Saturday, February 23, 2013

Landscapes of Energy vol. 2: Camouflage, Transparency, Chromatic Fancy.

One of the fundamental elements of many a picturesque landscape, first in painting then in photography, is a windmill. And the people apparently love them. It's difficult to imagine a Dutch landscape without a windmill here and there. So, what's wrong with the new generation of wind turbines sprouting around our landscapes?

I won't delve into the opposition between eolic energy investors and protectors of landscape. But, one must admit that there is something uncanny to the sight of wind turbines in the landscape. They cause mixed feelings. It takes some time to get used to their sight. Not because of their shape, which is basically identical to any household fan, but because of their sheer height.  Even if they are far smaller than many urban structures, is highlighted in their context – flatlands or bare hilltop. We are impressed by them because of our human (or, at least, masculine) fascination (or obsession) with verticality.

Connected with this vertical impact, wind farms put in crisis our still deeply rooted mental and emotional separation between urban and rural environments, or, more precisely, between culture and nature. Wind mills are ultimate man-made artefacts, and they are perfectly urban, so what are they doing amidst the “nature”?! One needs then to put them in perspective with other practices of terraforming. Agriculture has been profoundly changing landscapes for millennia now, but we pretend that we’re just collaborating with nature. Other huge extra-urban structures, such as superhighways or railways are designed in such a manner as to (try to) blend into the landscape. Summing up, these are all essentially horizontal structures, and as such figure less in our orthogonal way of looking.

Not stopping at hilltops, wind farms are now colonising open sea, the protected realm of horizontality (if we forget about oil rigs for a second). In another era, let us say in modern times, it would have been a sign that the man has finally fulfilled his crazy dream of the domination of nature, having now all the resources and elements under control (that is, usufruct). But, although the renewables are in fact paving the path towards sustainability, they still attract critique from all sides of political spectrum and stir the public opinion in terms of their visual impact.

Still, there is a sublime beauty in wind turbines, a beauty which signifies our rethinking of the way we live with the environment. They embody and make visible the bond between the man and wind, in this sense they are symbolic. (Solar panels can be analysed in similar terms, too.) Precisely because of this, there is a strong aesthetic potentiality in the renewables. But, it seems like it is not actualised. Putting aside the sublime and symbolic notes, wind turbines are a bit dull or anonymous. In terms of design, there are other sexier solutions, and vertical axis turbines are very attractive. But, in terms of the relationship of wind generators with the surroundings, what can be thought up?

Continue reading... 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Landscapes of Energy Vol. 1: Visible and Invisible.

The first guest post by Luca Silvestrini, renewable energies engineer, based in Palermo, Sicily, introducing the subject of seeing the new landscape of renewable energies.

Writing from Sicily and working in this area, I often am confronted with this topic: many people feel the Sicilian landscape is too beautiful to be “damaged” by wind or solar farms. Some local politicians complain too.

First of all, we should all have in mind that energy efficiency (i.e. redesigning the way houses are built, factories work, transportation means move), much less visible than any electricity generation device, is at the same time much more important and, often, cheaper too.
Having said that, what is the visual and mental impact of seeing a line of 80 m high wind turbines in the almost empty Sicilian countryside? 
But, one should ask himself about the “alternative” source of electricity which, in this case is natural gas plants or, in some other cases, coal or nuclear plants. Centralised production, of course, gives the political advantage of high control and potential lack of transparency over the facility. More importantly for this blog, these complexes have a high visual impact concentrated only on a small part of the landscape.

Nevertheless, the pollution generated by the fossil fuel plant becomes global (and therefore affects mostly poor people around the World), but we just don’t see it (differently from the 19th Century coal powered London, or today’s Beijing), so we don’t think about it too much. Being born in an image-ruled world, looking at the giant wind turbines, we are hence forced to pose ourselves some questions:
  1. How much energy will this wind plant produce?
  2. How much is that compared to the City/Region/Nation’s needs?
  3. Which alternatives do we have?
People that never in their life realized how important electricity is, because they always took it for granted, in front of these new presences in the landscape begin to think about the energy. Another, more landscape friendly example is a photovoltaic system on a family’s rooftop.

The more distributed energy production becomes, the less aggressive it is to the landscape. Also, the people start thinking anew about energy as something that is not coming straight from Heaven, and become more conscious about that energy, about its limitedness. Families will learn what time is better to use the dishwasher (maybe even estimate how much it consumes) and, more importantly, how much energy they can produce in one sunny day.

On the other hand, at the present moment we are very concerned about something we do not really see: money. When it comes to paying the electricity bill we often complain. We just don’t realise that if most Governments are giving high subsidies to green energies, they still give much higher subsidies to dirty energies. If they didn’t, and if the external cost of pollution was correctly accounted for, our real bills would have to be much higher, and thus far more perceptible.

To try to stop global warming, and give some home to the human race, we should first become more conscious and knowledgeable about how we use energy: learning to see and under stand renewables is a necessary step in the right direction.

Luca Silvestrini