if they will win the court battle and put atop to the windmill construction near Mont-Saint-Michel.  It remains to be seen how this part of Mont-Saint-Michel’s represents 13 centuries of history will play out.

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