Wind Turbine near a town

Wind Turbine by Tim Green \ CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

GE’s new Space Frame wind tower is lighter, taller and easier to transport than previous turbines. It also represents the wind industry’s latest effort to remove itself from human view. One wonders if something won’t be lost in moving renewable power further away from our communities.

The visual appeal of an energy source is inversely proportionate to its proximity to urban centers. Solar panels are mostly unobtrusive; we put them on roofs. Fracking operations flatten the landscape; they hide out in rural places. Coal mines look like Satan’s unfinished basement; we put them where humans would never willingly venture.

While the oil and gas industries are all too aware of this relationship, wind and solar have historically been installed more or less literally in backyards, exposing themselves to the inevitable NIMBY problems that go along with the urban lifestyle of an up-and-coming energy source.

Wind, in particular, has fought a long battle to be accepted as part of the urban landscape. Recent global victories include a fully wind-powered city in Rock Port, Missouri – evidence that wind could yet win the battle of public opinion in urban settings. Powering a small community like Rock Port isn’t going to make much of a dent in the global energy numbers, but there’s value in the successful demonstration of human/wind co-existence.

The Space Frame turbine has the adaptability to thrive in a much wider range of environments, and was clearly designed for easy installation further – not closer – from cities, towns and villages. In forested places such as Sweden, its height will bring it above the abundant treetops. A broad base and easy shipping logistics will make it possible for these new turbines to capture wind in a multitude of remote, previously inaccessible locations.

Ultimately, all of these innovations contribute to a wind turbine which is bigger and more efficient than its predecessors. It’s a process which mirrors that of the fossil fuel giants it strives to replace. And it looks like wind is winning here too.

The global supply of wind power is expected to double by 2018, generating almost 7 per cent of Earth’s power. Fueled by uptake in emerging economies and new opportunities presented by the next generation of turbines such as the Space Frame, wind appears poised to successfully compete with fossil fuels on their own turf.

Will this come at the expense of smaller-scale distributed energy networks? 

Without declaring a premature victory, this seems like a good time to have a more in-depth discussion around what we’d like a wind future to look like. There was always more bound up in the term “green energy revolution” than mere regime change. There’s an argument to be made that renewable energy should aim for a more holistic form of efficiency.

If massive wind farms in increasingly remote areas are the direction in which we’re headed, will this come at the expense of smaller-scale distributed energy networks? Community ownership over local energy sources has been a central tenet of renewable energy advocacy. We’re now at the point where we have to ask ourselves the hard questions about how badly we want this.

Technology was never the problem in the rise of renewables toward global energy relevancy. I don’t know what your Facebook news feed looks like, but mine is filled daily with links to new, green solutions that could save the world. They haven’t succeeded yet, but that’s not because the engineering is faulty: it’s because the social, political and economic factors at play are overwhelmingly more difficult to overcome.

We may be passing up a true revolutionary opportunity if wind takes what is, relatively speaking, the easy route in migrating away from human centers. 

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