Design as if People Matter: Aesthetic Guidelines for the Wind Industry

By Paul Gipe

Note: The graphics to this article were lost when my original web site crashed in the fall of 2022. For the graphics used, please search for other versions of this article and for various presentations I made in the mid 1990s. Black & white versions are found in Wind Energy Comes of Age. The content is also found in Wind Power in View.

The following paper was presented at the American Wind Energy Assoc. conference in Washington, DC March 30, 1995.


 Opinion surveys show that wind has high public support, but a worrisome NIMBY factor. This support erodes once specific projects are proposed. Because support is fragile and can be squandered by ill-conceived projects, the industry must do everything it can to insure that wind turbines and wind power plants become good neighbors. One means for maximizing acceptance is to incorporate aesthetic guidelines into the design of wind turbines and wind power plants.

 Figure 1: Power Plant Acceptance 


 Public opinion surveys on both sides of the Atlantic have consistently shown strong support for the development of wind energy. Typically two-thirds to three-fourths of those polled support wind development even in areas with existing wind turbines. However, surveys by Thayer in the Altamont Pass, and by Arkesteijn and Wolsink in the Netherlands show a tendency for those favoring wind energy to become less supportive once specific projects are proposed and wind’s local impacts become more apparent.

 In a survey of residents in California’s Solano County Robert Thayer and his team from U.C. Davis identified NIMBYs as those who found a technology “acceptable” in their county, though they would not accept it within five miles of their home. Most of those surveyed in Solano County found wind energy desirable–somewhere. Only 9% thought wind plants were completely unacceptable, whereas opinion was more polarized about nuclear and fossil fuels. One fourth found fossil-fired plants unacceptable in the county; nearly half found nuclear plants unacceptable. But wind drew the greatest NIMBY response.1 See Figure 1.

 In his surveys of the Altamont Pass, Thayer found that it is the “visual intrusion” or the “loss of visual amenity” that elicits the greatest concern. Though wind plants create other environmental impacts, the principal impact is clearly visible for all to see. There are no containment buildings around wind plants to shield their inner workings from view. Like Thayer in California, Maarten Wolsink has observed the NIMBY phenomenon in the Netherlands. There Wolsink found that a negative view of wind turbines on the landscape is the major factor determining opposition to wind energy. Other, though much less significant, factors are the disbelief that wind turbines will make a difference in improving air quality [usefulness], and the fear that the wind turbines will harm residents.2 Opposition is primarily determined by a negative reaction to seeing wind turbines on the landscape. But, says Wolsink, people unconsciously realize that opposition on aesthetic grounds is subjective, and is, therefore, often dismissed by public officials. They then rationalize their opposition by citing concerns such as noise, shadow flicker, and birds, which can be objectively evaluated. But visual impact remains the root cause of opposition.3 Thayer found in his Solano County survey that the “visual quality” of wind energy garnered less support than any other aspect of wind energy, even though respondents still preferred wind energy over other technologies. See Figure 2.

 Figure 2. Preference 

“The knowledge that a turbine will actually exist in the near future, seems to make people slightly less positive,” says Wolsink. This is a near universal response, whether nearby residents speak Dutch, English, or American. In the Netherlands, 90% of those surveyed reacted positively to wind energy. This support, says Wolsink, is tenuous and is limited by the distance between the respondent and the nearest turbine. The closer people live to proposed turbines, the less likely they are to endorse a proposed project. To further ward against complacency in the wind industry about the strength of its support, Wolsink warns that the other 10% are unsupportive from the start. Though only a small minority of residents ever consider taking action, Wolsink points out that it only takes one determined adversary to delay a project. Local political support is crucial, says Wolsink, but not sufficient alone for success. Without political support, projects seldom proceed. With it, projects can still be stymied by vocal opposition. Wind energy’s impacts on the community only become prominent in the public’s mind when a specific project is proposed. Wolsink’s surveys find that the public’s broad endorsement of wind energy seldom plays a role when individuals weigh the merits of specific projects.4 See Figure 3.

