Wind Turbines and Aesthetic Beauty

Dramatic visual changes are afoot off the Sussex coast. In a stretch of coastline that sits more or less directly offshore from Brighton, work is underway raising more than one hundred metal towers above waves that until now have seen only passing fishing boats, freighters, and the occasional whale.

When completed in 2018, the Rampion Offshore wind farm will be the largest producer of renewable energy in the English Channel. The one hundred and sixteen turbines will have a capacity of 400 megawatts and are expected to produce around 1,400 gigawatt hours of electricity per year, enough to supply 350,000 households. From the ocean surface to the tip of the one of the Rampion’s turbine blades will be a distance of 459 feet. Sitting eight miles offshore, the array covers an area greater than Manhattan Island.

The numbers are impressive and it is because of this that the emerging facility is named after the county flower, the round-headed rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare). The flower also happens to be known as the “Pride of Sussex.”

Rampion is part of a remarkable build-up of offshore wind power in the United Kingdom over the last decade. With its abundant coastline and reliable Atlantic winds, the UK is by far the best place for offshore wind in Europe. Wind power already supplies more of the UK’s energy needs than coal. A “baseline scenario” in a June 2017 report predicts that the UK’s offshore wind could easily increase from its current installed capacity of nearly 6 gigawatts to 25 gigawatts by 2030, powering an estimated 75% of the UK’s household electricity needs.

For those concerned about climate change, clean power facilities like Rampion are potent illustrations of the sorts of changes and investments that the global community needs to make.

Having grown up on this part of the South Coast decades ago, my first glimpse of Rampion took me completely by surprise. I was heading down to the store, a bit jet-lagged but enjoying the sense of being back home, when I was startled to look up at the familiar ocean view and find sixty or so towers projecting from the grey surface of the Channel. At their feet floated a couple of large construction vessels. Nobody had told me this project was in the works and the new seaside aesthetic provided quite a jolt.

As somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about climate change and the technologies designed to counter it, the suite of reactions that went through me in that moment say a lot about the “NIMBY” (not-in-my-back-yard) sentiments that dog clean power projects.

From the point of view of natural beauty, those who live on the sea know that there is something unique in what the ocean offers to the eye. The complex arrangements of light, form, and color provide endless stimulation for the senses. The sea never repeats itself. Its independence from our designs and its somewhat foreboding countenance grips us in a way that few other phenomena do. What the sea offers is a glimpse of something that is both irrepressibly wild and eternally beyond us.

FOT1152671As a child, I struggled to understand why the cement promenades built by coastal towns such as Hastings, Eastbourne, and Seaford were always lined with hundreds of deck chairs permanently filled with white-haired pensioners staring for hours out towards the waves. As I got older, I started to get it. The sea offers to a tiring body a glimpse of something more, something beyond the human-created infrastructure in which that person has lived the bulk of their lives. In some intangible sense, a view of the sea offers a hint of that other world to come.

I have not asked any of the seated pensioners what they think about the Rampion Wind Farm, but I confess that for me it demanded an uncomfortable adjustment. A wind farm on the horizon interferes with that important sense of the beyond. Rampion seemed like an intrusion into a view that had been reassuringly constant on my periodic returns to this coastline.

Despite initially feeling some loss of the sense of the beyond that the Rampion’s towers had shattered, behind this feeling came a surging wave of pride that we were actually starting to do something significant about the horrors of climate change. Reducing greenhouse gases requires action and investment beyond simply cutting down on waste and wishing our politics were different. It means real change and serious money. It means the introduction of concrete and metal onto the landscape and implementation of a range of technological smarts.

Admitting this helps to mitigate the NIMBY response. Aesthetic reactions, after all, are not just matters of surface level beauty. They are also informed by matters of morality. What is right, in an important sense, is often beautiful even if it does not initially appear to meet traditional standards of beauty. Seen through this lens, wind farms are beautiful. They are the physical embodiments of what we ought to be doing.

An additional aspect of the Rampion Array that has a significant, if surprising, value is that it is here, asserting itself in-my-back-yard. Too much of the industrial detritus that runs the modern world has been segregated so that a limited few gain the benefits while a consistent minority bear the costs. Any time an affluent society can push its visual and environmental consequences beyond its space and time horizon, it tends to do so.

Here that is not the case. The South Coast of England is a generally prosperous area in a developed nation. It ought to have visual reminders of the energy it uses. To have the reminder set squarely in front of you on the coast in the form of wind turbines, even if it is initially startling, is a good thing. This avoiding of the injustices of energy supply is both pleasing and true.

offshore

So after momentarily lamenting what the Rampion Wind Farm had taken away from me, I quickly came around to find a satisfying beauty in the intrusive towers. Knowing that they formed part of the solution to climate change was inspiring. Recognizing that they prevented the export of industrial ugliness beyond my own space and time horizon was deeply satisfying.

I still prefer views of untouched nature. But there is little doubt that NIMBYism amongst the affluent is its own form of ugliness.

 

 

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