Chapter 2: Size matters

February 2014

Wind farm and wind turbine conversations often involve debates about the size of turbines, and what I’ve heard some people call the “relative size” (meaning how large they are – and often how uncomfortable that makes people feel – when one is close to them). I am not that interested in this idea as such: of course a turbine “looks bigger” when one is close to it than when one is far away.  That applies to any object and although I don’t want to be dismissive of issues people raise, I don’t quite see how such an observation helps to take the debate forward, at least, not without more information.

So I am not going to explore that directly. However, one of the common complaints about wind farms is that they are “too big” and I interpret such comments in two senses, aside from the question of relative size:

  1. the turbines are too tall for the context they are in
  2. the wind farms include too many turbines over too large an area.
Evening skies, Kiesby, Schleswig Holstein

Evening skies, Kiesby, Schleswig Holstein

These two comments are related to one another.  After all, a single turbine might be quite tall, but might not be so intimidating, as this evening image from northern Germany perhaps illustrates.  The turbine is tall, but I think the tree appears to reduce the height of the turbine. Normally, of course, turbines in wind farms are nowhere near trees as they need space to operate, so we do not often have such comparisons readily available. However, this is a solitary wind turbine in a farmer’s field, and such turbines tend to be smaller than the ones that make up modern wind farms in Scotland. I’ll come back to that question below – after all, these essays are about wind farms.

Regarding the first point noted above, size really does matter in terms of height. In very general terms, the larger/taller the turbine, the more efficient it becomes, so energy suppliers are, understandably keen to deploy taller turbines. The tallest are off-shore, and there are moves, for example off the island of Islay, to build such wind farms out of sight of the coastline. The Islay proposal is for the turbines to be 13km away from the island, which is well beyond what can be seen from sea level, though may become more visible from higher positions on the island (not that Islay has the mountains that Mull or Skye have, for instance). Wind farms on land, however are a different matter, as they are much more visible to all.

Crystal Rig wind farm, East Lothian

Crystal Rig wind farm, East Lothian

I expect this to be a contentious statement for some, but: I think the question as to whether turbines are obtrusive or not is purely subjective, relying upon a series of constructions about what we regard as an “appropriate” height and so on. When campaign groups argue that the turbines are too tall, they are expressing a personal opinion, nothing more – though certainly also nothing less. There is no “perfect” size, other than – from the perspective of the energy companies – as large as possible in order to be as efficient as possible.  To say that a taller turbine in unnatural in a particular context is a slightly strange thing to say, it seems to me – since when is a turbine ever “natural”?!

I have been photographing a number of different sized turbines, and from close up, most wind turbines look pretty much the same, no matter what size they actually are. There is always a sense of awe when standing at the base of a turbine and looking up, not least since the rotating blades appear to be reaching down to grab you as they move.

However, most people do not do this! Instead they see turbines from a distance, and this then brings with it questions about the number of turbines deployed – this is the link between height and quantity that I mentioned above.

If we presume that the Crystal Rig 2 wind farm in East Lothian, for example, is well-situated for producing as much electricity as possible, we may wonder what the hillside would be like with just one turbine.

Crystal Rig wind farm, East Lothian

Crystal Rig wind farm, East Lothian

Crystal Rig wind farm, East Lothian

Crystal Rig wind farm, East Lothian

Again, that is a subjective question. I can appreciate the perspective of the energy companies: capitalist modes of production require cost efficiencies, and it is undoubtedly cheaper to have many turbines on a single site than one on this hillside and a further series of single turbines dotted across numerous hillsides all across East Lothian’s Lammermuir hills. Would that be a more attractive option, in an aesthetic sense of visual impact? I suspect many of those who object to wind farms would find it equally objectionable to have single turbines on every hillside.

Of course, a key factor in the size question is supporting infrastructure.  This last image offers a suggestion of that – after all, the electricity generated needs to go somewhere, and that usually means pylons.  As indicated earlier, I don’t always see pylons, though they are sometimes hard to miss, given their height and the amount of space they take up on the ground!  I don’t think these pylons are carrying energy generated by this wind farm, but in many parts of the country, pylons make their presence felt: in dramatic ways, cutting through woodlands, for example.

Pylons near Dalmary, Trossachs

Pylons near Dalmary, Trossachs

What then, to do about the size problem?  What measure can we use for arguing a turbine is too tall, or that a group of turbines, a wind farm, is too substantial?  Perhaps this cannot be something that an individual can decide, but is something that requires more of a collective decision-making process that would allow a variety of views to manifest themselves. I have come across a possible response to how a wind farm might be welcomed by a community, rather than being resisted because of size or location, and I intend to tell that story in a subsequent chapter.

What is very clear is that we cannot continue to provide our energy needs from hydrocarbons: the most recent IPCC report should convince all but the most right-wing swivel-eyed loons that climate change is happening and that it is caused by human activity, and the consumption of oil and related products lies at the heart of this process.  Burning coal, gas, oil in this way is a route to environmental catastrophe.  So what about nuclear energy?  Three Mile island, Chernobyl, Fukushima – these names alert us to the potentially catastrophic dangers of energy derived from nuclear fission, and the ongoing “low-level” contamination repeatedly reported from nuclear plants such as Windscale/Sellafield should, at the very least, give us pause for thought, even if we convince ourselves that our nuclear plants would not suffer the fate of these disaster zones (bearing in mind that of the three mentioned here, two were in countries generally regarded as very highly advanced). And furthermore: we still have no long-term solution to the problem of nuclear waste, which at the moment seems likely to burden generations to come, even if they no longer use nuclear power. And yet, and yet… Torness nuclear power station on Scotland’s east coast, about 50km from Edinburgh where I used to live, provides 30% of Scotland’s electricity – that is a lot of wind turbines and other sources!

However, for the moment that is what we have. A future chapter will therefore explore what it is that wind farms are seeking to replace, with some thoughts and images from Torness.

Go to previous chapter.

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2 thoughts on “Chapter 2: Size matters

  1. Stef

    I love the first photo so much. If I had a house to hang it up in, I’d order a really big print of it! I wondered whether you’ve through any of the sounds they make, and how photography does not represent that? The photo where you’re standing underneath one, and you describe how the blades seem to want to take you up into the sky comes very close to describing their sound… but I want some more 🙂

    Reply
    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks – let me know when you have your house and I’ll make the print, as big as you like (well, up to several metres wide…!).

      I have several videos of turbines, but the camera I was using was not great for sound recording. I will be trying again with my newer camera. The main challenge is to capture the sound of the turbine blades without the wind blowing into the microphone and distorting the sound too much – but of course I need some wind to make the blades turn at all! I’ve used my mobile to record the sounds, but it’s really not that great – I should get a dedicated sound recorder.

      Reply

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