Windmills are things of beauty | Science Matters | David Suzuki Foundation
Photo: Windmills are things of beauty

Some people think wind turbines are ugly. I think smokestacks, smog, acid rain, coal-fired power plants and climate change are ugly. I think windmills are beautiful. (Credit: John Marquis)

By David Suzuki

I have a cabin on Quadra Island off the British Columbia coast that's as close to my heart as you can imagine. From my porch you can see clear across the waters of Georgia Strait to the snowy peaks of the rugged Coast Mountains. It's one of the most beautiful views I have seen. And I would gladly share it with a wind farm.

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Sometimes it seems I'm in the minority. Across Europe and North America, environmentalists and others are locking horns with the wind industry over farm locations. In Canada, opposition to wind installations has sprung up from Nova Scotia to Ontario to Alberta to B.C. In the U.K., more than 100 national and local groups, led by some of the country's most prominent environmentalists, have argued wind power is inefficient, destroys the ambience of the countryside and makes little difference to carbon emissions. And in the U.S., the Cape Wind Project, which would site 130 turbines off the coast of affluent Cape Cod, Massachusetts, has come under fire from famous liberals, including John Kerry and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy.

It's time for some perspective. With the growing urgency of climate change, we can't have it both ways. We can't shout about the dangers of global warming and then turn around and shout even louder about the "dangers" of windmills. Climate change is one of the greatest challenges humanity will face this century. Confronting it will take a radical change in the way we produce and consume energy — another industrial revolution, this time for clean energy, conservation and efficiency.

We've undergone such transformations before and we can again. But we must accept that all forms of energy have associated costs. Fossil fuels are limited in quantity, create vast amounts of pollution and contribute to climate change. Large-scale hydroelectric power floods valleys and destroys habitat. Nuclear power plants are expensive, create radioactive waste and take a long time to build.

Wind power also has its downsides. It's highly visible and can kill birds. But any man-made structure (not to mention cars and house cats) can kill birds — houses, radio towers, skyscrapers. In Toronto alone, an estimated one million birds collide with the city's buildings every year. In comparison, the risk to birds from well-sited wind farms is low. Even the U.K.'s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says scientific evidence shows wind farms "have negligible impacts" on birds when they are appropriately located.

Improved technologies and more attention to wind farm placement can clearly reduce harm to birds, bats and other wildlife. Indeed, the real risk to flying creatures comes not from windmills but from a changing climate, which threatens the very existence of species and their habitats. Wind farms should always be subject to environmental-impact assessments, but a blanket "not in my backyard" approach is hypocritical and counterproductive.

Pursuing wind power as part of our move toward clean energy makes sense. Wind power has become the fastest-growing source of energy in the world, employing hundreds of thousands of workers. That's in part because larger turbines and greater knowledge of how to build, install and operate them has dramatically reduced costs over the past two decades. Prices are now comparable to other forms of power generation and will likely decrease further as technology improves.

But, are windmills ugly? Mostafa Tolba, executive director of the UN Environment Programme from 1976 to 1992, told me belching smokestacks were considered signs of progress when he was growing up in Egypt. Even as an adult concerned about pollution, it took him a long time to get over the pride he felt when he saw a tower pouring clouds of smoke.

Our perception of beauty is shaped by our values and beliefs. Some people think wind turbines are ugly. I think smokestacks, smog, acid rain, coal-fired power plants and climate change are ugly. I think windmills are beautiful. They harness the wind's power to supply us with heat and light. They provide local jobs. They help clean air and reduce climate change.

And if one day I look out from my cabin porch and see a row of windmills spinning in the distance, I won't curse them. I will praise them. It will mean we're finally getting somewhere.

April 3, 2014
http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2014/04/windmills-are-things-of-beauty/

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23 Comments

Sep 10, 2014
11:02 AM

How about 25, 600’ tall, industrial wind energy conversion systems located on the Island 1000 ft. from the foundation of your cabin? That’s what they want to do here.

