Valuing the impact of wind turbines on rural landscapes: Conca de Barberà

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:

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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!


Filed under Photographs, Wildlife

6 responses to “Valuing the impact of wind turbines on rural landscapes: Conca de Barberà

  1. Jenny

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  3. Hi Tim

    Interesting to read your thoughts on wind developments in Spain. One or two of those turbines would probably be enough to power the small villages through which you have passed. At only a few square metres of land use and negligible emissions, I’d say that’s quite good value. Clearly however the communities (or 1 landowner) have accepted payments in return for these ‘blots on the landscape’.
    One way of looking at it could be through considering the cost of rural electricity. If these communities organised themselves they could potentially live off-grid with small mix of wind, solar and biomass.
    Alternatively, they can import electricity from further away, say the urban areas, although this is very expensive. But shouldn’t we all have access to affordable electricity? In which case the community may be best to provide for their own needs.

    If the rural population is prepared to pay the full cost of transmission of a small amount of electricity away from the demand centre, then they might have (even?) more grounds for rejecting wind farm proposals. But many (including partly myself) find it difficult to reconcile that the electricity of rural populations is subsidised and the effects of its generation must be hidden from view and borne my a majority population in the city. Yes, I would like to protect all rural areas, but the alternatives of fossil fuels are worse , regardless of their location.

    • unwin

      Thanks Edward! I am a great believer in alternative energy, particularly micro-hydro – and the usual energy transfer is from rural to urban areas in much of the world is it not? My real questions, though, concerned the “value” of rural landscapes and the considerable cost and inefficiency of wind power. I do, though, appreciate your time in sharing your helpful thoughts! Tim

  4. Pingback: Wind turbines in the Conca de Barberà | Tim Unwin's Blog

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