Thursday, July 21, 2011


An article in the (London) Sunday Times Magazine about wind farms, the currently fashionable form of "green" energy.

In particular, the article referenced the farm at Whitelee in Scotland, near Glasgow, 140 colossal turbines turning slowly in the wind, supplying energy for up to 180,000 families, the largest on-shore wind farm in Europe, so big that it is a tourist attraction. Is this what we want our countryside to look like? asks author Matt Rudd, a conservationist with ambivalent feelings about the gigantic machines.

For the time being, at least, wind isn't cheap. And the turbines only work when the wind blows. "Stop trashing the Highlands," read the protestors' signs. Opponents point out that the blades chop up birds, the installations require huge amounts of concrete and steel, the generator magnets are made of neodymium alloys from Inner Mongolia that are mined in an environmentally unfriendly process, and the generators are connected to the grid with unsightly lines of pylons that compound the visual degradation of the landscape.

Whatever. More, many more, are on the way. There are more than three thousand wind turbines currently cranking out electricity in the UK, and more than six thousand in the pipeline. It's a case of green versus green -- those who want to break our climate-warming addiction to fossil fuel against those who rue the visual despoliation of our last remaining wild places.

I've mentioned here before my own ambivalent feelings. As we travel back and forth from Shannon airport to Dingle we pass several wind farms on the surrounding hills. To me they have a kind of majestic beauty, like a race of giants marching across the landscape, doing our human bidding. I was less entranced when a few years ago I came upon a clutch of turbines in a remote mountain valley that had taken half-a-day to reach on foot. That's the thing about wind farms; they are most economical where the land is wild, windy and cheap.

Is wildness obsolete? Does our appetite for energy trump our appetite for natural beauty?

Or might photovoltaics yet have their day. I have this fantasy of every house and commercial building in America with a photovoltaic roof. Not panels, but an integrated roofing system. Mandatory. No doubt this has a dark underside too -- more resources mined in Mongolia with toxic waste, perhaps. Not to mention the extra expense, clouds, snow, and Tea Party protestors bewailing governmental restrictions on our freedom to roof our houses any way we please.