Jun 20, 2014
10:18 PM

Well Mr. Suzuki, you can have the turbines slated for my area then. I don’t want them in my vista. How big of you to take them off my hands.

Jun 13, 2014
8:44 AM

so to save the planet with turbines we must deforest hundreds of thousands of acres and kill millions of bats and birds….bleeding the patient to cure her. Turbines are exactly making a bad problem worse. Powering down and moving to off-the-grid systems are the only real cures.

Apr 27, 2014
2:16 PM

I am the Senior Editor and writer of a weekly online column entitled Global Renewable News. It is part of the Jaguar Media Group out of Quebec. I am constantly in search of material like this one on wind farms to promote clean sustainable energy to our 22,000 plus subscribers. Some of the biggest stumbling blocks as you probably well know are the NIMBYists and the BANANA crowd. Combine these naysayers with feeble governments at the provincial and federal levels and our battle to help this planet only gets tougher and more frustrating. Thank you for your words

Apr 13, 2014
1:06 AM

Well put! I also wanted to add too that turbines can be a thing of beauty, of art — yes it’s about our perception of beauty, but it’s also about mimicking nature and using natural patterns in nature to increase the amount of energy we can harness, AND the beauty we can produce. A great example is the ART turbine. http://artturbine.com/ :)

Apr 10, 2014
5:34 PM

I fully agree with you Dr. Suzuki, that renewable energy is the way of the future, but I live in rural Ontario where industrial wind turbines have been erected much too close to people’s homes and this proximity issue has been a nightmare for many people because of adverse health effects and reduced property values. Because of the Green Energy Act, our democratic rights have been trampled on. Our elected municipal leaders have been rendered powerless to protect us from the wind corporations that have come into our communities and disrupted our lives. These wind companies have not listened to the concerns of residents. I would urge you to look at the archives of wind resistance.org, a site that has given voice to the many residents of rural Ontario who have suffered the adverse health effects and reduced property values. Already approved projects, yet to be built, will undoubtedly ruin many more lives. There is something seriously wrong with putting large wind turbines too close to people’s homes. I’m amazed that you’re not aware of this.

Apr 10, 2014
5:08 PM

Here is a news flash for all you folks talking about how expensive renewables are. Solar can be installed in utility size projects at under $1.80/W, Commercial is just over $2.00/W installed. Do the math, solar in Toronto gets 1350kWh/m2, meaning a 1MW farm generates 1.3MWhr/year * 25 years = 27,000kWhrs. Total cost is $1.8mil installed, $600k for financing. $2.4 million = $0.089/kWhr. That does not sound very expensive. I am in the solar industry so you can trust the numbers. SunEdison just sign a PPA in Texas for 5 cents/kWhr, no PTC tax credit. Spread the word.

Apr 06, 2014
5:34 PM

I live in MB and frequently drive to SK where I pass some wind turbines along the #1 Hwy. I have actually stopped to take pictures of them. I am not sure why but I find them mesmerizing and beautiful!

Apr 05, 2014
12:16 PM

I’ll take a hundred now please…………..I have 100 acres..

In Quebec…

Apr 04, 2014
6:50 PM

We should stop calling them “windmills”. They are “wind generators” or “wind turbines”. Windmills are structures which grind corn and wheat into meal.

