COMMENTARY - By Robert Whitcomb, author of "Cape Wind"

Etna at sunset
Windmills, Big and beautiful - or ugly?

projoBy ROBERT WHITCOMB

Editor's Note: We are rerunning this Op Ed because Mr. Whitcomb is the co-author of the recently published book "Cape Wind". 

I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected in a wisp of grey smoke with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a gray pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting. -Evelyn Waugh

palmspringscofc221DAVID HUME, the Scottish philosopher, asserted that "Beauty is no quality in things themselves" but is all tied up in the interplay of its appearance and purpose. Some backers of Cape Wind's proposed wind farm in Nantucket Sound have asserted that the project's turbines would be spectacularly beautiful, albeit in a different way from most public projects. After all, the architecture of wind farms includes huge and very visible moving parts. Foes, however, have cited the project's alleged "industrialization" of the sound, and refer to polls that have suggested that many Cape Codders fear the aesthetic, and hence tourism, effects of the wind farm.

As New York architect Laurie Kerr has said, it takes a long time for many people, for society as a whole, to change their conceptions of beauty, and especially of pastoral or coastal beauty. Many have very specific ideas of what they want in a view - of what is "beautiful" or least "pretty" - ideas that may come from photographic or other visual statements of beauty, or from literature. Some might call this sentimentality, but it has a powerful pull, especially in an industrialized world where urban and suburban citizens seek Wordsworthian vistas as relief from reminders of mankind's corruption and arrogance.

Ms. Kerr has asked why more designers haven't been brought into the wind-farm-proposal process. And "Why not use designs, circles, arrays, etc.?" she asks.

pjcape"We need to connect these things to the environment. Design and energy people have to talk to each other." She lauded the English landscape architect Capability Brown as one who knew how to marry pastoral forms and the practical functions of human settlements.

She suggested importing designers who have participated in wind-farm projects in Europe to work on American ones, like Cape Wind. These would be experts in the "grouping and placement" of these very tall structures.

New conceptions of beauty - including, presumably, environmental cleanliness - will need to take hold if big wind farms are to appear in places where affluent, influential people have gone in search of sentimental and traditional ideas about beauty.

Would Cape Wind's 440-foot-tall windmills - 130 of them - be ugly? Their purported ugliness was certainly one of the two biggest bats that Cape Wind CEO Jim Gordon's foes used to beat him; the other was assertions about their environmental impact.

While many say that big wind farms are beautiful in their own, sculptural way, many proponents also hasten to say with Mick Sagrillo, of Sagrillo Power and Light, a Wisconsin-based wind-energy-consulting firm, that "Remember, the goal is to minimize the perceived intrusiveness of the wind system, not to call attention to it when folks are trying to star watch after dusk. The objective is low visibility, not intrusiveness." But how can a 440-foot-high windmill not be intrusive?

There's considerable aesthetic and emotional confusion: For instance, some of the same proponents who say that wind farms are beautiful also note in the same paragraph that these things are mighty tall and might be intrusive to some of their friends.

Opponents, for their part, admit that large fossil-fuel plants cause much pollution, contribute to America's increasing energy dependence on countries whose leaders hate us, and are ugly, while fighting ferociously to keep a clean if big wind farm from being installed anywhere near them. This is all of a piece with the often incoherent debate about Cape Wind. No wonder it's so difficult to discuss the aesthetics of these projects at public meetings.

ocean_racing_01In any event, coastal wind farms in European waters have become tourist attractions. Of course, there are Europeans who hate the devices as much as any Cape Cod yacht-club member might detest the idea of Cape Wind. But the number of foes isn't large; nor do they have the access to the money and hence potent public-relations power of the project's opponents. Support for offshore wind farms in Europe has hovered at around 75 percent and indeed may be rising.

But then, it's politically incorrect in social-democratic and growing-greener Europe to fight such dramatic displays of renewable energy.

Lefteris Pavlides, an architect at Roger Williams University who has studied the aesthetics of windmills, and promoted coastal wind farms for New England, notes that one's perception of these structures as beautiful or ugly can be informed by other associations. That the windmills produce energy without emissions is enough to make at least the idea of them spectacularly lovely to some. But while some people find the motion of blades agreeably hypnotic, that the windmills are very tall and parts of them rotate might make them seem unpleasantly dizzying, or even menacing, to others in their sight lines.

pjmykonos200Still, their motion - evoking the power of the wind, and by extension, the power of the sun, which, of course, creates the wind - beautifies them for many who can only appreciate beauty in a very direct visual way, not with the highly elaborated environmental, economic, social and historical intellectualism of a Lefteris Pavlides. Many find their verticality and the sweep of their rotors on the horizon evocative of the power and grace of the great 19th Century sailing ships built and based in New England. Pavlides, a Greek-American, thinks happily of the many windmills on Greek islands.

Of course, like Parisians as the Eiffel Tower went up, many residents of the Cape and Islands aren't entirely sure what they think about wind farms, since the assertions about what they'd look like have been crafted and twisted to the needs of the heated debate on whether they should be put up at all. The assertions, especially about the real or purported negatives of these facilities, have tended to confuse more than enlighten.

Would the populace swiftly hail them as beautiful, even "sublime," as some have called these coastal creations in Europe, or compare them to giant oil-drilling rigs?

Would most Cape and Islands residents, as with Parisians and the Eiffel Tower, and New Yorkers with the World Trade Center, come to see the windmills as beautiful only after they'd been up for awhile? Structures as big as offshore windmills, after all, take getting used to.

pjsagamore221Oddly, considering the controversy around the Nantucket Sound project, old-fashioned wooden windmills remain beloved if sometimes kitschy icons of the area, even as the number of working wooden windmills has declined to about zero. They are models for ash trays, neckties and many other gift-shop junk treasures. A large if nonfunctioning windmill graces the Cape Cod side of the Sagamore Bridge, on the Cape Cod Canal, as a warm welcome to the commercial lust of "Olde Cape Cod."

1capewindthebook100Robert Whitcomb, The Providence Journal's editorial-page editor, is co-author, with Wendy Williams, of Cape Wind, a history of the Nantucket Sound wind-farm controversy, just published by PublicAffairs Books in May. This originally appeared here in the Providence Journal.

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