Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Visible and risible

There was a shock horror scoop in the Dominion Post today, with the headline Wind farm 'visible from Island Bay to Waikanae'. A leaked report purports to show that the proposed Puketiro wind farm would be visible from all across the Wellington region, and a spokesperson for a group called "Preserve Pauatahanui" said that "the leaked information shows that all Wellingtonians should be concerned".

Theoretical visibility map of the proposed Puketiro wind farmDoes this mean that the wind farm will be a dominating presence across the region? Hardly. The report by Boffa Miskell actually shows the theoretical visibility plans, and in many cases, that's very theoretical indeed. I presume that the planners have thus far done a viewshed analysis based on a Digital Elevation Model, and the result shows those parts of the region with a direct line of sight to the turbines. That doesn't imply that anyone in those locations with normal human eyesight would actually be able to distinguish them at that distance, let alone feel that the modification to the landscape "affects" them in any way.

To put this (literally) in perspective, a 130m-high turbine at Puketiro would be 35km from Island Bay, and a bit of high school trig will tell you that it will subtend about one fifth of an angular degree. That's about half an eyelash held at arm's length. Even with some motion to catch the eye and 50 of them along the ridge, you'd really have to go out of your way to see them, and that's assuming good visibility and no low cloud. Somehow, I don't think the residents of Island Bay will have to worry about the threat to their property values.

On top of all the hyperbole, it's all based on the assumption that wind farms are a blot on the landscape in the first place. Diane Strugnell of Preserve Pauatahanui makes the extraordinary claim that "People are realising that if it goes ahead then they will never see the hills the way they are supposed to be seen". "Supposed"?! Where does this teleological interpretation of landscape come from? Were the hills put there for the aesthetic delectation of human beings? And if so, wouldn't we be "supposed" to see them covered in native forest, rather than the highly modified landscape of exotic forest, grazing lands, fences and roads that characterises the area? Battle Hill Regional Park certainly has historic value, but it's hardly virgin wilderness.

Sunset over the Brooklyn turbineIn any case, I believe we should celebrate the dynamic beauty of the turbines as well as welcoming them as a source of sustainable energy. Build them on Mt Kaukau and along Mt Victoria, so we can proudly point to them and say "that's powering our public transport, and making Wellington a net exporter of energy". Which would you rather see: wind turbines turning on the hillside, or a future dependent on a dwindling supply of fossil fuel?


At 8:50 PM, November 26, 2007, Blogger Aron said...

I saw this article today and started frothing at the mouth and muttering incoherently. The only thing that kept me from taking drastic measures was the immediate certainty that you would say everything I was thinking more eloquently than I could. You've not let me down.

I, too, love the assumption that seeing a windmill is a bad thing. To drive past the large Altamont wind farm on the edge of the San Francisco region is one of the delights that makes the Bay Area the Bay Area. It is, in my experience, a universal point of pride amongst residents, both for the environmental implications and simply for the aesthetics. Well, likely a near-universal point of pride: I'm sure there are a handful of people who would be inclined to write an article much like today's.

At 8:58 PM, November 26, 2007, Blogger Alan said...

I wholeheartedly agree. I like the turbines, and would quite happily have then closer to town in exchange for the knowledge that the power generated was helping Wellington become, on net balance, a cleaner and more environmentally responsible city.

And nothing would say "Welcome to the post-oil future" more evocatively to visitors than a line of turbines along the western ridgeline from Johnsonville to Karori.

At 9:17 PM, November 26, 2007, Blogger Greg said...

I had the same reaction when I saw the article this morning - as if some alternate reality was knocking on my brain, telling me that I'd woken up somewhere else entirely.

Personally, I'd rather live in a city that shows forethought. I like to think that I'm currently part of the generation that will have transitioned from the dinosaur age of oil-dependence to a future where energy policy is not just an accident that happens. I would take pride in a wind farm. Celebrate our natural resources.

"People are realising that if it goes ahead then they will never see the hills the way they are supposed to be seen"

I almost choked on my coffee when I read that. I almost find it laughable that it's okay to dot the hills with far-reaching urban-sprawling suburbs, but not to promote energy diversity. I get the impression that if something doesn't directly raise someone's property value, it must be shunned.

