PORT LLIGAT, Spain – Moises Tibau climbed aboard his small wooden boat at dawn and pushed off a craggy outcrop in front of the house where Salvador Dalí painted some of his most famous surrealist paintings.
Mr. Tibau, one of the two remaining fishermen in this speck of Mediterranean town about 100 miles north of Barcelona, was hoping for a catch of lobster, crayfish and scorpionfish. But as he slowly pulled into an otherwise deserted bay, Mr. Tibau was preoccupied with the looming threat of modernization.
Government officials are set to approve construction of a massive floating wind farm just offshore, and international energy companies are already scrambling to harness the fickle north winds in the region known as La Tramontana.
The push comes as a deadly summer heatwave, exacerbated by climate change, threatens to shatter temperature records in England and spark wildfires in France, Spain, Portugal and Greece.
Dozens of turbines could soon march over the horizon, providing much-needed renewable energy to Catalonia, a part of Spain that still relies heavily on fossil fuels, but fundamentally changing the character of a region that hasn’t changed much since Dalí’s time Hill.
The controversial project on the Spanish coast is emblematic of a push-and-pull happening across Europe as officials rush to reduce planet-warming emissions by phasing out fossil fuels and fast-tracking renewable energy projects in the area build scale of care. The war in Ukraine has made the effort even more urgent as European politicians seek to break free from their dependence on Russian oil and gas.
But from the coast of Spain to the rivers of Albania, efforts to implement large-scale wind, solar and hydropower projects face obstacles, including NIMBYism, concerns from environmentalists and a bureaucracy that hampers swift action.
To make matters worse, large wind and solar projects require a lot of space — something that can be hard to come by in Europe, a continent that also has thousands of years of cultural history and artifacts to contend with.
The rush to exploit La Tramontana has emerged as the latest flash point in a growing debate over where to locate new renewable energy projects across Europe. Aside from disturbing the views depicted in masterpieces like The Persistence of Memory, residents of this sleepy corner of Spain say the offshore wind farm also spoils the views from Cap de Creus Natural Park, putting huge machines perilously close to one of the largest would create marine protected areas in Europe, discouraging tourists from visiting the quaint town of Cadaqués and forever disrupting their idyllic way of life.
“As a local, my main concern is the fisheries, yes,” said Mr Tibau, 59, who has worked in the waters for decades and is opposed to the project. “But also about the cultural spirit of Cadaqués, the landscape that inspired Dalí.”
Similar stories are playing out across the continent. In northern France last year, clam fishermen lit flares and blocked a boat working to install one of the country’s first offshore wind farms, and in Sweden there is opposition to a plan to build wind farms in a pristine wilderness area.
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Greek islanders are fiercely protesting a large wind farm that locals say would destroy old-growth forests and disrupt tourism, while in Italy a complicated permitting process is hampering companies’ ability to build wind projects where they’ve already been approved.
Elsewhere in Spain, residents oppose plans for a giant solar array in Andalusia that they say would disrupt an archaeologically sensitive site. And in Eastern Europe, activists recently won a major victory when the Albanian government agreed not to build hydroelectric dams on the Vjosa River.
“Despite the overwhelming consensus that change is needed, people just don’t want a wind farm next door to the conversation,” said Viktor Katona, an energy analyst at Kpler, a research firm. “The NIMBYism is definitely there, but it’s also a fear of the unknown and it’s about a way of life.”
The vast majority of Europeans, including those in and around Port Lligat, support ambitious efforts to increase renewable energy.
“When I first saw it, I was supportive,” said Josep Lloret, a prominent marine biologist who teaches at the nearby University of Girona. “We need solutions to mitigate climate change.”
But once Mr Lloret got down to the details and started considering the impact on the ecosystem, he grew resentful of the project.
“This is one of the most important areas of the Mediterranean,” he said, noting that the European Union had recently designated much of the nearby area as a marine reserve and that there is a nearby bird sanctuary on the coast. “It’s a biodiversity hot spot.”
