Attack of the giant offshore wind turbines?

April 21, 2010

Robin Rigg Wind Farm 2

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.

Robin Rigg Wind Farm 4Blades 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.


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I like the paralel you make with windmills and water wheels, but I don’t agree that wind turbines should stay out of sight from our beaches. They are not such an eye sore and we simply need something on a large scale, because there are too many of us recquiring too much energy.

Posted by OlgaA | Report as abusive

Hi OlgaA,

I must admit, they made less of an impact on the coast than I expected. But I suppose I’m slightly worried by the large scale uptake, the effect that 10,000 offshore wind turbines might have…


Posted by Kwok W. Wan | Report as abusive

Here on Long Island there was a proposal for a wind farm off the shores of Montauk. It was said that with the distance the windmills would be from the shore they would only rise ONE inch above the horizon into view. Nope, the richies from the Hamptons squashed the idea saying they did not want their precisious ocean view to be disrupted. Then the environmentalists started in with how it would be disruptive to migrating birds. So now we are still stuck with LIPA monopolizing the industry here.

Posted by iflydaplanes | Report as abusive

I really don’t understand the anti-green stance so popular with my fellow conservatives as of late. If we call these windmills eyesores, than what exactly are our mines, wells, and affiliated energy processing and refining facilities? Truth be told, the liberals actually bring up a decent point for once. I don’t know why anti-environmentalism has turned into such a big ticket item for us. Sure, I understand we have vested interests in the old energy industry, but as green-tech becomes more advanced, it’s going to make the aforementioned old energy obsolete (so get ready to invest in the new big money market!). Okay, maybe I don’t fully understand this global warming mumbo jumbo but common sense dictates that if you trash the environment (just like if you trash your house), you’re gonna pay somehow. Thinking that all that smog we’re producing and waste we’re dumping is inconsequential is woefully shortsighted.

Posted by voiceofreason42 | Report as abusive

@iflydaplanes – Like I alluded to in my blog, I think the perception of offshore wind is worse than the reality. You can barely see them from land, even on a clear day, but people keep insisting on fighting these “imaginary” giants. But then again, I don’t live by one, so can’t vouch for the impact on my life…

@voiceofreason42 – I have the feeling that there is huge prize for the people who establish green tech and sells it to developing countries. And even if you’re not sure about man-made climate change, there’s enough momentum from countries toward low carbon energy technologies to make it tempting.

Posted by Kwok W. Wan | Report as abusive

Anything that makes us less dependent on oil imports is good. I cringe every time I pull up to a gas station to fill up because I know that I’m enriching Bin Laden or Chavez or some other not exactly friend of us – but what choice I have? More cheaper locally produced energy makes the need in oil less and, consequently, makes oil cheaper.

It’s bad conservatives sometimes forget that the words “conservative” and “conservation” are related and therefore must go together.

Posted by An0nym0us | Report as abusive

Wind Turbines aren’t a Panacea. California has a long history with wind turbines and it isn’t pretty. Please review .
Be careful what you wish for.

Posted by tmichael928 | Report as abusive