Monday, January 27, 2014

Tilting at Windmills

When I first began to venture into the Sperrin mountains, I was stunned by the sight of the wind farms. For over a decade now, I have seen them crop up in various places I've lived. Just not this many and not embedded in such dramatic landscapes. Political arguments about wind power aside, I was never one to find wind turbines an eyesore. In fact, I think they are elegant. The clusters of white slender stems and petal-like blades bring to mind some ethereal flora plucked from the depths of the forest and magically resized to tower above it. Seeing them in the distance on a descent, I would feel compelled to stop my bike and pull over to the side of the road just to stand there and stare in fascination. Whether bathed in sunlight or engulfed in milky fog, what a sight they were to behold. 

Over time, I grew used to the turbines and no longer had to stop every time I spotted them in the distance, contenting myself with admiring glances in their direction without breaking my stride. Their white ghostly forms became a familiar part of the landscape, just like the windswept yellow-green grass and the mauve clusters of heather and the jagged pine treelines that defined the mountainside. Normal. 

And then one day, close to home, some new wind mills went up. Right at the base of Binevenagh Mountain, on the aptly named Windyhill Road. Through a friend, I vaguely know the man whom the clump of land belongs to, and I knew the turbines were due to go up in that spot. I just didn't know when exactly, until suddenly there they were, directly in front of me. And they looked absolutely enormous. The angle at which I approached them - descending from a winding, perpendicular road - created a vantage point that, to the naked eye, exaggerated their size to monstrous proportions. Towering over the forest tree tops, the blades alone looked larger than the entire mountain. Their slow, steady spin, accompanied by a dull hum, seemed fitting to their size - like the deep, tone-deaf voice of a fairy-tale giant.

Leaning my bike as I went around the bend, my head swam at the sight of the giants looming over the sloping horizon. It was then I remembered that phrase from Don Quixote: "tilting at windmills,"  and nearly laughed out loud. The debate over wind power here is an impassioned one, especially now that there's been a proposal to put up a farm on the scenic ridge of Binevenagh mountain itself. In the meantime, here I am careening toward these controversial giants and experiencing the "tilting" in a most literal sense, although altogether different from the way in which Cervantes meant it. Just how much these humming, arm-swinging entities will come to dominate the landscape remains to be seen. Of the new ones on Windyhill Road I will say one thing: They make what is already a remarkable descent all the more dramatic - towering over the landscape fantastically, and at the same time, distinctly a part of it.

30 comments:

  1. From a car we've driven past clusters or rows of gleaming white windmills across the panhandle of Texas, the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, Spanish Fork Canyon in Utah and the bare hills in western Washington state. I find the sight of them a little jarring at first, though some arrangements do look almost like a sculpture--or like an artist arranged them. I just accepted them as part of progress but I changed my thinking while in Germany.

    Instead of driving by a cluster of their windmills in a car we rode along side several windmills on a country road. We could see the blades rotating slowly. As we approached we could hear a hum that got louder and louder. By the time we were within several hundred meters the noise was overwhelming.

    The windmills are better viewed from afar. And I think they ought to approach them like cell towers in our area--paint them to blend in to the local landscape. We have cell towers that look like tall pine tress if you don't look too close.

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  2. This is a bike blog. Sure it is.

    Pretty windmill, do you take fenders, will you generate power to dynamos

    Is your giant prop from a plane
    Are you responsively coplanar
    Which one do you prefer
    Does your mast angle change efficiency

    Is your old friend Peat no longer with us
    Or next of kindling


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    1. You guys are a gas's.
      Bob in RVA

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  3. I don't have a comment on wind power, but I too have a memory of riding and encountering windmills.

    During PBP 2011's rainstorm on the outbound leg, I remember climbing some wooded ridge which had a row of pulsing red lights eerily emanating out of the storm clouds. The lights were floating above the trees on the ridge. It was the dead of night with the storm swirling around us, and this row of ethereal red lights, like a string of giant mythical warning fires in the clouds. When I reached the ridge the storm had begun to wane and the wind had dropped. I pedaled down the wooded road beneath these great pulsing red lights accompanied by a quiet bass hum and intermittent whoosh that coincided with the swirling clouds and mist above me. Only after I had descended the ridge was I able to look back and see that in fact I had climbed up to and ridden beneath a bank of windmills. It was one of those instances where one is temporarily outside of any specific location or time, like a waking dream. I tried to look for the ridge and bank of windmills on the return, but I couldn't rediscover the place or the feeling again. Either I was too tired and distracted to notice, or the sliver of beauty and uniqueness that I had experienced before was just that, a finite sliver. So, thanks windmills.

    Gabe

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  4. Windmills make such wonderful views when you see them against the sky, especially those dramatic skies you have there.

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  5. puts me in mind of the TV series Tripods ;
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086818/

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    1. Ha, nice. I have not seen that one.

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    2. me too, except I read the books and have never seen the tv series.

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  6. Wow these photos look amazing in the larger size. Do you sell prints?

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  7. I love windmills, too. My friends would be furious if they knew. I feel better for admitting it :-)

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  8. I've heard they can be a danger to birds. I wonder if there is something that could be added to prevent birds from flying into them?

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    1. From what I hear from a friend who is a bird ecologist, since migratory bird patterns are well known, wind farms can easily be set up to avoid being in their path. Whether or not they all are, I’m not sure. Obviously, they can still cause problems for birds and bats in the area. This can also affect the local predators because they would learn that there will be a free lunch below the windmills! Everything is connected and obviously putting up a gigantic revolving tower is going to impact the ecosystem, but I wonder if some of the news is sensationalized. Additionally, I do believe that many more birds are killed by highways/automobiles than by windmills, to give some comparison. I’d like to see the numbers on how many birds are killed by bicyclists every year. (I would hope, for both parties’ sake, that the number is zero!!!)

