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Are wind turbines ugly? Could they be beautiful?
How to make ugly things appear less ugly – or appear like something else entirely.
Many people think wind turbines are ugly. I haven’t spent enough time around them to have an informed opinion on the matter myself, although I do agree that they don’t seem to improve the look of an area. At best, they seem to add a certain “high-tech” or “green energy” mood to a place.
Seeing as wind power is a reliable, clean source of energy, it seems worthwhile to address this problem. If wind turbines are perceived as ugly, people will be less interested in building them. Therefore, better looking wind turbines = more adoption of wind energy.
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In a future essay, I’ll expand more on this idea, but the basic premise is that aesthetics improve adoption, that is, that if you want a thing to be more widely used, you should invest more in making be aesthetically appealing.
So, how can we make wind turbines look better?
Are Wind Turbines Actually Ugly?
“But wait,” you might say. “Wind turbines look awesome! Who says they’re ugly?”
While there have been some attempts by the media to make wind turbines seem beautiful, many people that live near turbines (or are in areas where turbines are proposed to be built) have issues with them.
Complaints include that they ruin natural landscapes in deserts or on beaches, make irritating noises, and add visual pollution (via their aircraft warning lights) to the night sky. There have also been many negative health effects reported by nearby residents, many of which are aesthetic (visual and auditory) in nature.
Even if you think wind turbines look great and don’t agree with any of this, the fact remains that other people do have issues. So, if you want them to build wind turbines in their communities, you’ll need to do something about the aesthetic problem.
Appear Less Ugly vs. Appear Less
When it comes to ugly-but-necessary things like wind turbines, we have two basic options:
1. Make them appear less ugly
2. Make them appear less, that is, make them less visible
In other words, we can make wind turbines look nicer, or we can make them blend in with the environment and be less noticable. As with many dilemmas, the ideal solution is probably a mix of the two approaches.
Option 1: Make Wind Turbines Less Ugly
Let’s start with making wind turbines less ugly. The first thing to know about wind turbines is that there are actually a few different design types. When you think of a wind turbine, you probably imagine something like the middle image below.
In actuality, there are quite a few different variations, more than we can quickly cover in this post. The three most common design types are:
Image source: Wikipedia
This variety theoretically allows for different architectural designs, although at this point, alternate structures are still rare, probably because of economies of scale. The amount of electricity generated also varies by type, which can limit design possibilities.
Nonetheless, the existence of different turbine designs may allow for structures that are more appealing than the typical “Modern HAWT” (Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine) design seen above.
Make Turbines into Sculptures
The original idea for this essay actually came from watching The Peripheral, an Amazon show based on the William Gibson book of the same name. The show is not particularly worth watching – although the book is worth reading – but the setting of a post-catastrophe London is visually interesting.
In the show, London is filled with various giant sculptures that are created from removing carbon from the atmosphere. They mostly take the form of abstract human forms:
So, what if we made wind turbines into sculptural objects? Instead of a boring wind turbine, we have a cool-looking sculpture?
The obvious drawbacks to this approach are the same as public art in general: it’s inefficient, expensive, and prone to being disliked by a huge percentage of the population.
The design of the “turbine sculptures” would likely become a hot political issue, with people arguing at town halls about it ad infinitum, politicians promising to tear the statues down down when elected, and vandals spray-painting them if they actually get constructed. And while huge humanoid sculptures look cool in a futuristic London, they might look out of place in an Iowan cornfield or in rural Iceland.
However, I do think the sculptural approach could work on a smaller scale, say, on the top of a single skyscraper.
Put Turbines Inside Buildings
A similar, but perhaps more realistic approach is to incorporate wind turbines into the design of other structures. You could call this the “Dutch Windmill” approach, drawing from the long history of wind energy used for mills in the Netherlands.
However, there seem to be a number of issues with this strategy: noise, vibration, variable wind flows, safety, cost, and poor performance. While many of these will eventually be solved, there’s also the simple fact that buildings with wind turbines are often only marginally better looking than standalone wind turbines.
