Monday, January 18, 2010

... blowing in the wind

The media, and the public, have a love/hate relationship with wind farms, as some recent articles suggest (see below for links).

When wind farms are being planned in an area the media seems to paint them as a bad thing. The 'visual pollution' of a wind farm is seemingly more problematic that the hidden pollution of leaking diesel, distant coal mines, or stored nuclear waste. What will this do to our views, they ask?

When a wind farmed project is stalled or blocked, however, then that's also usually a bad thing in the media. Does this mean we will be forced to use more coal-fired power stations to feed the ever-increasing demand for power? Without the wind power how will we cope, they ask?

When a wind farm opens it can be a good or a bad thing. I was almost surprised at how positive the media has been over the new Antarctic wind farm opening. If there ever was a pristine wilderness that could be visually polluted by large turbines, surely it's the Antarctic. However, it seems that diesel spills on snow are not as invisible as diesel spills on grass and mud, and there are still plenty of unspoiled views in a continent as large as Antarctica.

A recent piece in Vermont's Burlington Free Press website, spelt out clearly the problems with wind farms in the public mind.
We humans experience our surroundings in large part with our eyes, so it is not surprising these large and highly visible machines elicit visceral reactions. We can't tuck them away behind pine-tree hedges in industrial parks.
The aesthetics of power generation may be the biggest hurdle to changing the way we power our lives.

It's easy to be offended by a large smokestack belching black smoke into the environment. It's also easy for people to get upset by a tower expelling clouds of harmless water vapour. Visually they seem too similar for most people to differentiate. Indeed, I have seem water cooling towers issuing steam used on TV news to illustrate pollution. TV never lets reality get in the way of a good visual. They look bad, so they are bad.

Unfortunately, so much of the pollution of current power generation is less visual. Out of sight is out of mind. People don't tend to trek to industrial parks for a picnic or hike. Wind farms suffer from the overlap of their ideal locations with popular human recreation spots.

Wind farms seem to polarize people. I personally have been captivated by the spinning, hypnotic blades. They represent something better than the alternatives in my mind. To others they are an eyesore, a blight upon the landscape. There is also a strong popular belief that wind farms cause distress to animals and humans, cause everything from sleep problems to internal and mental illness, and are expensive and inefficient.

Solar farms face similar issues, as large scale arrays are in essence an angular and sterile desert of black or silver. They are a geometric imposition upon the land. But at least they can be hidden from public view more readily than the pointy wind farms. Tidal power is critiqued in similar tones, an ugly man-made imposition into the beautiful seas. Never mind the sewage pipes hidden from view, those we can't see so we don't care so much.

The human aesthetic of natural beauty has given us some wonderful things, but it can also be a limiting factor in our attempts to more away from conventional power generation.


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