Solar and Wind Energies: Aesthetics concealing Ethics

“If a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty, and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly than aesthetics will see its moral lesson”

(Pearce 2000)

Oscar Wilde’s introductory quote – originally written by the Irish poet as a response to the many critiques on his masterpiece “The Picture of Dorian Gray” – defines the two main principles that should guide a person’s assessment of a dynamic, vibrant and forceful work of art: aesthetics and ethics. As previously theorized by Kant, the interplay between morality and beauty is what indeed generates a feeling about an object (Bourget and Chalmers 2005).

This post addresses a common judgement on wind turbines and solar panels and the aesthetic issues associated with their societal acceptance. Even though people acknowledge them as the successful result of the technological development towards fossil-free energy production, they often consider renewable devices aesthetically unpleasing. In Wilde’s terms, people recognize the complexity and vitality of wind turbines and solar panels, which generate electric energy through rotation and electron excitement, respectively; however, they let the aesthetics overwhelm the ethical importance of these devices, weakening the process of their proliferation.

Aesthetics’ supremacy

A judgement of mere beauty is a subjective representation of an object, which should not be confused with its universal understanding (Bourget and Chalmers 2005). If a person dwells on the aesthetic appearance of a work of art and does not perceive its ethical purpose, his resulting comprehension is misleading. Moreover, misconception can spread when an influential person or the media diffuse purely-beauty judgements, as in the case of the Australian Federal Treasurer who, in 2014, described wind farms near Canberra as “appalling”.

But why do politicians criticize structures situated in their own territory? Shouldn’t they regulate their installations? The problem is that, nowadays, a large amount of solar and wind stations is owned by privates, who display their devices according to their own preferences. While I was talking to my uncle about the issues concerning privately owned renewable devices, he sustained that, in Italy in particular, the lack of precise legislations regulating their installation is indeed disrupting the natural habitat in many areas. However, even though it is true that mounting solar panels and wind turbines can distort the pre-existing landscapes, discriminations and conservative reactions to them risk generating a cascade of oppositions, which could limit Italy’s and the world’s overture to renewable energies .

Solar panels amongst olive trees near Brisighella, Faenza, Emilia-Romagna, Italy (Stankiewicz).

The importance of Ethics

The importance of renewable and fossil-free energy production should however not be neglected when encountering solar panels and wind turbines. Whether they please one’s aesthetic tastes, they indeed have a carbon footprint which is between a tenth and a hundredth of that of coal and natural gasses (Rhodes 2017). Furthermore, if the establishment of solar stations and wind farms was completely government-regulated, only a restricted area would be needed to produce enough energy to fulfil the world energy need. For example, if a total area of 21,000 square miles was reserved to solar panels, the US electric energy need would be reached without any bursting of fossil fuels (Ong et al. 2013).

However, the main problem concerning the installation of renewable energy devices derives from the NIMBY (not in my back-yard) principle: it is difficult to embrace the establishment of wind turbines and solar panels close to your home when these perturb the natural habitat and are generally responsible for the rapid decrease in the neighboring houses’ economic values. Following the NIMBY principle, fossil fuels remain the preferred energy source, since the extraction mines, power stations and factories dealing with material processing are generally situated in contained areas, far from urban areas. Therefore, land deprivation, deforestation and air pollution due to the harvesting and processing of fossil fuels end up being favored against the installation of renewable devices, which are generally more widespread and visible. When considering the harm to the natural habitat, it is however striking to consider the US surface coverage designated to oil and gas industries:40,223 square miles of the US territory (Oil and Gas Statistics 2018), which is almost a double of the area needed by solar panels to generate the same amount of energy.

The estimated levelized CO2 emissions of wind and solar energy are much less than those due to natural gas and coal (Rhodes 2017).
The relative area needed to provide enough energy to cope with the energy use of all US on-road vehicles, by adopting only solar energy, wind energy or biomasses. This picture was developed from the data obtained by Jacobson (2009).

Conveying beauty: DOUR festival

In a world where aesthetics dominates, promoting renewable energies coincides with boosting the devices’ appearance by locating them in strategic places and by encouraging an arousing and inspirational feeling on whoever looks at them.

I had never pondered over the aesthetic aspect of renewable energies until last July, when I attended a five-days music festival in Dour, Belgium. What surprised and excited me the most about DOUR was not dancing to the music of some of my favorite artists, but contemplating the several wind turbines, surrounding the festival site, grandiosely spinning at every time of the day. I had never seen these devices at such a close distance and gazing at them replenished me with a sense of tranquility and security that one would not normally associate with a music festival.

A picture I took at DOUR 2018, showing the wind turbines surrounding the festival site.

The installation of the turbines was a new feature of the 2018’s festival edition, and the wind devices replaced the pre-existing slag heaps as the Belgian festival proved itself avant-garde in promoting concern about the environment.