Other scientists are also concerned about the planned wind farm. In a corner of a fish market in the nearby town of El Port de la Selva, Patricia Baena and Claudia Traboni, two marine biologists working for the Spanish government, are rehabilitating a type of soft coral often caught in fishing nets.
They say that while fishing in the area is putting pressure on the coral known as sea fans, the impact of the wind farm could be worse because the large underwater cables that anchor the turbines to the seabed kick up silt and disrupt the delicate ecosystem beneath the waves.
“They are like trees in a forest,” Ms. Baena said. “If they disappear, all of the biodiversity associated with them will disappear.”
Commercial fishermen are also opposed to the wind project, fearing the construction and equipment, including electrical transmission lines, will push valuable red shrimp further out to sea.
Guillermo Francisco Cornejo, 46, head of the Fishermen’s Guild in El Port de la Selva, said given the already high cost of fishing, the wind farm could render an already fragile livelihood unsustainable.
“They raise the price of gas, the price of electricity, and we’re trapped,” he said.
“You have to sacrifice some parts of the sea,” said Mr Lloret, the marine biologist. “But you have to find the spots where you do the least damage.”
The companies hoping to build the wind farms say their projects will not significantly disrupt the environment.
“There is a climate emergency and these types of solutions are critical,” said Carlos Martin, managing director of BlueFloat Energy, a Spanish company that plans to bid on the project later this year.
BlueFloat’s project would include 35 turbines, each towering 856 feet above the water, and generate about 500 megawatts of power, enough to meet about half the energy needs of the local province of about 750,000 people. Other companies are also preparing bids, some of which could include more turbines. Government officials and the companies involved in the projects say the site near Port Lligat is the best in the region for offshore wind due to strong Tramontana winds.
Mr Martin claims that the fact that wind turbines will be floating rather than fixed to the seabed will reduce long-term impacts. And he said that while some environmental impacts are inevitable, the need to build new sources of clean energy outweighs those concerns.
“You can always see change as a threat,” Martin said. “But change can be an opportunity, and the opportunity here is amazing.”
As the war in Ukraine drags on, European leaders have decided to restrict imports of Russian oil and gas and vowed to speed up the rollout of new renewable energy projects.
In 2020, renewable energy accounted for 22.1 percent of energy consumption in the European Union, compared to just 12.2 percent in the United States. In May, the European Commission presented a plan to double the use of renewable energy by 2030.
But as war drives up energy prices around the world, European leaders are beginning to put climate targets aside and focus on cutting energy costs, reversing plans to phase out coal and investing billions in new natural gas infrastructure .
And even as governments scramble to get the green light for new projects, there’s already a huge gap between what’s approved and what’s under construction, as slow permits, protests and environmental reviews cause delays. According to research firm Energy Monitor, governments across Europe have approved about four times as much wind energy as is actually being built.
“People don’t like coal, oil and gas, but they don’t want other options,” said Mr. Katona, the energy analyst. “Government policy is still chaotic and it will be very difficult to find a solution.”
As Mr. Tibau set out to check the nets he had set up two days earlier, with the full moon still behind him at daybreak, he passed a rocky peninsula that had attracted artists such as Picasso, Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp inspired. Atop a hill was a lighthouse that was used as a backdrop for the 1971 Kirk Douglas film The Light on the Edge of the World.
Eventually he reached his buoy and brought his boat to a halt.
Working alone, Mr. Tibau hand-hauled up hundreds of feet of net, discarding sheltered sea cucumbers and smaller crustaceans. After half an hour’s work, he had a respectable catch: a large lobster, a scorpion fish, and a dozen crawfish.
Later in the day, chefs from nearby restaurants came to the shady spot where Mr. Tibau mends his nets and bought the morning’s catch for about $175.
It’s an arrangement that hasn’t changed much in half a century, when a previous generation of fishermen taught Mr. Tibau how to work this little patch of sea.
“If Dalí were alive today,” said Mr. Tibau, “he would have the power to put an end to this project.”