A wind turbine in the landscape

No-one is indifferent to the installation of a wind farm next to where they live.  However, research shows that some landscapes gain from the presence of wind turbines. And if the developers took care to share the advantages as much as the disadvantages, plans for wind farms would be better accepted by the population concerned.

Eolienne-paysageWhile the energy produced by wind turbines in Belgium is still fairly insignificant, they are nevertheless beginning to impose their presence in the landscape. At the beginning of 2012, Wallonia had 246 working wind turbines in the region, representing an installed capacity of 541 megawtt (MW). Flanders had 130 and the federal region 61 on the coast. In all, the installed capacity of the wind turbines is 1078 MW (compared with 5700 MW for the seven nuclear reactors in use in Belgium). The choice of where to put the wind farms is, of course, determined by technical criteria such as the strength, frequency and direction of the dominant winds or the level of urbanisation (there are no big wind turbines in urban areas). In Wallonia, they must be grouped into farms rather than installing single units, not just for economic reasons but also to restrict visual pollution. Because putting one up in the landscape (often measuring more than 100 m high) is never neutral.  This is why KUL and ULg joined forces, under the leadership of the Federal Science Policy, to examine the placement of wind turbines in the landscape as well as the social attitudes adopted by the population during the construction of a wind farm.

The research (1) began in 2007 within the framework of a call for project issued by the Federal Science Policy (Belspo) called SSD (Science for a Sustainable Development). The initiative fell to KUL (professors Van Rompaey and Kesteloot), which wanted to bring together the departments of physical geography and human geography. For Wallonia, the study was carried out by Serge Schmitz and Vincent Vanderheyden, professor and assistant lecturer respectively in the University of Liège’s rural geography department.

The first part of the study was aimed at defining the capacity of some landscapes to accept wind turbines. In other words, the study endeavoured to answer the question whether some landscapes are more suited than others to the placement of wind turbines. “There’s a European Landscape Convention (The Florence Convention was adopted on 20 October 2000 and came into force on 1 March 2004) whose purpose is to promote the protection, management and planning of European landscapes", Vincent Vanderheyden points out. "In its recommendations, the convention specifies that the landscape isn’t simply a geographic object disconnected from all social reality, but that it is perceived by populations, that they have shaped it over time and that the social object of the landscape can’t be ignored; therefore, the opinion of the populations must be taken into account.”

To determine the landscape preferences of the Belgians, the researchers showed a series of photos to a representative sample of more than 1500 people during a face-to-face door-to-door survey. Simulations of wind farms had been added to some of the photos. There were two versions of each photo: one with and one without wind turbines. Of course, the two photos weren’t shown to the same person to avoid influencing their opinion. Furthermore, the interviewers didn’t say that they were carrying out a survey on wind turbines.

(1) Landscape capacity and social attitudes towards wind energy projects in Belgium, A. Van Rompaey et al., Belspo, 2011.

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