At 9:37 PM, November 26, 2007, Anonymous deepred said...

Once again, the Quarter-Acre Cartel kicks up a stink.

I'd rather have three-blade turbines in my locality any day over a Three Gorges or a Three Mile Island.

GreenPeace is a key sponsor of the Yes2Wind campaign. But Cr Pepperell and the Waterfront Watch brigade seem to diss it as visually polluting, among other reasons.
Which brings me to ask: Would the real greenies please stand up?

At 11:25 PM, November 26, 2007, Blogger Joanna said...

Jason Jones did a really similar investigation you should check out:


At 8:30 AM, November 27, 2007, Blogger Kathy said...

I heart wind turbines.

At 10:12 AM, November 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i would love to have a view of wind turbines, not the least of, because, as a city dweller, i would love some kind of view.... how does the sight of an office worker arranging her potplants on her desk compete with that? More windmills ! Lets make use of that wind and stop generating from coal !!

At 4:37 PM, November 27, 2007, Anonymous Deborah said...

I've got a post on the same topic on my blog - more theoretical and less technical than the arguments you are making, but with much the same conclusion. I titled it Bugger the view.

At 9:26 PM, November 27, 2007, Blogger David said...

But a handful of windmills generates tiny amounts of electricity, compared with a thermal power station. I don't know why you'd bother... just build a nuclear plant, rather than planting thousands of windmills all over the place, building access roads and huge concrete bases, AND building a backup thermal plant for nice days when there is little wind.

At 11:16 PM, November 27, 2007, Blogger hospo bro said...

I like wind turbines.

At 11:48 PM, November 27, 2007, Blogger MaryCherry said...


I hardly think Wellington needs a back-up plant for when there's "little wind"...

I find wind turbines enchanting to look at, there's just something about them that just captivates me.

At 9:17 AM, November 28, 2007, Blogger Butane Steeple said...

Please, the windmills are quite the blot on the landscape. I put this to you, can you imagine a windmill dotted horizon inspiring Colin McCahons iconic landscape paintings? Simplified, elemental forms and turbines, maybe not.

For example take the hills by the Manawatu gorge a particularly nice piece of scenery, now absolutely despoiled.

Go the Nuclear Power Option. Imagine how much fun you could have designing one of those baby's!

At 9:52 AM, November 28, 2007, Anonymous Andy said...

My understanding is that nuclear power is unsuitable for New Zealand because of our size and the effect it would have on the rest of the existing power infrastructure.

Unfortunately, I cant find the particular article I was looking for but this one mentions the fact that nuclear power is basically too large for NZ:


The issue is that a nuclear plant is always "on" and producing a certain amount of energy, while obviously throughout the day NZ's consumption fluctuates significantly. The way our generation is set up at present can handle this fluctuation, but if a nuclear plant was added to the mix, producing a constant amount, the burden of the fluctuation of power consumption on the existing sources would become too great. Our other power sources would deliver a smaller share of energy but would have to bear all of the burden of ramping up and scaling down that production as our needs vary and this, as I understand it, would be too stressful for it.

At 9:55 AM, November 28, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

David: a handful of turbines may only generate a small amount, but the wind farms we're talking about could power a whole city. The Green Party estimated that just two turbines could power all of Wellington's existing electric public transport (trains and trolley buses). That's worth a few roads and concrete bases.

I don't think it's quite so simple to "just" build a nuclear plant: surely any plant large enough to replace thousands of windmills would be an enormous endeavour. And quite apart from any safety concerns about nuclear energy (would you really rather live close to a nuclear plant than a wind farm?), we'd still be reliant on shipping fuel from overseas and we'd have to work out what to do with the waste: two things that we don't have to worry about with wind.

As for backup: we have a lot of lakes around the country. If we build enough generation capacity from wind and other renewable sources that we don't have to use the full hydro capacity most of the time, the lakes should always be full to act as a backup when the wind doesn't blow. For the very rare occasions when we have both long-term droughts and extended calm periods (and most of NZ's droughts are associated with long periods of strong westerlies), we can call on our existing thermal capacity as emergency backup: no need to build more.

