I have been lucky enough to spend a few days walking in the Conca de Barberà county, or comarca, in Catalunya, and was very surprised – and indeed saddened – to see the visual impact of large numbers of wind turbines almost wherever one looked. The selection of images below gives an indication of the scale of the issue:
Whilst it was a cloudy day, and the images do not do full justice to the visual impact, especially around the small village of Flores, these pictures do convey something of the dramatic change they have made to the landscape. Moreover, standing next to them one can also most definitely appreciate the noise impact they have – no longer are these hilltops a place of silent reflection, tempered only by the song of birds and the occasional dog barking in the villages nearby!
This raises very real questions about how landscapes are valued, and the politics of energy. There have been many attempts to place a ‘value’ on landscape change, but these have mostly focused on somehow trying to calculate an economic cost of the change, often in terms of the loss of income. Thus, if an area has previously gained an income from tourism, and the landscape change means that this is reduced, then it is clearly possible to estimate such a loss. Other measures draw on the amount that people would actually pay not to have a change imposed on a landscape. However, it is actually extremely difficult to place any kind of economic value on the emotional impact of a landscape change. This area of Catalunya is at the heart of the Ruta del Cister, the triangle of Cistercian monasteries that were built there from the 12th century onwards. The impact of the wind turbines has completely transformed the peace and tranquility of the landscapes, in a way that no simple economic measure can ever grasp. Although some people might think that these human feats of engineering have an attraction of their own, representing progress that no medieval Cistercian nun or monk could ever imagine, I find the juxtaposition of these two cultures concerning and depressing.
Reflecting on this dramatic transformation, I started to think further about the two kinds of power that this transformation represents. On the one hand, the wind turbines represent the physical power of a new means of producing electricity. However, each turbine actually only produces relatively little power. Estimates vary hugely, but as a general figure it is often argued that one turbine can produce enough energy for around 500 households a year – depending on the efficiency at which they function. All the turbines in the images above therefore produce really rather little electricity, but at a very significant change to the landscape. This transaction reflects a second kind of power, political power, since it illustrates yet another way through which a largely urban population exploits rural areas for their own interests. This despoliation of the landscape is nothing other than a means through which the urban bourgeoisie seeks to maintain its ever increasing patterns of consumption.
Surely it would be much ‘fairer’ for the environmental cost to be paid by those living in urban areas, by for example constructing new styles of energy efficient housing and taxing air conditioners, rather than destroying the rural landscapes that they rarely visit, either physically or in their imaginations!