Apr 04, 2014
3:55 PM

I’m assuming that the Canadian electric grid system is similar to that in the US. Set up initially at Niagara Falls and designed to run In an uninterrupted steady and reliable constant since the source of the power was the falls. Our electic grid is set up for this constant source of input, and does not do well when intermittent sources are inserted, especially sources that can diminish quite rapidly as well as being in an optimum mode for generation when demand is low, as in the evening.
The effort in the US to encourage industrial wind production has been accomplished with federal and state subsidies. The rush by the industry to obtain these very lucrative subsidies have pushed environmental issues- read migratory birds and bats-to the side in the pursuit of these subsidies for the investors backing the project. The fact that with the end of off and on subsidies for the last 20 years has not led to a viable subsidy free industry. Instead it has collapsed as in every other period when the subsides were terminated. Without a revamping of the grid system to a smart grid that can accommodate wind and solar- intermittent sources-to augment hydro and nuclear I see absolutely no public acceptance of renewables. They are expensive compared to coal and hydro and nuclear and regardless of their positive aspects they will continue to be perceived as expensive sources of revenue for stockholders while doing nothing for the environment. Actually they are a visual blight and when given preference are located in world class flyways they become completely counterproductive as far as convincing the taxpayer they are a good investment.
David, please go to Wolf Island off of the city of Kingston and look at at thoroughly inappropriate site for industrial wind towers. They are not only on the Ontario side of the St Lawrence, they are on the US side too. The flyway knows no boundaries. This is a thouroughly inappropriate site for industrial wind. The wind is marginal at best. They are attempting to locate in this region on the US side solely for the subsidies. The public is becoming tired of hollow promises that appear to be profit driven. Renewables with the current grid are not sustainable and only detract from the public willingness to address real global warming issues-beginning with conservation!

Apr 04, 2014
2:06 PM

The question of energy storage during off peak electricity demand ought to be addressed. Hydrogen would be a good media for energy storage. The gas could be burned in conventual gas fired power plants, or in fuel cells. The existing infrastructure for Natural Gas could be used for the transportation of Hydrogen Gas. “Dry” oil wells that are being fractured to squeeze the last drop of oil or obtain more Natural Gas they be used as the storage reservoirs for the hydrogen created doing off peak electricity generation from Electric Windmill farms or large Wave Motion Electric generation. Just a thought. H Smith

Apr 04, 2014
11:15 AM

We’ve ‘followed’ you through your programmes on CBC, used them in the classroom when you were still using the term ‘greenhouse effect’, and at teachers’ conferences when your main interest was genetics. I cannot agree with your take on the windmills not destroying the natural beauty of the Canadian scene. Our artists, such as the Group of Seven, would not have chosen locations to paint where they’d have to look ‘through’ windmills to see that beauty. We look out our window and see those towers on the near horizon and it’s a sad visual. Sadder even than their dominating presence is their location, right in the middle of one of the most productive areas of farmland in our province. The plan was to have a ‘small footprint’. The result has been fields crossed by trails to the windmill, resulting in less production of staples for which the world is waiting. Lack of availability of public information about where the electricity is going, does not allow us to judge the cost/benefit ratio, for the bigger picture. There is a lot of room in Manitoba for windmills, but that would be out in the ‘boonies’ where there are no people and the land is not useful for agriculture. People who set these towers up seem to like staying near populated areas. It seems to me the technology with the least impact on our eyes and ears, as well as on our economic well-being and quality of life would be solar energy. Why is that alternative not being addressed? Dr. Suzuki, I sincerely hope to hear your personal take on this. Respectfully, Ilene

Apr 04, 2014
11:07 AM

It was recently announced that a turbine was planned in a rural area less than 2km from my sister’s house. She and the community immediately spring into action and protested the development, and it looks like they have won this battle.

It’s a tough situation — before this I would have labelled my entire family as staunch supporters of the environment. And I think in some ways she still believes she is an environmentalist. But the NIMBY mindset is very very strong, and the impacts on real estate values and the fuzziness around possible (yet unproven) health risks for her young children made her position on this subject unshakable — there was no way she was going to allow this to happen.

At one point I hinted that maybe every time she looked out the window she would have a warm and fuzzy feeling that change was happening and she could see the evidence of that from her on back yard. That didn’t go over very well… :)

Thank you Mr Suzuki for a well-stated position on this topic. I do hope we can all shift our perspective and protest the things that we know are a problem and be thankful for the rest of this beautiful world.

Apr 04, 2014
10:19 AM

I don’t always agree with everything you say, but I am pleased to see you making these statements on wind turbines. I’m in full agreement and we need more prominent environmentalists looking at the big picture when it comes to wind turbines. Thank you.