 Figure 3. Acceptance 

“Opinion shapes policy” and aesthetics, or how the public views the wind industry, shapes opinion. Thus, engineers, turbine designers, project planners, and developers must incorporate aesthetic factors into their deliberations to insure maximum acceptance of wind energy. By striving to maximize acceptance, wind’s advocates can better disarm wind’s critics. “To succeed,” says Thayer, “future wind-power plants must somehow enfranchise their ‘visual consumers’–those neighboring residents who must look at the wind turbines in their landscape.” Thayer’s comment reflects the outlook that visual resources belong to the public and their use implies an obligation to use the public resource wisely. Though there may be no way to eliminate all objections to the appearance of wind turbines on the landscape, there is some consensus on how to minimize these objections. The guidelines can be as simple as those of Energy Connection’s Arkesteijn, who summarizes the lessons he has learned from developing projects in the Netherlands: build an aesthetically attractive project, and keep the turbines turning.5 Or as simple as that used by the Logstør district council in Denmark: all turbines should look alike, and they should all rotate the same way.6


 The most significant means for improving public acceptance is by providing visual uniformity. Even when large numbers of turbines are concentrated in a single array, or there are several large arrays in one locale, visual uniformity can create harmony in an otherwise disturbing vista. Visual uniformity is simply another way of saying that the rotor, nacelle, and tower of each machine look similar. They need not be identical. There are four different types of wind turbines among the 100 machines at Tændpibe-Velling on the west coast of Denmark. Yet all the turbines appear similar: they all have three blades, white nacelles, white tubular towers, and their rotors spin in the same direction. As a result Tændpibe-Velling Mærsk is one of the world’s most pleasing wind power plants.

 Riverside County’s WIMP study, for example warned against “extensive mixed arrays.”7 If a project uses a wind turbine with three blades, all turbines installed nearby should also sport three blades. If the turbine uses a truss tower, all turbines nearby should also use truss towers. If the nacelle has a distinctive shape, all turbines should use a similar nacelle. Likewise, all the turbines should spin in the same direction.

 It is equally important that all towers be of consistent height, unless part of a whole as in a “wind wall.” The CalPoly team that examined the use of wind energy in the Angeles National Forest suggests that turbines on towers of varying height are not only acceptable when in a uniform pattern, but can also add visual interest to an array.8 But towers of seemingly random heights destroy any uniformity that otherwise might exist in a array. The WIMP study complained that “the sole distraction from the horizontal mass” of machines on the Whitewater Wash near Palm Springs is the array of Carter turbines, which stick out on guyed towers twice the height of the others around them.9


 When wind turbines are seen spinning, they are perceived as being useful and, therefore, beneficial. Observers are more quick to “forgive” the visual intrusion if the wind turbines serve a purpose; this they can only do when they are spinning. “When significant numbers of turbines do not turn when the wind is blowing,” the simple expectation of the observer is violated, says Thayer.10 Even those opposed to wind energy often note that they would moderate their position if the turbines “worked” more often. Reviewing comments from respondents in his Altamont survey, Thayer found that “inoperative turbines equaled or exceeded siting, design, and scenic character in causing negative” responses. Thayer concluded from this that the single most significant action California wind companies could take to boost public acceptance of wind energy was to keep their wind turbines operating as much as possible by quickly fixing broken turbines, and removing those that were unrepairable.11 Yet by 1991, there were still enough derelict turbines near Palm Springs alone for the Edison Electric Institute’s Charles Linderman to plead with attendees of AWEA’s annual conference: “Please get those inoperative machines down, to avoid the misinterpretation that wind still doesn’t work well.”


 From his surveys in California, Robert Thayer recommends that developers bury all power lines and integrate extraneous equipment, such as transformers, into the turbines themselves or remove them from the site.12 The latter is now possible with the advent of larger turbines. When used with tubular towers, the transformers and control panels can be installed inside the towers, as is done on offshore and harbor breakwater installations. British architects agree with Thayer and with the exception of continued use of pad mounted transformers these measures have become common practice at British wind plants where nearly all ancillary structures are removed from hill top sites to avoid cluttering the skyline.


 British wind projects go beyond Thayer’s recommendation and construct ancillary buildings of local materials to harmonize their structures with those that have become an accepted part of the landscape. Both Renewable Energy Systems at Carland Cross in Cornwall and EcoGen at New Town in Wales use native stone for the facades and slate for the roofing of their substations, to match traditional building styles.


