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Fitting Wind Power to Landscape:

A Place-Based Wind Turbine

 Gordon G. Brittan, Jr.

Brittan is a farmer-rancher and professor of philosophy at Montana State University. The remarkable windmill design described in this essay has, over the last 20 years, been refined by Brittan and his associate Henry Kyburg, another philosopher and farmer-rancher (and also a sailor). Brittan and Kyburg did not invent the windmill design described here but have worked to improve it and to set up companies to build prototypes based on it. Brittan writes: “Perhaps this is one of only a very few instances where philosophers, inspired by engineering, aesthetics, and social ideals, have tried to move from theory to practice. It should be added, for those who might want to follow us in this regard, that ours is a very cautionary tale.”
      An extended  discussion of the issues raised here, including aesthetic concerns, is provided in Brittan’s “Wind, Energy, Landscape: Reconciling Nature and Technology,” in
Philosophy & Geography, vol. 4, no. 2 (2001, pp. 171-8). © 2001, 2002 Gordon G. Brittan, Jr.

The price of oil has more than doubled since 2000, yet there has been little public enthusiasm for the development of alternate forms of energy. In this respect, the situation is very different from that in the 1970s, when dramatic oil price increases were followed by government action to promote wind and solar power.

Evidently, opposition to alternate forms of energy has, whatever the occasional poll to the contrary might show, grown. Much of this opposition is aesthetic in character. It is grounded in a rather sharp separation between nature and technology, and expressed in the thought that wind turbines and solar panels in the landscape are ugly.

Wind turbines somehow do not “fit” in the landscape. From one point of view (classical), landscapes are beautiful to the extent that they are “scenic,” well-balanced compositions. But wind turbines introduce a discordant note; they are out of “scale.”

From another point of view (ecological), landscapes are beautiful if their various elements form a stable and integrated organic whole. But wind turbines are difficult to integrate into the biotic community. At least in certain respects, they are like “weeds.”

Moreover, there is a reason why the 100-meter, three-bladed wind turbines now favored by the industry cannot very well be accommodated to any landscape view. They are, as philosopher Albert Borgmann would argue, distanced “devices” for the production of a commodity rather than “things” with which one can engage.

I argue here that the only way in which the aesthetic resistance to wind turbines can be overcome is to make them more “thing-like.

·         

In attempting to understand public antagonism to conventional wind turbines, we need to understand the character of contemporary technology. No one has done more to clarify it, in my view, than Borgmann (1984), who begins with a distinction between “devices” (those characteristic inventions of our age, among which the pocket calculator, the CD sound system, and the jet plane might be taken as exemplary) and what philosopher Martin Heidegger calls “things” (not only natural objects, but human artifacts such as the traditional windmills of Holland). The pattern of contemporary technology is the device paradigm, which is to say that technology has to do with “devices” as against “things.”

Things “engage” us, an engagement which is at once bodily, social, and demands skill. A device, in contrast, disengages and disburdens us. It makes no demands on skill and, in this sense, is disburdening. Further, a device is defined in functional terms—it is anything that serves a certain human-determined function.

In other words, a device is a means to procure some human end. Since the end may be obtained in a variety of ways (in other words, devices can be functionally equivalent), a device has no intrinsic features.

But a device also “conceals” and, in the process, disengages. The way in which the device obtains its ends is literally hidden from view. The more advanced the device, the more hidden from view it is, sheathed in plastic, stainless steel, or titanium.

Moreover, concealment and disburdening go hand in hand. The concealment of the machinery—the fact that it is distanced from us—insures that it makes no demands on our faculties. The device is socially disburdening as well in its isolation and impersonality.

·         

To make the analysis of “devices” more precise, an objection should be considered. “Is not…the concealment of the machinery and the lack of engagement with our world,” Borgmann asks, “due to widespread scientific, economic, and technical illiteracy?” That is, why in principle can we not “go into” contemporary devices; “break through” their apparent concealments? Why should we not promote electrical engineering, for example, as a general course of study, and in the process come to know if not also to love contemporary technology?

Borgmann initially answers this objection in terms of three points.

·        First, many devices, e.g., the pocket calculator, are in principle irreparable; they are designed to be thrown away when they fail. In this case, there is no point in “going into” the device.

