Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Morality, Space, and the Power of Wind-Energy Landscapes

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Morality, Space, and the Power of Wind-Energy Landscapes

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. Most of us have not known--or cared--where our electricity comes from. Our attitude is changing, however, as we turn toward wind energy, now the fastest-growing renewable energy resource in the world. Because we cannot extract and transport the raw energy of the wind, reaping its many environmental benefits requires that we cope with the landscape presence of its development wherever it occurs. Sometimes this interferes with the value of open space, and sometimes it may be close to subdivisions. It is the immobility and very visibility of wind power that makes its presence unavoidable. In that regard it cannot be hidden underground, stored in tanks, or moved by trains. It is an energy resource that reminds us that our electricity comes from somewhere. The more we wish to tap the power of the wind, the less we will be able to avoid the responsibilities that our demand for energy brings. This necessary bargain, first evident near Palm Springs, California, is now being experienced wherever wind power i s being developed.

Keywords: California, energy, landscape, morality wind.

Owing to the sheer scale of today's urban places, escaping the congestion that has become their signature feature can be difficult. Reaching the solace of open spaces commonly requires a long journey, and sometimes the trip is punctuated by the unexpected. Heading east from Los Angeles on Interstate 10, for example, you drive as much as 150 kilometers before traffic thins. But just when you start to relax your grip on the steering wheel, you sense a strong and even disconcerting buffeting. As you struggle for control, blasts of sand etch your windshield, obscuring your vision. Once you begin to exit this gauntlet, chaotic apparitions appear out of the clouds of beige dust: thousands of glinting, whirling machines bordering the highway and crowning every visible ridge, at highway speeds a seeming reversal of Don Quixote's famous confrontation. As if passing into a new dimension, you have entered a fascinating and challenging modern world, that of wind power (Figure 1).

This route has taken you through San Gorgonio Pass, a low, topographic "pinch point" that is vital as a corridor for aqueducts, power lines, railroads, and highways, whose geographical and economic importance is not new (Figure 2). Long before San Gorgonio Pass was trenched and scraped and paved by modern society, Native Americans used it as the most convenient travel route between the cool Southern California coast and the searing Colorado Desert. During their treks they became acquainted with the strong winds and their invisible irritations. Today the wind is even more obvious because thousands of turbines march across the entire width of the pass and on up the hillsides, becoming the dominant feature. So striking is this scene that it is used as a backdrop for advertisements, music videos, and motion pictures. It has become America's most famous landscape of power.

The pass doubles as the stage for a morality play, pitting vocal public support for renewable energy against the visible realities such advocacy can produce. It prompts questions: Which is it going to be, fossil/nuclear fuels and their consequences, or renewable resources and their costs? Are the advocates of wind energy willing to reaffirm their backing, or have the landscapes that wind power produces given them second thoughts? These questions have become relevant in the United States as the public becomes spoiled by a widening physical distance between consumers and their energy sources. The wider the gap, the greater the effect that distance has had on buffering consumers from the environmental costs of energy. The recent rise of wind power is shrinking that distance once again, and this contraction is reminding us afresh of the responsibilities we have for the energy we use.

The San Gorgonio Pass experience is not unique. Globally, the generating capacity of commercial wind turbines now exceeds 14,000 megawatts (MW) (Figure 3), and it is increasing more rapidly than any other renewable energy resource. …

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