Apr 04, 2014
9:08 AM

And what would you say about tidal energy? It is still born in BC in my view and needs to be resurrected

tidal is not as subject to climate change to produce and is nearby 75% of population and it can be invisible It can act as an insurance policy when snow pack disappears, forest fires are epidemic and rivers run dry

It is reliable and predictable Designs and paints are available to be mammal friendly and non toxic

also, like wind, costs will come down

Apr 04, 2014
8:43 AM

I have toured around wind farms and found the structures beautiful but somewhat overwhelming when they are concentrated in one area where human reside (such as Wolfe Island off of Kingston, ON). I am not sure why we aren’t looking at putting them offshore where they will not upset residents.

That said, there are many human made structures that are far from appealing and in many cases down right ugly. Yet we seem to accept things like hydro lines and poorly designed public spaces without much of a fight. We don’t even notice them half the time. When I went to Paris, France for the first time last year I realized just how ugly the cities of Canada can be. Nothing visually or environmentally appealing about a high rise but we still keep building them!

Apr 04, 2014
7:52 AM

Well said David! We can’t have it all ways. But the wind industry must be sensitive to issues of how close it locates to people’s homes. I’d like to see a lot of windmills on the top of skyscrapers and a lot of smaller, more localized projects. The bigger the farms the greater likelihood of environmental side effects we don’t want. But I agree, there will be places where wind could be so efficient and productive we must take advantage. And we can’t look back. We must replace fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewable energy as quickly as we can.

Apr 04, 2014
7:51 AM

I won’t sit back and ignore all the health problems people are experiencing from windmills. If it is a detriment to human health, it is not a viable option. Environmentally friendly has to also be people-friendly. I find it irresponsible that you did not even address this issue — this is one of the main reasons people are fighting back against windmill companies. Just because YOU do not experience health problems from windmills, doesn’t mean we should silence the voices of others who do. Disappointed in this article.

Apr 04, 2014
7:43 AM

Why is there nothing in this piece about the problems experienced by people who live near giant wind turbines, such as migraines and inability to sleep? See http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/episodes/wind-rush

Apr 04, 2014
6:43 AM

Why must they be so large? Why aren’t we doing more for people to have individual windmills for their own property? It would be cheaper and they wouldn’t be as noisy, etc. I lived in a rural area, on top of a hill, where the wind blew incessantly and I would have loved to have a windmill in my yard which would provide power for our house. Wouldn’t work in a city as well. However, for instance, the condominium I live in pays outrageous rates for electricity, why not a windmill or two on top of the building where the constant wind makes it impractical to sit on your balcony.

Apr 03, 2014
9:34 PM

You’re so naive David, “And if one day I look out from my cabin porch and see a row of windmills spinning in the distance…”

What if they’re not in the distance? What if they’re a few hundred meters away like happened to the people on Wolfe Island, Ontario? What if they put the electrical substation at the end of your driveway?

Give me a break. “Industrial” is a concept you of all people should know has got the world into the mess it’s in.

How about some local, non-industrial, architecturally designed small home scale wind mills that are safe for flying creatures. How about some solar generating cells that are designed into the architecture of a home — that already exists.

Why does it have to be 60 %!@! story high windmills in a rural landscape when you aren’t usually allowed to build a Tim Hortons without a permit.

No argument David that we need to solve the global warming problem with new greener sources of power. Wind can have it’s place as part of the mix. Actually it already did 100 years ago. Farmers had windmills, the low kind with bird/bat friendly fan like blades that ran their well pumps and grain mills.

So why are you a proponent of INDUSTRIAL wind turbines. Because they’re not in your backyard. Of course.

Apr 03, 2014
6:03 PM

Mr. Suzuki, Excellent article, thank you. I’ve heard and read that the sound emitted from windmills when placed to close to a home is quite debilitating. Have you any comments on this?

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