Among renewable energy technologies, wind turbines have the odd distinction of being at once the most celebrated and the most reviled. People either love wind turbines, or hate them. With a passion.
Take, for example, the battle over Cape Wind-the long delayed, highly contentious standoff between wind developer Jim Gordon and wealthy residents of Cape Cod who’ve spent millions to keep wind turbines from sullying the view from their private beaches. Then there are the “wind syndrome” alarmists, who claim that sonic vibrations from wind turbines can drive those living in the sinister shadows of wind turbines literally mad.
Why do wind turbines attract such vehement opposition? By way of suggesting an answer, it’s worth noting that passionate, often irrational hatred of wind turbines is nothing new. In an ill-tempered essay in the Los Angeles Times in 1984, urban planner Sylvia White painted the wind industry as an unstoppable force laying waste to fragile California ecosystems. Plus, she argued, wind turbines are ugly. “Seen from several miles away, the motion of the turbines may seem graceful as the blades sparkle in the sun,” she allowed. “But, in truth, the wind machines, with their awkward stalky appearance strangely reminiscent of oil rigs, deface the landscape.” Ouch.
In 1985, prefiguring the Cape Wind brouhaha, the mayor of Palm Springs led a campaign against a developer proposing to build a wind farm along the highway leading to the resort town. “Every time I go out I see more windmills and get madder’n hell,” said the mayor, Frank M. Bogert, to a reporter from The New York Times.
The common denominator, past and present, is visual. Rarely, if ever, do wind critics challenge the underlying technology of wind turbines. After all, it’s difficult to find much fault with highly efficient, electricity-producing machines powered by a free, clean, renewable fuel. Rather, it’s the optics of wind turbines that drive a small but vocal cohort of anti-wind activists into a tizzy. And to a certain extent this is understandable, because industrial wind turbines are undeniably huge. Unlike ground-hugging, relatively unobtrusive solar panels, turbines are utterly conspicuous. If you’ve ever driven by a wind farm or glimpsed one from a distance, you can’t deny that they alter the landscape. And offshore wind farms, when visible from the shore, alter the seascape. (Although many offshore wind plants, including the proposed design for Cape Wind, are far enough away from the shore that they’re visible only on the clearest of days, and then only barely visible.)
But does visibility translate to ugliness? Whether you believe that wind turbines are elegant, sculptural additions to the landscape or ugly industrial blemishes is of course largely a matter of opinion. But here’s the rub: however you may perceive them, wind turbines should be visible. For too long we’ve been accustomed to energy being invisible. Or, more specifically, we’ve come to expect that the plants and machines that produce electricity be out of the way. And with good reason. Coal-fired power plants, from which we derive most of our electricity, are dirty, loud, and ugly. (It will come as a surprise to those not in the know that something as odorless, silent, and seemingly ephemeral as electricity requires so much dark, dirty coal and loud, clanging machinery to produce it and results in such a huge volume of toxic waste.)
But invisibility also leads to ignorance of how energy is made. And it leads to apathy. And that’s a problem for a few reasons. First because it results in careless, uninformed energy use. And second because it’s never good for the vast majority of people to be so completely removed from and ignorant of the technologies and machines and places that make the stuff without which our globalized, massively networked civilization would not exist.
So even putting aside my entirely personal, subjective opinion that wind turbines look cool and majestic, I say bring ‘em on. The more visible they are, the better. Beyond the fact that they channel a free, renewable fuel and convert it to electricity at reasonable prices, wind turbines serve the valuable purpose of bringing power generation out of the shadows and into the light.
Photo by Wind Power Monthly
Jeremy Shere is a science writer who is preparing the book "ReNEWable: Exploring the Past, Present and Future of Alternative Energy", for St. Martin's Press. See the book in progress at renewablebook.wordpress.com/