Global environmental challenges
Attack of the giant offshore wind turbines?
by Kwok W. Wan
As I travelled up to Cumbria to visit E.ON’s offshore Robin Rigg wind farm in northwest England, I passed through the Lake District, a place famed for its natural beauty. Out of the train window, I saw grassy banks, craggy hills, farm fields rolling into moody skies — and lines of giant electricity pylons.
I wondered if the 125 metre tall wind turbines I was about to see would be as much of a scar on the coastline as these unnaturally straight man-made structures on the English countryside. Would they also poke out like huge metal thumbs across the Irish Sea and distract us from the wild beauty of the surrounding lowland hills?
Having never seen an offshore wind farm before, I was aware of the controversy over noise pollution and turbines onshore blighting the landscape. I was also told to look out for towers casting long shadows, and warned the sun shining through the blades could cause a strobe effect which might set off epileptic fits.
The helicopter took off from Carlisle airport towards the 180 megawatt Robin Rigg site and its 60 wind turbines. The 14 mile (22.5 kilometre) trip to the site in the Solway firth would take around 15 minutes. Around two-thirds of the way into our journey the pilot pointed out of the cockpit window. “Look, there it is.”
I peered. Still flying over land, I could see a black smudge on the horizon between a silver sea and light grey sky. We were soon over water, and Robin Rigg was still undefined and shadowy, like oil stains on the cockpit glass. But then a few minutes later, it appeared, and I saw them quite clearly and quite suddenly.
The white turbines and towers were thinner and more spindly than I expected. Although I had seen pictures, I still imagined the blades would be like fat propellers. But they were actually more like curved, slender helicopter rotor blades. And the towers were delicately slim, and lined up like a grid of tall white toothpicks.
Blades spinning in perfect rows, across a flat stretch of water, Robin Rigg wind farm looked more like an art installation, a demonstration of engineering prowess, and E.ON couldn’t have chosen a more scenic place to have shiny new wind turbines than against a backdrop of miniature mountains and brooding clouds.
But the grand surroundings also dwarfed the wind farm and it was not until a ship approached a tower did I realise how massive they were, with the vessel not even reaching the top of the yellow band around the bottom of each tower, dwarfing the people onboard.
Before heading back, we swooped down to nearly sea level. Staring down the corridor of towers, Robin Rigg filled your vision with a lattice of poles and spinning fins, a precise matrix of machines in the middle of half English, half Scottish wilderness.
On the train back I passed an old farmhouse in the Lake District, and it got me thinking of rural buildings, including windmills and water wheels. This in turn made me think of the great artists and writers that have been compelled to include man-made structures and integrate them into what we would now call a classic countryside scene.
Nearly invisible from land, the noise, the flashing lights, and long shadow claims seemed barely credible for an offshore wind farm. But would offshore wind farms be accepted into the landscape like windmills? Or remain a coastal version of electricity pylons?
Like the old Spanish knight Don Quixote fighting fantasy giants, some worries over offshore wind have turned out to be imaginary, but it’s the sheer scale of wind power targets that could transform the view of coastal regions.
With Britain pushing to install 32 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 – equating to around 177 Robin Rigg sized farms or 10,000 turbines at current technology – let’s hope the imaginary giants stay orderly and remain out of sight from our beaches.
NOTE: Noise is from the helicopter.