·        Second, many devices, e.g., the CD sound system, are in principle carefree; they are designed not to need repair. It is not necessary to go into such devices.

·        Third, many devices, e.g., the jet plane, are in fact so complex that it is not really possible for anyone but a team of experts to go in to them. Increasingly, this is true of older technologies as well—e.g., automobiles, where “fixing” has become tantamount to “replacing” their various computerized components.

Borgmann contends that, even if technical education made much of the machinery of devices perspicuous, two differences between devices and “things” would remain. Our engagement with devices would remain “entirely cerebral,” since they resist “appropriation through care, repair, the exercise of skill, and bodily engagement.”

Moreover, the machinery of a device is anonymous. It does not express its creator—“It does not reveal a region and its particular orientation within nature and culture.” On both counts, devices remain unfamiliar, distanced and distancing. Typing these words, looking at the monitor on which they appear, I have no real relation to the process or to the machinery involved, no context in which to place them, no knowledge of their origins or of their development. The only thing that really matters is the product.

·         

Borgmann’s interpretation of technology and the character of contemporary life can be criticized in a number of ways. Still, the distinction between “things” and “devices” reveals, I think, the essence of our inability to develop a landscape aesthetic on which contemporary wind turbines are or might be beautiful and thereby explains the widespread resistance to placing them where they might be seen.

The fact of the matter is that contemporary wind turbines are for most of us merely devices. There is therefore no way to go beyond or beneath their conventionally uncomfortable appearance to the discovery of a latent mechanical or organic or what-have-you beauty. The attempt to do so is blocked from the outset by the character of the machine.

Think about it for a moment: Except for the blades, virtually everything is shielded, including the towers of many turbines, hidden from view behind the same sort of stainless steel that sheathes many electronic devices. Moreover, the machinery is located a great distance away from anyone, save the mechanic who must first don climbing gear to access it and often, for liability reasons, behind chain-link fences and locked gates.

The lack of disclosure goes together with the fact that the turbines are merely producers of a commodity, electrical energy, and interchangeable in this respect with any other technology that produces the same commodity at least as cheaply and reliably.

 The only important differences between wind turbines and other energy generating technologies are not intrinsic to what might be called their “design philosophies.” That is, while they differ with respect to their inputs, their “fuels,” and with respect to their environmental impacts, the same sort of description can be given of each. There is, as a result, but a single standard on the basis of which wind turbines are to be evaluated—efficiency. It is not to be wondered that they are, with only small modifications among them, so uniform.

·         

In terms of this uniformity, wind turbines are very much unlike other architectural arrivals—for example, houses and traditional windmills. Different styles of architecture developed in different parts of the world in response to local geological and climatic conditions, to the availability of local materials, to the spiritual and philosophical patterns of the local culture. As a result, these buildings create a context.

In Heidegger’s wonderful, dark expression, these buildings “gather.” But there is nothing “local” or “gathering” about contemporary wind turbines. They are everywhere and anonymously the same, whether produced in Denmark or Japan, placed in India or Spain—alien objects impressed on a region and in no deeper way connected to it. They have nothing to say to us, nothing to express, no “inside.” They “conceal” rather than “reveal.” The sense of place that they might eventually engender cannot, therefore, be unique.

In addition, wind turbines are quintessential “devices” in that they preclude engagement. Or rather, the only way in which the vast majority of people can engage with them is visually (and occasionally by ear). People cannot climb over and around them, they cannot get inside them, they cannot tinker with them. They cannot even get close to them. There is no larger and non-trivial physical or biological way in which they can be appropriated or their beauty grasped.

The irony, of course, is that, precluded from any other sort of engagement with wind turbines, most people find them visually objectionable, though they might be willing to countenance their existence as the lesser of evils.

·         

In short, there is not an immediately available aesthetic norm on which wind turbines are “landscape-beautiful”—i.e., there is not an immediately available and adequate conception of “landscape” on which they “fit in.” Furthermore, the “device-like” character of wind turbines forecloses the possibility that on a deeper analysis some new and more generous aesthetic norm might be developed. In a straightforward sense, these turbines are all “surface.”