My conclusion is that if we want to make wind turbines aesthetically-appealing, we should aim to construct them in a way similar to the Dutch windmill: built with local materials and in-line with region-specific ideas about visual culture and architecture.
Windmills have become a key element in the “Dutch aesthetic” and they don’t seem out of place at all. Implementing this correctly in different locations would require a similar approach.
It should also be noted that Dutch windmills have not always be universally popular:
…those windmills that we now appreciate with nostalgia were not uniformly accepted when they first started appearing in farms. Even in the Netherlands, where the landscape is now inseparable from windmills, the residents’ reactions to them have not always been uniformly positive.
From Aesthetics of the Familiar by Yuriko Sato
That said, the idea that “ugly new things will inevitably become attractive older things in the future” is a flawed and overly-simplistic argument.
Option 2: Make Wind Turbines Less Visible
“Those are still ugly,” you might say. Fair enough. In that case, maybe we can make wind farms into something like the sewage system: omnipresent and essential for civilization, but hidden from view.
There are at least two ways we can do this:
make them less visible
make them look like something else
While researching this article, I came across designer Taís Mauk’s personal website. One of her projects aimed to “reduce the visual footprint” of offshore wind farms. The idea was inspired by a WW2 tactic, when the Allies tried hanging lights on tanks to obscure their outline. Although the technology fell out of use after the war (largely due to radar) it became relevant again after improvements in stealth technology.
Image from TaisMauk.com
Here is Mauk’s description of building the prototype:
I built a scale prototype using a foam core silhouette of a wind turbine as seen from land. The structure was covered in LED Tape lights and linked to a potentiometer to control their brightness. I installed the turbine along the San Francisco beach and powered it using a car battery. After some quick adjustments, the silhouette vanished into the background sky.
Of all the mentioned solutions, this seems like the simplest and most inexpensive one. Watch the video to see how it works:
Although the camouflage isn’t perfect, it does decrease the visibility of the turbine significantly. This might not work as well for wind farms on land, as the turbines will be much closer, not miles off the coast. The costs are unclear, but some LED lights shouldn’t be that expensive.
I’m also not sure if camouflaging the turbines will have negative effects on wildlife or visibility for airplanes, but presumably a specific solution could be found to reduce these issues. In any case, the basic idea of camouflaging wind turbines seems extremely promising to me.
Cover them in Mirrors
Mirrors are a common way to make an object “invisible,” although their effectiveness varies. Mirrors have been used to make houses, cabins, cars, hotels, and even a yacht less visible. I imagine a similar process could be used on a wind turbine, although the movement of the blades may present some additional issues.
Mirrors have similar issues to the LED-camo mentioned above: costs, effects on wildlife, and airplanes. The mirrors might also need to be curved, which will probably increase the overall cost.
Overall, mirrors don’t seem like the optimal choice for most use cases, as they are too complex and expensive for widespread use. But there is also the possibility of using a material other than glass, which may be more malleable and less expensive.
Disguise them as Plants
The other option is to make a wind turbine look like something else. As I mentioned above, there are different designs of wind turbines, which can allow for innovative designs that are more appealing than the standard three-blade HAWT one.
Unfortunately, these alternative designs tend to be more expensive and less efficient than the standard design. That said, better aesthetics may lead to more overall adoption, even if each individual turbine generates less power.
One company taking this approach is New World Wind. They currently offer four turbines designed to look like a leaf, a palm, a bush, and a tree:
While I don’t think anyone will mistake these for actual trees, they nonetheless do blend in more with surrounding green space than traditional wind turbines – especially when viewed from a distance. I can imagine them being used on top of city buildings, where they will likely blend in better than mechanical-looking turbines.
As a final note, I came across this post about the aethetics of wind farms on DesignObserver.com (from 2006!) when researching this post. The post itself is a little too philosophical and abstract, but the comment section below is full of interesting ideas. If this debate interests you, I recommend giving it a read.
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