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Are solar and wind farms ugly or beautiful? There’s a lot riding on the answer

It was a huge moment in the fight against climate change. The Biden administration announced this week that it would open more than 250,000 acres of ocean water off California’s Central Coast to wind energy development.

The offshore wind industry has struggled to get a toehold on the West Coast, even as projects begin to take off on the Atlantic Seaboard. Ocean breezes could play a big role in transitioning the Western electric grid off fossil fuels, especially because the region’s offshore gusts blow strong after sundown, as Anna M. Phillips, Rosanna Xia and I wrote for The Times.

Still, here was a major hitch on my mind while reporting this story. As much potential as there is in offshore wind, it’s one of the best examples of an inconvenient truth: that renewable energy facilities are often seen as terrible eyesores.

Lots of people believe that fields of wind turbines or solar panels ruin a gorgeous view, and that doesn’t make them climate deniers. It’s a common opinion, I’ve found — not just in wealthy coastal communities like Nantucket island, the Massachusetts enclave where wealthy homeowners helped defeat a proposal for America’s first... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

It was a huge moment in the fight against climate change. The Biden administration announced this week that it would open more than 250,000 acres of ocean water off California’s Central Coast to wind energy development.

The offshore wind industry has struggled to get a toehold on the West Coast, even as projects begin to take off on the Atlantic Seaboard. Ocean breezes could play a big role in transitioning the Western electric grid off fossil fuels, especially because the region’s offshore gusts blow strong after sundown, as Anna M. Phillips, Rosanna Xia and I wrote for The Times.

Still, here was a major hitch on my mind while reporting this story. As much potential as there is in offshore wind, it’s one of the best examples of an inconvenient truth: that renewable energy facilities are often seen as terrible eyesores.

Lots of people believe that fields of wind turbines or solar panels ruin a gorgeous view, and that doesn’t make them climate deniers. It’s a common opinion, I’ve found — not just in wealthy coastal communities like Nantucket island, the Massachusetts enclave where wealthy homeowners helped defeat a proposal for America’s first offshore wind farm, but also in rural areas across the West, where many residents value the uncluttered views and distinctly non-industrialized character of the landscapes.

There are case studies everywhere, from the desert towns of California’s San Bernardino County to the San Diego backcountry, eastern Washington state, the San Francisco Bay Area, Nevada’s Mormon Mesa and Laramie, Wyo. Some of the arguments are more compelling than others. I was a bit confused, for instance, to read about Montanans trying to block a lithium-ion battery installation in Butte, considering it would be built next to an existing electric substation — not exactly a pristine viewshed.

There are lots of obstacles to transitioning to 100% clean energy — the enduring political power of the oil and gas industry, for one. But if you ask me, local opposition to renewable energy projects could be as significant a roadblock as any.

The number of facilities that will be needed is staggering, and the country has only just begun to scratch the surface. Even with a significant push for rooftop solar and other small urban installations — which could lead to large cost savings, some researchers have found — we’re talking about a dramatic transformation of American landscapes, particularly in the sunny, windy West.

Personally, I think solar farms and wind turbines look pretty cool, probably in part because I grew up with an understanding of them as a public good. When I lived in Palm Springs, I learned to take pride in the iconic wind farms of the San Gorgonio Pass — which were once seen as a blight on the beautiful mountain scenery that would hurt tourism but are now mostly beloved.

I also realize not everyone feels that way — even some folks who are super concerned about the climate crisis.

When I asked the people of Twitter for their thoughts on the aesthetics of renewable energy, I got a range of responses. One person pointed me toward UC Berkeley research suggesting proximity to wind turbines can lead to lower property values. Another shared a nighttime video of blinking aircraft safety lights atop a field of wind turbines, calling them “an abomination [that] ruin our night sky.” Someone sent me a version of Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” featuring a wind turbine in the foreground.

Several folks made comparisons to fossil fuels, with one person posting a definitely-not-pretty photo of an oil refinery and another writing that “poor aesthetics of renewable energy facilities is a misinformation campaign perpetuated by oil and gas advocates.”

I also asked some of my L.A. Times colleagues what they think — particularly those who, like me, love to hike.