While many people worldwide are relentless to appreciate the installation of solar and wind energy devices, the DOUR example shows that enhancing the aesthetic awareness about renewable energies can have a huge influential effect.

Bibliography

Bourget D, Chalmers D, editors. 2005. Critique of Judgement. Oxford (UK): Oxford University Press. 448 p.

Jacobson MZ. 2009. Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security. Energy Environ Sci [Internet]. [cited 2019 Mar 20]; 2(2): 148-173. Available from: https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2009/ee/b809990c#!divAbstract DOI: 10.1039/b809990c

Oil and Gas Statistics [Internet]. 2018. Washington (DC): Bureau of Land Management | U.S. Department of the Interior; [cited 2019 Mar 21]. Available from: https://www.blm.gov/programs/energy-and-minerals/oil-and-gas/oil-and-gas-statistics

Ong S, Campbell C, Denholm P, Margolis R, Heath G. 2013. Land-Use Requirements for Solar Power Plants in the United States. Denver (): National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Report No.: NREL/TP-6A20-56290. Contract No.: DE-AC36-08GO28308. Available from: https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy13osti/56290.pdf

Pearce J. 2000. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. London (UK): HarperCollins Publishers. 320 p.

Rhodes JD. 2017. Nuclear and wind power estimated to have lowest levelized CO2 emissions. Austin (TX): The University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute. Available from: https://energy.utexas.edu/news/nuclear-and-wind-power-estimated-have-lowest-levelized-co2-emissions

Stankiewicz T. Solar panels amongst olive trees near Brisighella, Faenza, Emilia-Romagna, Italy [Internet]. Getty Images. Available from: https://www.gettyimages.nl/detail/foto/solar-panels-amongst-olive-trees-near-brisighella-faenza-stockfotos/181823716

4 thoughts on “Solar and Wind Energies: Aesthetics concealing Ethics

  1. Very interesting topic Pearce, I have never directly made this connection to art and aesthetics, but I have noticed that for large scale change to happen it needs to be “cool”. By this I mean that when something is trending in society an impressive shift can occur. This I think, is because the majority of the population does not have the ability to concern themselves with too many problems and often are unaware. So the people who don’t actively seek out societal issues that need their help, in whatever form that may take, are only exposed to things that have already gained some recognition by the mainstream. For example, if I may connect this to the Kony 2012, the trendy campaign really got people on board and arguably put a lot of attention and pressure on this situation. Whether or not this campaign actually made any difference or was slightly a scam showed that it is possible to get people excited about making a positive influence on the world. This hype is possibly what the energy transition needs most, but it also opens the door for greenwashing to occur. Regardless to whether this might happen it would be wise for those with truly good intentions employ a certain level of artistic/stylish touch when building beneficial infrastructure such as renewable energy generation.

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  2. Dear Jake, I appreciate your interest in the topic and your reference to the Kony 2012 documentary. I had never heard of it and, after a quick research on the influence it had, I am convinced that a similar campaign in favor of renewable energies would be even more effective in spreading the interest in solar panels and wind turbines. As you mentioned, the problem with environmental campaigns is that greenwashing can occur. For example, while DOUR is effectively promoting sustainable energies and the respect of the environment, the people who attend the festival often trash the camping site with no respect for it. However, the main message of my post is that, in a world where “beautiful” is generally more important that “purposeful”, promoting the aesthetic appearance of renewable energies is a fundamental step towards their acceptance. Even though companies might spread this information without effectively embracing sustainable solutions themselves, I think that the wide impact of a media campaign would have definitely positive consequences on the renewable awareness, ultimately encouraging the ubiquitous installation of new devices.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your blog. It gave an interesting perspective on ethics vs/and aesthetics and reminded me of an article about ‘tree vents’ that I recently read. In this article they told that there will be tree shaped wind turbines built in Paris. I think this shows that not only the aesthetic and ethic awareness of windturbines can improve, but also the aesthetics itself. I attached a link about this below, such that you can maybe read about it yourself!
    http://www.alternative-energy-news.info/tree-shaped-wind-turbines-paris/
    http://newworldwind.com/

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  4. Dear Margot, Thank you very much for your comment. I didn’t know about this project on tree shaped wind turbines but, by looking at yours suggested link, I got very intrigued and I am curious to see whether these sympathetic devices will spread around the world. As you pointed out, improving the aesthetics of renewable energy apparatuses with new appealing designs is an important aspect that sustainable developers should focus on. This can indeed improve the general consensus on wind turbines or solar panels. However, I think that boosting the importance of ethics, rather than focusing on aesthetics only, is fairly more necessary and effective, since the former is less exposed to mere subjective opinions. Although, for a more sustainable future, ethics and aesthetics should reinforce each-other in a symbiotic relationship. The “wind tree” project could therefore diffuse the appreciation and the need of more wind-turbines.

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