At least so far as the American experience is concerned, the sheer complexity of contemporary wind turbines entails that they must be grouped in rather large arrays so that installation, maintenance, and repair costs can be minimized. This requirement entails, in turn, that they be owned and operated by large companies. Like other energy-generating technologies, their immediate contact is “industrial.” But this fact is problematic for a variety of reasons.

To begin with, the immense size of the arrays standard in the United State is visually objectionable. Typically, they so completely dominate the horizon that it is difficult to integrate them in any sort of way with their landscape, even in a rather distant perspective.

Furthermore, the fact that these arrays are owned and operated by large companies, whose bankers and boards of directors live and work far away from the site, diminishes any sense of local connection and, more importantly, of local responsibility and control. Those who make the decisions regarding wind farms are not the same people who must live with them on a daily basis. It is a lesson we in this country have been slow to learn, but those “on the ground,” who have a sense of the bounds of both tradition and environment, in general, make the best land-use decisions.

On one hand, therefore, wind energy can grow out of local communities, in which case the turbines are for the most part sited, owned, and operated by local residents. On the other hand, these machines can be imposed “from outside.” In the first case, the wind turbine has potentially a more “organic” connection to the whole and may help to express the life of the people who live there as something they have freely chosen.

The question of local control, as of individual comprehension, is thus tied closely to aesthetic appreciation. What we cannot understand or control might be sublime, but it can never, for the same reason, be beautiful. There is always and necessarily the question of scale.

·         

The other point to be emphasized is that local communities tend to have some sort of biological basis. They are defined at least in part by the plant and animal life of the region, the kind and quality of the soil, the available rainfall and adjacent watersheds. In short, communities are characterized not simply in abstract terms—in terms of mutual trust and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good—but also in terms of “place” and “history.”

 To the extent that standardized machines are plunked down in a standardized way, then no matter who owns them, the local character of the community is weakened if not also destroyed, and with it the possibility of feeling “at home” in it. To feel oneself at home in the world, we first have to orient ourselves with respect to it, and this involves being able to recognize and distinguish between things.

 As just indicated, these “places” are often identified with an individual terrain and a particular watershed. But they could just as well be identified with a windshed. In my part of the country, the characteristic winds come in the middle of winter when we most need them, raising temperatures and blowing snow off the ground and (at least potentially) providing the power to heat homes. We call them “chinooks.” They are part of our lives, in the same way that the “mistral” is part of the life of the Midi, the “bise” of the Lavaux, or the “foehn” of the Schwarzwald.

 To treat these place-bound winds as just another energy source is to disconnect them from the ways in which they have helped determine the character of local plant, animal, and human communities, and in the process to rob them of their individuality and their beauty. By the same token, these unique winds need to be connected in specific, and not simply “functional,” ways to wind turbines if the latter in turn are to share in this beauty.

 I do not want to over-emphasize these communitarian and bioregional perspectives, although they should always be important elements in our thinking. The point is that these perspectives allow us to find an aesthetic that is not simply conventional or visual and on which both winds and machines that capture their energy are beautiful.

 In my view, winds and machines are two sides of the same coin. On one side, machines small and simple and inexpensive enough to be locally owned and operated, without the intervention of highly specialized engineers, the creation of dense and extensive turbine arrays, and corporate financing. On the other side, machines that have a history, that supply a context, that are sensitive to their sites and, as a result, integrate with at least some landscapes and hence with the communities that have grown up on those landscapes.

·         

What, then, do I propose? A very different sort of wind turbine that my associates and I call the “Windjammer.” A group of us has been working on its development for the past twenty years, although in fact the idea can be traced back to Crete, where thousands of windmills have been spinning for generations on the Lesithi Plain.

 In a very schematic way, let me draw your attention to its main features. The design parameters are traditional—high solidity, low rpm, and high torque. The rotor consists of sails, furled when the wind blows hard, unfurled when it does not.

The machinery is exposed and thoroughly accessible, clear, and comprehensible. It can be repaired by someone with a rudimentary knowledge of electronics and mechanics, with the sort of tools used to fix farm machinery. The generators, gearboxes, and brakes are situated at ground level, and the turbine does not require a tower or a crane for either its installation or repair. The Windjammer is a down-wind machine and tracks easily and freely. In a word, it is a “thing” and not a “device.” All of Borgmann’s criteria are satisfied.