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    2. Not zero... Friend of mine had a bird fly into his spokes once :(

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  9. We have a huge wind farm up in northern Indiana that Interstate 65 takes you past, but I've never ridden my bike near one before. Seems like one of those times where simply being on the bicycle instead of in a car would change the experience entirely.

    And of course, I have to link:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u14tBwO5QVQ

    Not that a person would be riding a bike in wind like that, anyway!

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  10. We in the UK need every source of free energy we can make use of and wind is a no-brainer, BUT of course, there is always a long, drawn-out discussion process which stalls eventually over setup cost/effects upon wildlife/peoples' views from their houses etc, versus eventual gain. For this reason, instead of having hundreds of the things generating as much energy as possible, all around the coastline and on the hills, there are relatively few in relation to more enlightened countries such as Holland and Denmark.
    I like them - they are a tool for the job and compared to other large man-made objects in the landscape, such as electricity pylons, they are elegant and almost other worldly.
    Having had a detailed tour of one and its workings, then stood at its base and experienced the scale of the thing,as it rotated... I wouldn't tilt at one....

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  11. I would love to see one up close. A big gigantic one like those. Yes, the cleanest energy I think.
    It's funny how birds are so agile and alert that there are strikes at all. I guess the blades are going quite fast when you are up close.
    I wonder about the hum. A lot of articles have been written about people living close by getting headaches from it. Also strobing effects from shiny blades and the fear of ice getting lobbed from blade tips.
    As far as the 'viewscape' discussion goes, I liken them to lighthouses. They also give the land some additional sense of scale.
    Anyway, great read as always!

    vsk

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    1. There's a short one near the grounds of the Otis Air National Guard Base in Barnstable Massachusetts that you can get pretty close to via mtn bike or cross bike. Last time (2 years ago) I was there the trails around it were still open to the public and there was a pretty good access road to went right up to it and its transmission station.

      It's "interesting" to be right up close to it between the hum and the shadows from the blades as it does its thing. You don't really see it until you get right up on thanks the way the trails are arranged and there's no sense of scale as you wind your towards it.

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    2. Some of the largest ones have blades over 150 feet long, even at moderate RPMs the tips of the blades are doing well over 120 MPH.

      Spindizzy

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    3. That's wild SpinDizzy! No wonder the birdies are having difficulties.
      I am in Brooklyn, NY so we don't have them things around. If they put them offshore I want to take the boat out and look.
      I was in Buffalo, NY and there are a few that I tried to ride to but access was no go.

      vsk

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  12. They are all over my area of the country. I find them to be neat looking, however they are destroying the bird population.

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  13. I've tried incorporating those monumental scale windmills in drawings and it just never works. They seem so impossible that they are only believable when you are confronted with one with your own eyes in an environment that forces you to accept their size.

    They do have sort of a marvelous elegance to them, I can't think of any other man made thing that has the same sort of detached presence, it's not in your face like a Power-plant or a Dam, or something that allows you to interact with it like a bridge or a building. It's just there. I wish they didn't kill birds like they do because that's the only thing about them that truly makes me wince, I want to like them and think that in the future when they are all obsolete and replaced with whatever we adopt for power when we've finally decided whether to save or destroy ourselves, there will be people who remember them and find the empty spaces on the horizon to be poignant.

    Spindizzy

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  14. I'm a great fan of the modern giant wind turbines. I think they are gorgeous. I have loads of *scenic* photos on them from various tours in Ireland, as well as Vermont and New York. OTOH, I do NOT have any scenic photos of gas and oil pipelines! I also have a few photos of sun farms (fields full of solar panels), but they aren't as pretty :-)

    Check out this site for some interesting statistics on birds deaths from wind turbines vs fossil fuels to put it into better perspective...

    http://www.carbonlighthouse.com/2011/09/wind-turbines-birds/

    And I love this anecdote from the site: "Your cat kills 2 birds per year on average. Your house kills 1."

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  15. i love this post. i've often found myself reluctantly loving the majesty and hypnotic rhythm of these giants.

    here are some interesting articles on wind turbines v cats in case you haven't seen:

    http://www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/01/chart-cats-vs-turbines

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/21/science/21birds.html?_r=0

    thanks as ever for your lyrical and beautiful posts like this

    -a new england admirer

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  16. @Anon 10:49" For this reason, instead of having hundreds of the things generating as much energy as possible, all around the coastline and on the hills, there are relatively few in relation to more enlightened countries such as Holland and Denmark."

    You're having a laugh. There are over 5000 windmills in the UK. The problem with the wind is it doesn't always blow. So wind generation needs 100% backup from more reliable sources. So we are paying for two separate generating systems and two sets of power lines to connect them to the grid.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_the_United_Kingdom



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  17. I like how a bike works as a conduit to connect the rider to a landscape in new ways. But, really, the imagination accepts all invitations if we allow it time.

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  18. I love wind turbines.
    My family and I have been very close to them on Wolf Island in Canada. We go up there every other year and ride our bikes across the island and we have to stop and stare every time. The Turbines are gigantic and beautiful [to us anyway].
    This is a hotbed topic anywhere they are used. I look at it this way...pick your poison. Do you want the lights on or not?

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  19. I am thinking about Jules Verne author, one of the “Father of Science Fiction”: it’s the kind of atmosphere provided by these beautiful pictures and the text.
    For my own pleasure, I strive to make another title: “Mysterious Binevenagh Isle: one League over wheel-land” …
    L.

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