Butane Steeple: "I put this to you, can you imagine a windmill dotted horizon inspiring Colin McCahons iconic landscape paintings?"

Maybe not McCahon, but I see no reason why other artists couldn't be inspired by it. McCahon was part of a mid-century nationalist movement intent on celebrating what he saw as a unique and empty landscape - "A land with too few lovers" - and that's an artistic movement that's long since been passed by an interest in the cultural landscape.

Everyone has a different interpretation of what makes "nice scenery", and for me the hills in question have just been too dull, scrappy and empty to be particularly interesting. The hills have long since been "despoiled" in any meaningful ecological sense by deforestation, and any sentimental attachment to an imaginary "nature" is far less important than a clean source of energy.

At 10:45 AM, November 28, 2007, Anonymous maximus said...

Butane Steeple - previously the trip from Wellington past the Manawatu hills was unrelenting boredom. Now however, with the 3 fantastic new wind farms, its a highlight of the trip, and I feel disappointed if its cloudy and we don't get to see the windmills. They have made a huge improvement to the scenery.

Andy - i'm very glad to hear that NZ basically cannot have a nuclear future. It makes our choices so much simpler: either we cope with the renewable sources we have, or we learn to conserve energy and use less. That seems to be the forgotten point: lots of studies get published showing that we will need to build more powerplants as we keep using more energy.

Actually, no. We need to use less energy: quite simple. ie Insulate houses, use less heaters. Replace bulbs with low energy bulbs. Turn off lights. Open windows rather than turn on air-con.

At 12:51 PM, November 28, 2007, Blogger Stephen said...

The chair of the Electricity Commission on why nuclear power is impractical for NZ.

"The first problem is size. With nuclear power technology today, the typical plant built in the rest of the world is about 1000 Megawatts or even slightly bigger, often about 1200 Megawatts of power. The average demand/generation in all of New Zealand is about 4500 megawatts. So a nuclear plant would be a very substantial portion of the average generation, which would end up creating system problems.

"Even if a 600 megawatt nuclear plant were built, it would be by far the largest plant on one shaft in New Zealand, 50% larger that the Otahuhu B plant, the largest one today. The generator being built at Huntly right now will be about that size, too, 375 Megawatts.

"Plants trip offline when there is a problem, and the system must be prepared for that contingency all the time. There has to be backup generation ready to go instantaneously to be able to fill the gap that’s left by that plant not operating. This is difficult enough now when New Zealand's largest single generation is 375 megawatts. However, a 1200 Megawatt plant - or even a 600 megawatt plant – when it trips offline would require an unreasonably large amount of generation sitting there as a backup. So from a size standpoint, nuclear doesn’t work here.

"Secondly, a nuclear plant runs flat out, it does not follow load up or down. The presence of a nuclear plant would require all other generation in the country to operate to follow load and would change the economics negatively for many other power plants.

"Thirdly, from a cost standpoint, nuclear plants produce power about twice as expensively as the plants that have been built in New Zealand recently. In our market system, I don’t believe that any generation company is going to step forward and build a nuclear plant.

"And finally, nuclear really requires a whole industry to go along with it, such as universities that train nuclear engineers and a whole backup system of spare parts and people who know how to maintain and repair nuclear plants. The nearest nuclear plant to New Zealand is, I believe, in China—that’s a long way to call for service."

At 1:04 PM, November 28, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Maximus: "Actually, no. We need to use less energy: quite simple. ie Insulate houses, use less heaters. Replace bulbs with low energy bulbs. Turn off lights. Open windows rather than turn on air-con."

Yes, low-energy design and lifestyle changes will make a difference. But we will still need at least some more capacity, as those changes will take a while to filter through.

Stephen: thanks for that - it's good to get some perspective. I think the whole nuclear debate is a red herring, especially for NZ.

At 1:12 PM, November 28, 2007, Anonymous Andy said...

Thanks Stephen, that looks like the article I remembered.