Rachel Schnalzer, who writes our (excellent) travel newsletter, Escapes, said that while she doesn’t like reaching a mountain peak and seeing “a sea of distribution centers down below,” solar and wind farms don’t bother her. Utility journalism editor Matthew Ballinger said that while he’s “used to the signs of civilization being present in the San Gabriel and Santa Monica mountains,” it would be a “real bummer” to see vistas in more remote places, such as Joshua Tree National Park, covered by solar panels.

“That said, I’d rather have that than for actual Joshua trees to go extinct or something because we can’t control our carbon output,” he added.

Another interesting comment came from Mary Forgione, who writes our (also excellent) outdoors newsletter, The Wild.

“I must confess, I’m ALL for solar/wind farms — until I get to the desert and see the big aggregate farms and think, ‘Oh, I thought this was going to be rooftop solar, not something as ugly as a sprawling power plant,’” she wrote. “And then I think, ‘Oh, coal is so awful and has killed so many miners and others from pollution. Maybe I better stop thinking about the downsides of these alternatives and be grateful for the tech shift.’”

For some expert commentary, I turned to Josh Hohn. He’s based in San Francisco and runs the visual resources practice at Stantec, a consulting firm that helps conduct legally mandated environmental analyses for solar and wind farms. He has a fascinating job, which he described as helping people understand what renewable energy facilities will actually look like.

“If you don’t do that, it leaves people to imagine by their own devices,” he said. “We try to get to a point of shared visual understanding, so that any public debate about a project’s aesthetic merits is focused on what has been proposed.”

Hohn told me his work involves visiting proposed project sites and creating detailed visual simulations. He writes technical reports that consider factors such as scenic highways and hiking trails, whether the landscape has already been altered by humans, and basic design principles such as form, line, color and texture. Hohn and his colleagues determine whether a project would have “significant and unavoidable” visual impacts, with the final decision on approval or disapproval left to public officials.

“I’m a native Californian, and I think we’ve got maybe a higher tolerance for evolving landscapes out here,” he said. “That’s me saying that as a hiker who has chosen to go somewhere and doesn’t mind turning a corner and seeing turbines. That’s not me as a landowner who has chosen to go live somewhere remote, where I might not want to see that kind of infrastructure.”

“People broadly support this stuff, just not near them,” he added. “It very often comes down to the aesthetics.”

Hohn also referred me to Argonne National Laboratory scientist Robert Sullivan, who retired in January after 14 years studying the aesthetics of renewable energy facilities and power lines for the federally funded, Illinois-based lab. Much of his work involved contracting for government agencies such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

Sullivan told me that analyzing visual impacts is less subjective than you might think. It involves figuring out where a piece of energy infrastructure would be visible from — possibly as far away as several dozen miles for an offshore wind farm — and what people would see from different vantage points. He said flat fields of solar panels typically have the lowest impacts, at least compared to wind turbines that can tower hundreds of feet high and electric lines that can cut across landscapes for hundreds of miles.

“It’s not the kind of thing where you’re trying to say, ‘I can tell you for every single person that you give me how they’re going to feel about this,’” he said. “But pretty objectively, you can say [whether] this is going to be pretty prominent in the visual field.”

A field of wind turbines visible from Mt. Rushmore, for instance, would be an objectively big deal. Whereas the same facility on Midwestern farmland, which has already been modified by human activity, would have less of an impact.

To be clear, not all opposition to solar and wind farms is based on aesthetics. There are plenty of wildlife and ecosystem reasons a particular spot might be wrong for a renewable energy facility. Noise concerns are also sometimes raised about wind farms.

But if we’re going to confront climate change, dealing with visual impacts is key. There’s no way around it. Especially in the West, there will be difficult conversations about where to put solar farms, wind turbines and transmission lines.

Sullivan spent much of his career helping government agencies and the public make informed, nuanced decisions about these things. So I was somewhat surprised by his answer when I asked him how we might go about resolving the inevitable tensions.

In order to address climate change, he said, we might just have to build stuff even where the aesthetics are bad.

“There’s no question in my mind that we need to be building renewable energy projects, and it could be that ultimately the decision must be taken by society that we don’t give a crap what the visual impacts are,” he said.

It’s a provocative sentiment, and I’m curious to hear what you all think. Send me an email or tweet at me. One way or another, this is a conversation we’re going to need to have as a society. We might as well start now.


Source: https://www.latimes.com/env...

MAY 27 2021
https://www.windaction.org/posts/52422-are-solar-and-wind-farms-ugly-or-beautiful-there-s-a-lot-riding-on-the-answer
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