·         

Sails, of course, have a very long history. They were the first way in which human beings captured the energy of the wind. The context they supply has to do with long voyages and attendant hopes and fears, with naval battles fought, and races won. Long central in human life, sails are well integrated and for this reason among others beautiful.

Sails also allow for engagement and skill. Anyone who has ever sailed knows what it is like to feel the power of the wind in his hands and to take full advantage of it by shaping the sails in the right sort of way and choosing the best angle of attack.

But you do not have to have sailed to use this windmill. All that is necessary is that you have experienced putting up a sheet to dry in the wind or have tried to fold an umbrella.

Below: A Windjammer prototype being tested in California.

A sail turbine is sensitive to the wind, turning at lower speeds, moved by it alone and not by gears and motors, furling and unfurling as needs be. Even a top speed, it turns more slowly than conventional wind turbines (at less than a third their rate) and is never merely a distracting blur. Even in large arrays, the water-pumping sail machines on the Lesithi Plain have a very pleasing appearance.

 All very well but what about the efficiency and economy of the sail turbine? Whatever intrinsic characteristics it might have, however beautiful it might be, it still has to perform. We have always been able to generate power curves comparable to conventional turbines, with this exception—that we begin to generate electricity at lower wind speeds.

Our problem up to this point has been the mechanical reliability of the turbine, principally with respect to the furling device. We think we have at long last solved this problem. Otherwise, the cost per kilowatt/hour is projected to be somewhere in the vicinity of $0.03, competitive with other, more conventional forms of generation.

·         

The comparatively small size and relative simplicity of the sail turbine means that it can be locally owned and operated, one machine at a time. Changes taking place in the American power industry have made this more feasible than ever. Much of the early resistance to wind energy came from the utilities; in addition to the unreliability of the turbines then available, wind energy did not very well fit the utilities’ “industrial model,” however many efforts were made to conform to that model on the part of the wind energy companies themselves.

But we have entered a phase in which electrical energy is being deregulated and decentralized. It will, I believe, be more and more possible for owners of small numbers of wind turbines, and of the co-operatives into which I see themselves forming, to put their power on the grid, particularly since wind-generated electricity on even the most optimistic projections will never amount to more than ten percent of the total.

There are, of course, a number of problems with the analogy, but I think that, in important respects, a number of relatively small machines working together will ultimately prove to be more efficient as well as more beautiful than a single large machine, in the same way that a number of smaller processors, operating in parallel, surpass the capacity of large main frame computers.

·         

Finally, I want to urge a pluralistic approach. If we pay the kind of detailed attention to landscapes to first uncover and then appreciate their beauty, then we must conclude that certain kinds of turbines will “fit” some of these landscapes better than others.

Just as not all sails and sailboats are of the same shape and size, varying as a function of the winds and the seas in which they are found and the purposes to which they are put, it seems to me that our Windjammer can be adapted in a variety of ways. But there are other turbine designs, some of them not yet imagined, that will “fit” their own landscapes better.

Below: One of Brittan’s wind turbines silhouetted against a dark sky near Livingston, Montana (photographs courtesy of G. G. Brittan, Jr.).

To this point, governments, utilities, and the engineers they fund have presupposed almost from the outset the viability of a particular design and devoted almost all their resources to “improving” it. In the process, they have discounted alternative plans and ideas that might be more acceptable aesthetically. One central result is a large-scale and determined resistance to wind energy.

Along the same lines, too much effort has been devoted to making the conventional large, bladed turbine palatable to the general public. This effort has been predicated on the essential subjectivity of aesthetic considerations and the assumption that taste can be manipulated.

I have argued that the aesthetic ideals taken as normative in our own cultural tradition have at the very least an important objective component. It follows from the nature of these ideals—however they are further to be construed—that only “things” in their depth and complexity can be beautiful.

Rather than relapse into subjectivity or manipulate taste, we need to reopen the basic design and aesthetic questions—questions that cannot be separated from the character of contemporary technology or the ways in which we take up with the world.

Reference

Borgmann, A., 1984. Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.