Who owns the wind?

Who owns the wind? asks David McDermott Hughes in his book of the same title. It’s partly rhetorical – nobody owns the wind! – and partly not. Landowners certainly seem to have found a way to profit from the air circulating over the land their call theirs.

The truth is, nobody has needed to think about owning the wind until recently, in the same way that nobody needed to think about spectrum rights until the radio was invented. As wind power capacity grows, it’s worth thinking more about ownership of the breeze.

Wind doesn’t respect boundaries. It follows global and local patterns, and ultimately owes its origins to the sun. So if it belongs to anyone at all, it ought to belong to everyone. That suggests a commons, something that can be jointly owned, and managed for the good of everyone.

What if countries saw the wind this way, and managed it as a public good, with revenues widely shared? “Once your government or your community owns the kinesis of the wind, different politics ensue,” writes McDermott Hughes. “The landowner still collects rent for square meters devoted to turbine pads, but the value of airborne energy falls into public hands.”

This would be truly fair wind power, with something in it for everybody. There could be national payments, like the Alaskan oil fund, and everyone would have a stake in the wind. It would be an inclusive energy transition, compensating those who are inconvenienced by wind power, and spreading the benefits of clean energy widely. A commons approach could build a real support base for wind power.

There’s a lot more to explore in the book, which looks at aesthetics, politics and culture, all based in anthropological research in a Spanish community that has more turbines per capita than any other place on earth. It’s the commons idea that has stuck with me. I’d not come across the idea of a wind commons before, but it strikes me as a potentially useful idea for working towards equality and sustainability at the same time. It would avoid the sense of imposition that some people feel around wind power, and ensure that nobody benefits at the expense of others.

The best climate solutions are the ones that work for everybody, that build inclusion and pride, and that don’t reinforce current imbalances of power and influence. As McDermott Hughes writes, “let the people seize the wind.”

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