I think some people support nuclear power in NZ simply to be contrarian to the nuclear free sentiment in the country. Obviously they're not doing it from a pragmatic or knowledgeable position.

At 2:36 PM, November 28, 2007, Blogger Stephen said...

To be fair, fossil fuel prices have gone up since 2005 and probably will continue to do so, so the economics of nuclear vs coal/gas/oil might improve. But the scale is a serious problem.

At 6:16 AM, November 29, 2007, Anonymous Marc said...

How many of you have actually lived near a windmill farm/park? None I suspect.

There has been no major investment in windmill parks in Denmark in the last 10 years. Old windmills have been replaced with more efficient ones but that is about it. Part of the reason is that the present government abolished subsidies. But I suspect another factor is that there is not much support for new windmill parks amongst the general population of Denmark. I haver no concrete evidence for this other than that I live in the part of Denmark with one of the highest density of windmills. Most people like the idea of a few windmills, but very few people want the large wind farms on their doorstep. They are about as popular as getting a new prison or institution for the criminally insane down the street.

At 7:43 AM, November 29, 2007, Blogger Aron said...

marc -

Can you elaborate on why they're so unpopular? Innocent livestock shredded by the blades? Kidding aside, I'd really like to know.

At 6:56 PM, November 29, 2007, Blogger David said...

>The issue is that a nuclear plant is always "on" and producing a certain amount of energy, while obviously throughout the day NZ's consumption fluctuates significantly.

That's the same with any large thermal plant. They should be running at constant output to meet the base load. Sources of electricity that can "spin up" quickly can then meet the peaks. Hydro is ideal for that... it is easy to stop and start, and if you're not running it around the clock then you don't run the storage lakes empty. NZ must deal with these issues already with Huntly. If you're concerned about carbon, then Huntly really has to close. So where is the problem with replacing Huntly with nuclear, and using similar sized units to add capacity?

>The first problem is size. With nuclear power technology today, the typical plant built in the rest of the world is about 1000 Megawatts or even slightly bigger, often about 1200 Megawatts of power.

The PBMR plants the South Africans are building are 400MW, while the Chinese pebble bed reactors are 200MW. Theyre designed to be clustered in modules. The rest of the guy's argument sort of falls apart when he builds it on an incorrect basic assumption.

At 6:57 PM, November 29, 2007, Blogger David said...

>The Green Party estimated that just two turbines could power all of Wellington's existing electric public transport (trains and trolley buses).

I'd be a bit sceptical about any estimates coming from Green groups. Greenism is a religion, so they're not particularly rigorous with numbers when they conflict with faith. I'm sure you've seen people estimating sea level rises of 10m or more over the next 100 years, while scientists estimate a half meter rise, at worst. You might have heard of Aussie Greens leader Bob Brown's solution for Melbourne's water shortage: Don't build a new reservoir, but instead use storage tanks to catch runoff at people's homes. Unfortunately to replace the reservoir, Melbourne would need 500million 2000litre tanks, which is 150 tanks per resident. It's a bizarre idea! And of course when it comes to nuclear power, anti-nuclear groups have estimated 500,000 Chernobyl deaths. Which is a bit higher than the actual deaths, which are below 100.

But, if true, the trolley bus powering statistic would reflect the marginal nature of trolley buses and trains... the trains aren't frequent, and my impression is that there are far fewer trolley buses than diesel ones.

>And quite apart from any safety concerns about nuclear energy (would you really rather live close to a nuclear plant than a wind farm?)

I wouldn't want to live close to either... they're both industrial activities that are better off away from residential areas. But there are plenty of sites away from houses in which a nuclear plant could be located. I lived closish to one in the UK, and can't say I stayed awake at night worrying about it.

At 6:59 PM, November 29, 2007, Blogger David said...

>I think some people support nuclear power in NZ simply to be contrarian to the nuclear free sentiment in the country. Obviously they're not doing it from a pragmatic or knowledgeable position.

Errr... the "nuclear free sentiment" is almost religious in its basis, and not even vaguely knowledgeable or pragmatic. The issue here is that you're not going to replace NZ's carbon burning power plants (and allow for future growth) with windmills, even if you carpet the countryside with them and spoil NZ's hillside environments just as the hydro power system spoiled the environment of just about all NZ's rivers.

