What is 400 feet tall and goes whoosh?

windmill ranch When I was a little girl, I used to visit my grandfather’s farm each  summer.

 I would lie back in the tall grass, watching the stock tank windmill spin above me. The steady tick-tick-tick of the revolving blades sent me a message of predictability and certainness.

That old windmill, creaking and settling on its wooden derrick, is long gone now, along with the farm. But the wind remains.

As gas prices rise and sources of fuel are depleted, we are looking to renewable sources of power, such as sunlight and wind to feed our voracious need for energy.

But these new wind machines are not my grandfather’s windmill.

Wind turbines are really big

To start, wind turbines (you can’t really call them windmills anymore) are mammoth. 

The architectural drawings for the wind turbines at Wild Horse Wind Power Project in Oregon  show a drawing of a existing transmission tower (170 feet) dwarfed in comparison to the largest wind machine (410 feet tall by 295 feet wide). 

To give you another example, a 747 jet is only 231 feet long, with a tail height of 63 feet.  At that rate you could stack six 747 jets on top of one another and still have room for a Starbuck’s outlet before you reached the topmost blade tip.

Why so tall? Apparently the wind is better up there.

The numbers are mindboggling. Each of the three blades is 130 feet long and weighs several tons. The tower sections themselves clock in at over 35 tons apiece.  By the time you count the rotor in the middle, the vanes span almost the length of a football field with their diameter.  That’s one big hunk of metal.

Wind farms need a lot of space

Remember gym class when the teacher would tell you to raise your arms and spread out your fingertips to make enough room to do jumping-jacks? Well, imagine ‘arms’ over a hundred feet long. Add to that the fact that the turbines themselves have to be spaced even farther apart so they don’t hog each other’s wind supply. 

As a result, a wind farm needs several acres for each turbine, and there need to be over a hundred or so turbines for the farm to be economically viable.  So many of the proposed farms sites are measured in square miles of occupied land.

Now, admittedly, most of that space underneath the turbines is not being used. Proposals have estimated the actual usage at about 2% of the land space. Project builders optimistically note that this ‘preserves open space’ and protects it from ‘urbanization.’ Right.

Possible hazards from wind turbines

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’d want to live under one of these big guys. In addition to the ice throw hazard (picture chunks of ice being flung by the blades) there is also the problem of flicker shadow, when blades interfere with low angle sunlight, emitting an eerie strobe impact effect as the blade passes the tower.

Although cattle can graze peaceably between the towers, the bird population is at risk, especially migrating birds that may be flying at night. Bat populations, too, can be destroyed.

Aesthetics of wind turbines

Wind turbine are vertical. Straight. Made of metal. Huge. Engineers love ‘em. They wax enthusiastic about ‘form following function.’ They say that wind turbines are no more obtrusive to the view than say, the Golden Gate Bridge or the Statue of Liberty. They make nasty remarks about tree huggers and spotted owls and NIMBYs (not in my back yard).

Nature lovers hate them. Wind turbines impinge on the viewshed. They are ugly. Big. Made of metal. Vertical and monotonous in a natural landscape. They can’t blend in no matter how hard they try. Painted green, they stand out even more than the dull gray metal. Mile after mile of these things go marching across a once pristine environment.

A active discussion of both sides of the controversy can be found in the commentary section of a post by Justin Good entitled Aesthetics of Wind Farms.

Even putting them in the ocean (out of sight, out of mind) is not always a solution. From Cape Cod all the way to Cape Hatteras proposals are being vetted and vetoed.

In Texas, that legal bulwark of conservatism, a state appeals court upheld a ruling dismissing a ‘nuisance lawsuit’  lawsuit by property owners upset with a proposed wind farm. The brief stated that “unwelcome aesthetical impact doesn’t support such a claim.”  

Good background information on wind power (from the developer’s perspective) can be found at the Horizon Wind Energy site, as well.

Both sides of the wind farm dichotomy have merit

In a way, I can see both sides of the argument. In small clusters, wind turbines could conceivably be viewed as installation art? (I’m stretching a bit here.) 

Wind turbines certainly are functional. They give us renewable energy without pollution and once in operation, they are remarkably trouble free.

Obsolescence will continue to be a problem. When I drive across the pass west of Los Angeles, I see the older models still there, standing idly by as their bigger brothers go to work. Apparently it is not economically feasible to remove them. 

Frankly, in my humble opinion (IMHO), taken in large numbers wind turbines are just plain ugly, function notwithstanding.

We are faced with a Hobson’s choice

You may be familiar with the phrase, ‘Hobson’s choice’. Thomas Hobson ran a livery stable back in the 1500s and rented horses out to Cambridge university students. When they came by to pick up a horse to ride, Hobson would only allow them to saddle up the horse closest to the gate.

In other words, they apparently had free choice, but there was only one option. Henry Ford capitalized on this principle with his Model-T Ford. Remember that? You could have any color you wanted, so long as it was black.

And we are facing a choice, too. With only one option. 

Oil is polluting and nonrenewable. Coal, yes even coal, will be depleted in our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s lifetime. We must look to other, more sustainable options of energy production.

Wind is one of them. Clean, pure, sighing, whispering wind. 

And maybe, just maybe, these massive wind turbines of today will someday be obsolete as well, as we design sleeker, more beautiful offerings to Zephyros. 

One bright day in the future we may finally learn how to be aesthetic about our functionality.

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About Intrepid Explorer

By writing we discover the world
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