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(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)
(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

Neil Reynolds

Our turbine problem is aesthetic Add to ...

David Copperfield, the American illusionist, once made the Statue of Liberty disappear before a live audience. Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak should license this remarkable act of legerdemain and perform it before October's provincial election. If he can make a single windmill disappear, he will prove himself a radical conservative - and a superhero of sorts, too. And only a superhero can save rural Ontario's heritage countryside from wanton destruction.

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What's to conserve? A natural environment scaled to human habitation - a natural environment that has survived superhighways, suburban wastelands and all manner of rude human intrusions. Across large stretches of the province, wind farms proclaim a disturbing and menacing presence. Sleek and silent (except for the relentless whooshing), the massive masts and blades of industrial wind farms dominate more and more of the countryside with a chilling aesthetic: the utter smallness of man. (On Wolfe Island, where Lake Ontario meets the St. Lawrence River, 86 of these ominous structures reach 415 feet into the air in the biggest concentration of windmills in the country.)

Perhaps people will adapt to this as they adapted to superhighways and suburban wastelands. Yet, a society's architecture expresses its own particular zeitgeist, as does its infrastructure. A utility pole reaches 30 feet, a mature tree 60 feet, the same height as a Dutch windmill of centuries past. A transmission tower reaches 125 feet. These sizes do not intimidate. An industrial windmill, though, reaches higher than the Statue of Liberty (305 feet), even higher than St. Paul's Cathedral (365 feet).

Ontario's environmental loss, however disquieting, is still slight compared with Britain's loss. Writing the other day in The Daily Telegraph, journalist Philip Johnston shuddered at his realization that monstrous windmills will soon stretch in an unbroken line from the Isle of Wight to the northern outposts of Scotland; in Wales, in another year or so, 800 turbines will dwarf the Cambrian Mountains. This, Mr. Johnston wrote, was scandalous.

Wind farms probably have a place somewhere - provided, improbably, they pay their own way. Along a desolate horizon in southern California, perhaps. Far out to sea, maybe, or atop skyscrapers (winds blow up there, right?). Imagining an assembly of windmills on Manhattan rooftops, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg once proposed that the city develop an urban wind farm facing New York Harbor. He backed off when New Yorkers made it clear they'd never tolerate such an ugly alteration of their skyline. Mr. Bloomberg cited "aesthetic considerations" in explaining his retreat.

But the case against wind farms is an aesthetic consideration. Economic considerations are important, too - but the public appears quite willing to waste money on alternative-energy investments.

In an Ipsos Reid poll commissioned last year by the Canadian Wind Energy Association, for example, 90 per cent of Ontarians supported the development of rural wind farms. But many of them found the aesthetics of wind-turbine power plants disturbing. Asked to list the worst things about wind farms, 23 per cent of respondents cited noise - followed by 16 per cent who cited ugliness and 12 per cent who cited size. The No. 1 problem with wind farms, in other words, is aesthetics: ugliness plus size.

Some people oppose wind farms passionately for reasons that are hard to prove. No one, for example, has yet demonstrated that wind farms impair health - a widespread belief amongst opponents. In a report published last year, Ontario's chief medical officer of health found no evidence of a "direct link" between wind farms and medical disorders. The report did confirm that the swishing sound from rotating blades can "annoy" people. These kinds of marginal complaints, however valid, won't stop the wind farms.

Aesthetics might. People opposed to 400-foot windmills, standing in rural outposts as sentinels of a centralizing state, should try to humanize wind energy rather than stop it. Adopt the Dutch windmill of yesteryear, for example, as an acceptable aesthetic model: a human-sized structure that could be comfortably built in every neighbourhood - urban as well as rural.

 

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