If climate change is a real crisis, then action needs to be taken immediately and nuclear is the only option. But... NZ has exceeded all of its Kyoto targets and Labour (and the Greens who keep them in power) are doing nothing more than symbolic actions and talk. At the end of the day, you have to conclude that Labour and the Greens don't believe in man-made climate change any more than I do. Nuclear energy is just a way of finding out if politicians are serious in their beliefs or not. NZ's aren't. That's probably sensible... but it'd be nice if they admitted it.

Sorry to monopolise the thread.

At 8:29 PM, November 29, 2007, Blogger Zephyr Rovers FC said...

Turn Shed 1 into a reactor we say.

At 12:43 AM, November 30, 2007, Anonymous Marc said...

Why are new windmill parks unpopular in Denmark? It might be the Stuka banshee sirens mounted on the wing tips! Keeps the fear level high which in these days of terror is crucial for controlling domestic populations. :-)

Well of course I was exagerating, but from what I have read before the recent election public opinion is fairly evenly divided. Support is largely centered in the urban areas, particularly Copenhagen, where they seldom have to encounter a large brace of Vestas 3-megawatt turbines.

Windmill parks can be made to look good, but it takes a willingness to consider more than simply the economic factors, and power companies tend not to ne particularly interested in much else. Some of the smaller groups of windmills around Copenhagen do look pretty cool - its the ones out in the country in rural areas where fewer people live that tend to look hideous. It's fairly obvious that the prospect of the rebellion by a few local farmers does not intimidate the energy companies enough to do much to make rural farms aesthetically pleasing. It's not that different from a BP oil pipeline in East Anglia say comapred with one in the Ogoni region in Nigeria: in the first case the pipeline is buried and hidden at a high cost; in the second case it runs through the middle of village and leaks. Wellington seems like a great place for some windmills, but I think that the whole process needs to be tightly controlled for the public good. There need to be penalities for non-compliance I think - ones that actually "hurt". The energy industry has a history of being right up there along with the arms industry in terms of scummy behaviour; the fact that they are now peddling windmills is largely irrelvant. Would they sell their mothers? - you betcha.

The relative power of public opnion has a huge influence on the eventual implementations of energy projects. Energy companies seek to minimise their costs insofar as they can without seriuously degrading the buying patterns of their customer base - simple liberal economics.

Some Danes are suspicious about proposals for new parks because energy companies have large marketing budgets and departments of 'spin doctors' (some of the big ones here are owned by the state). On occasion here these comppanies - shock horror - have also tended to 'fiddle' models of proposed sites to reduce the perception of their impact. A classic one is to hide the windmills behind a stand of trees where only the tops of the wings are visible, but the reality is that the windmills always tower high above any surrounding trees. The same stand of windmills can look elegant or hideous depending on the viewing angle. I have seen a few - comparisons of models and the reality in a newspaper article here once and the difference was pretty staggering. The initial model was a complete con basically to get approval. Tsk tsk...how out of character for developers. Or was it simply that their graphic designer can't quite get the proportions of a tree right. Once a farm has been approved, on a number of occasions more windmills have been packed in than were initially proposed, or the park has been extended to make it more cost effective. It's the old game of "let's underbid and once they have signed up they will be committed."

The aesthetic concerns that many Danes have might not apply to the New Zealand situation because New Zealand is simply a much larger country with 'realtively' large tracts of unspoiled natural areas, with wide local variation in elavation (I mean mountainous) and a relatively smaller population. Denmark is a small country and there are next to no (relatively) unspoiled natural landscapes left. The highest point is around 160 meters above sea level (Himmelberget - Sky Mountain). They presently have no national parks, although there is talk about establishing a few. Many of the existing natural landscapes all over Denmark, but particularly in the more rural western part of Denmark are dominated by windmills. They dominate more than static man-made structures because they move and because the landscape here is flat, they can be seen for miles. Being a small country one can't drive for more than 15 minutes in any direction outside any Danish city without running into a windmill farm.

