Thursday, July 29, 2010

Where are the windmills really located?

The natural resource of wind powers these 5MW ...Image via Wikipedia
While watching the Tour de France last night, I couldn't help but notice the negativity of the English commentator's remarks about windmills. I find these modernistic additions to the French countryside totally in keeping with the beauty of the fields, rivers and forests that backgrounded the presence of these sustainable producers of electricity. He seemed to think that they were a blot on the landscape. I'm certain that most French people at least would disagree.

Let's take a step back from these controversial machines and look at them from the perspective of someone whose perception is yet to be befuddled by the vagaries of time, eg, a child's perspective. In the middle of a field is a substantial white pole grounded on to a concrete foundation in the middle of a field. The three blades are formed with precision and rotate with unnerving precision and silence. To be sure, these devices are large and imposing, but seem to operate with grace and ease, with minimal sensuous interference in the way of noise, unsightliness, smell and are of seemingly little or no danger to animal or man.

So what's the fuss? Why do some people insist on objecting to this progressive development of technology? Surely compared to the alternative here we have an attractive if minor contributor to the energy needs of a modern society with it's great cities and urban populations. Compared with the alternative, coal-fired, nuclear or gas generated plants, these modern variants of an ancient theme seem to be infinitely preferable.

At various times I have come across several types of power generators. My first experience was while driving in the La Trobe Valley east of Melbourne. There, electricity has been generated by brown coal fired generators for over half a century. My first impression was one of being overwhelmed by the magnificence of this huge plane, with coal being ripped from the adjoining open-cut mine. Strangely beautiful until one is confronted by the intensity of the noise generated as a by product, the scarring of the landscape, a feeling that one was in the presence of a power much greater than myself. It was almost like a homage to an idol of modernity.

I had similarly ambivalent feeling towards the nuclear reactors that I saw in the countryside and cities of both Switzerland and France. A strange mixture of beauty and ugliness that is somehow overwhelming. The ugliness is intensified only when one becomes aware of the by products of these relatively calm constructions. This repulsion is an afterimage only available to me once I consider that the waste material is highly active, burning and poisonous for many years after wards. Only once I realise that these devices produce such intractable danger and are really a front for weapons production in any case, does the beauty of these constructions diminish.

Hydro electricity is another case in point. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric plant is built in the Australian Alps, taking advantage of the kinetic energy of the snow that falls there over winter. The building of this a scheme has a legendary aspect in Australian culture as it employed so many male immigrants and gave rise to many marriages between these newcomers and the peoples of the surrounding districts. It was the harnessing of this human resource which ultimately made the harnessing of the power residing latent in the natural resource available to all.

Still, the intensity of the construction in the natural domain is quite dominant. The concentration of such a large plant detracts in a sense while adding to it. The whole area has been transformed into a built human environment. I don't mind this, but still, the magnitude of this project unbalances the subtleties of nature. Nevertheless, it still remains preferable to the previous examples in all impacts upon the senses. It is just, simply put, aesthetically a better choice.

While I was in the south of France holidaying with my then partner and our son, I was curious to see the windgenerators that had been recently built in the area. I noticed them in the distance and drove up and down country lanes in an effort to get as close as we could. From every angle they rose majestically above the bare undulating hills of the region. 

When we finally manage to stop the car close enough to appreciate these splendid machines, spinning slowly in the breeze emanating from the Mediterranean, we all stood in silence in the field with the blades peacefully rotating with nothing but the gentlest of low frequency sounds, in harmony with the impact that these machines had on the surrounding landscape and environment: minimal.

So, what exactly was this modern day Don Quixote tilting at? The windmills before him in his immediate field of vision, or some romantic notion of nature inside his head, where human activity is forbidden. An idealistic Garden of Eden that ensures the continuing destruction of the environment elsewhere, a peaceful solution or another bomb factory?

Human society is always faced with choices in how to proceed. As Hegel correctly noted, for every human act there is both intended as well as unintended consequences. Modern society requires electricity generation to ensure its survival. Life without it for the greater than six billion inhabitants of the world is well nigh near impossible without any sort of major conflict or catastrophe. Surely it is time to get the windmills out of our heads and into reality along with other renewable forms of generation capacity.

The change over from out-moded forms to the newer and sustainable forms is a chance for great economic expansion and development in the next fifty or so years, an opportunity to reclaim landscapes lost to the barbarity of early forms of electricity generation, making way for a peaceable, quiet and gainfully employed world, and an end to the over centralization of society in general. 

Previous forms may have promised something like this, but can now be seen as having been an aberration in the direction of the human environmental interface. Hopefully, we are moving into a sustainable, democratic and peaceful future with an environmental balance in which human social development and conservation of nature can live side by side. 

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