Bladeless wind turbine \ Image by Vortex Bladeless

Vortex Bladeless calls itself “the new paradigm of wind power.”

The Spanish startup is developing wind turbines that generate power through vibration, without the need for the distinctive spinning blades of conventional wind power.

So confident are they that this will be a popular idea, they began crowdfunding their work last month.

Vibration is typically seen as a problem for built structures, since it can weaken key joints and result in collapse, but the Vortex will attempt to use this oscillation to its advantage. The key is that there are no moving parts at all, which will theoretically reduce both costs and maintenance requirements. Vortex has been emphasizing its promise to be both quiet and safer for wildlife, and bird-protection groups have been voicing their approval.

Meanwhile, not everyone is convinced that a bladeless wind turbine will solve the problems it claims to be able to. Some have wondered aloud whether the creaking of the oscillating poles will be louder than the whooshing of blades, while others are concerned that the constant vibration will put stress on its foundation.

Opponents attack the viability of the technology, but the unspoken assumption in this debate is that the turbine blades are what is holding wind technology back. It’s true that the blades are the part of the turbine that makes noise and kills birds, which are certainly two of the complaints made against wind power, but there’s evidence to suggest that these are only proximate causes for the general existence of wind power opposition. To the extent that wind energy has encountered local resistance in Canada, technology may not be at the root of those objections.

The township of Addington Highlands, Ontario, is currently immersed in a bitter dispute over a proposed wind farm. Surveys carried out by the township found that opponents are concerned about “noise and light pollution, habitat destruction and property devaluation.” What the surveys fail to mention is that the consultation process has been rushed and residents will not see direct financial benefits from the energy produced.

Similar scenarios have played themselves out in communities across Canada. Health, safety and aesthetic concerns are reported through the media, but closer analysis quickly reveals botched consultations, restricted economic benefits and little opportunity for community enhancement. Research continues to show that concepts such as place attachment, past behaviour and local identity are robust predictors for community support/opposition for local wind power, suggesting that aesthetic preferences hinge on a higher set of cognitive filters.

                  RELATED: Community input and cash generate support for turbines

In short: opposition to wind projects is grounded in complex emotional and societal considerations that have very little obvious direct connection to the physical structure of the turbine.

It’s certainly possible that a tall stick vibrating like a giant electric toothbrush in the distance will be viewed as less of an eyesore by wind opponents. It’s further possible that this aesthetic preference will be sufficient to overcome local objections to wind projects.

More likely, the wind industry will discover there is no silver bullet for building community support.

Either way, if this new technology moves ahead, we’re about to learn something very interesting about wind energy and the reasons why it succeeds or fails.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.

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