The dislike of windmill parks is largely aesthetic....when you have very little unspoiled nature left, people fight hard to preserve it. Once the windmills are there, the landscape is changed significantly. When compared to say Maori or Aborigine connectedness to their natural environment Europeans are sometimes perceived as being relatively indifferent, that they have faith in man's ability to re-shape nature for the better. I am a bit sceptical myself, but I accept the need to encourgaae alternative sources of energy. I actually think that New Zealand would contribute more to reducing energy consumption by setting significantly better standards for housing insulation and construction. You live in cardboard shacks - its third world down there. Doing this would probably reduce the incidence of asthma significantly.

When I look out over a large shallow valley and see dozens of windmills I feel a bit sad that there is so little of nature left in what I see around me. I suppose a dam project, open-face coal mining, and other energy generation projects are even more destructive, so I guess I have to tentatively be supportive of windmills. You may think my concerns irrational, but I am far from convinced that wind parks always represent progress. I have often had the experience that seeing a windmill - or more correctly - a large group of them - is an unpleasant experience. It does not have to be that way of course.

It might be worth asking yourselves, what will a windmill installation look like in 20 years? When subsidies were available for windmills many small towns or collectives in Denmark invested in them. The initial outlay of buying a windmill is a small portion of the cost over its lifetime. Although major components are supposed to last for 20 years, items such as gearboxes are notorously prone to catastrophic failure and need to be totally replaced - hideously expensuve. Vestas for example recently cut their product guarantee from 5 years to 2, largely because of the massive costs they have expereinced in replacing gearboxes in relatively new windmills. Maintenance is expensive, and regularly servicing is one of the first things that gets axed when the times are lean. The legacy of that today is that there are quite a few derelict rusting windmills around in the poorer parts of Denmark. Removing one of those suckers is a major operation and pretty expensive.

At 4:15 AM, November 30, 2007, Anonymous Kevyn Miler said...

Marc, Your comments about windfarms are shared by the founders of Windflow. Their solution is a clever design with no gearbox. That allows them to produce a .5mw turbine competitive with the economics of a 3mw turbine. The ability to operate on a 50m tower instead of the usual 150m towers of the more powerful turbines is it's other big advantage. They are currently building a windfarm in the Manawatu. Hopefully that will prove the concept is commercially viable.

At 8:11 PM, November 30, 2007, Blogger David said...

So how do you get (say) the blades off a windmill when the hub is 150m in the air? That's 1.5 times the height of the BNZ building, give or take. A mobile crane isn't going to do the job.

At 8:38 AM, December 02, 2007, Anonymous Marc said...

Kevyn - if they can build on the .5 megawatt design to develop a 3 megawatt model then they might be on to somehting in terms of dealing with the economic issues. Small steps - great. Any solution that puts 6 windmills on the landscape where were we could put 1 sounds like a solution that has some envioronmental issues that seem to be at the core of divisions between groups who are looking for greener alternatives.

At 8:32 AM, December 05, 2007, Anonymous maximus said...


i'm not sure that Windflow are ever going to get back their credibility until the Gebies Pass incident has been expunged from human memory (their famous 'teeter-totter' mechanism gearbox exploded, shredding the blades and more...). Good luck to the Manawatu windfarm - i'm sure their problems are fixed by now. Fingers crossed anyway.

One of the big objections to windfarms in the US at least is the (apparent) fact that they kill birds, who literally don't see the blades coming at such speed, and get swatted out of the sky. Can't say i've ever seen that happen, but surely it would not be so much of an issue down in New Zild, where the endangered birds are all flightless, and there would have to be something majorly wrong with the windmill blades to be whacking them on the ground....

In other words - wind farms and New Zealand - the perfect match !

At 8:34 AM, December 05, 2007, Anonymous maximus said...

David - how do they get them off? Simple - same way they get them on in the first place. ;-)

At 1:18 AM, December 06, 2007, Anonymous Marc said...

They usually use a crame. Here are a couple of videos of offshore installations:



At 1:19 AM, December 06, 2007, Anonymous Marc said...

...a crane...


Post a Comment

<< Home