 Environmentalists’ distaste of erosion, apart from the increased siltation of stream beds, alteration of stream courses, and increased flooding that accompany it, results from the scars it leaves on the land. The rill and gully erosion, seen in the Tehachapi Pass cuts deep into the surface of the landscape. More galling than the erosion itself is the abuse of the resource it represents, because accelerated erosion is unnecessary and can be avoided. The industry must control erosion or it will certainly suffer further at the pen of activists such as Audubon’s Steve Ginsberg, to whom the erosion “is just one of many egregious examples of how wind energy is ripping up the Tehachapis, and its [the industry’s] lack of true environmental concern.”13

 Wind companies can reduce the risk of serious erosion by minimizing the amount of earth disturbed during construction, principally by eliminating unnecessary roads, avoiding construction on steep slopes, allowing buffers of undisturbed soil near drainages and at the edge of plateaus, assuring revegetation of disturbed soils, and designing erosion-control structures adequate to the task. The single most reliable technique for limiting erosion is to avoid grading roads in the first place. Glenn Harris, a biologist for BLM’s Ridgecrest office, suggests that driving overland, rather than grading roads, to install and service turbines will significantly lessen erosion damage. Instead of using wide roads graded to bare earth, British, German, and Danish wind plant operators use farm tracks to service their wind turbines. This “tread lightly” practice minimizes erosion and the scarring it creates.


 All signs near a wind turbine or at a wind plant should solely serve to inform the public about the wind turbines and their place on the landscape. Operators should avoid using wind turbines as a means for elevating advertising billboards to new heights. Billboards, like any other extraneous structure, detract from the sublime quality that wind turbines should impart to the viewer. Billboards add visual clutter to the landscape.


 Wind turbines will always be visible on the landscape where they rest. This is a fact that can’t be avoided. No amount of camouflage will make wind turbines invisible. In general, the color of wind turbines should avoid sharp contrasts with the surrounding landscape. Often a light tan works best in arid environments, while light gray or off-white works best in temperate climates. Though the wind industry can’t make wind turbines disappear, every effort should be made to avoid heightening contrast. Aircraft obstruction marking, by intent, seeks to increase contrast with the landscape. Designers must limit the height of wind turbines and should avoid sites near airports where aviation regulations require obstruction marking.


 Operators should douse security lighting at their wind plants and substations to decrease the contrast between the wind plant and the nighttime landscape of rural areas where wind turbines are typically installed. Nighttime security lights are non-essential and can be activated as needed by motion detectors such as used by Southern California Edison in light sensitive environments.


Wind turbines should never go out in public without proper attire. All wind turbines should include a streamlined nacelle cover to soften the lines between the rotor, nacelle, and tower. A wind turbine without a nacelle cover is like a car missing it’s hood (bonnet) or a businessman without his pants (trousers). The viewer quickly senses that something is amiss.


 To avoid the dense visual clutter typical of California’s wind turbine landscapes designers should use greater spacing among the turbines than that found in California. The public finds open arrays less threatening than the dense “forest” of turbines seen on the floor of the San Gorgonio Pass near Palm Springs.


 Wind turbine designers should consider the appearance of their work on the landscape as part of their design criteria alongside cost-effectiveness and productivity. Rotor, nacelle, and tower should form part of an aesthetic whole when assembled into a wind turbine.


 A long list of items that can be used to reduce the visual clutter and disorder typical of California wind plants falls under the rubric of general housekeeping. Some, such as visual density or the preference for three-bladed turbines, are unique to wind energy. Most are not. They are the prosaic prescriptions for living in a civilized world that our parents teach us as children. We learn to pick up after ourselves, and generally to consider the effects our actions have on others. For managers of wind plants, this translates into respect for the environment and the community of which they are a part. Fastidious site managers care enough to ensure that the turbines, where numbered, are identified with a crisp, legible stencil rather than a slovenly spray-painted scrawl. They care enough to require technicians to pack their litter out with them at the end of the day, instead of allowing it to blow across the countryside. And they are never too busy watching the bottom line to notice the day-to-day details that govern how the public views them and wind energy.

 Responsible managers and wind turbine designers alike also ensure that nacelles contain all oil or fluids which are likely to leak. If they do leak, these managers promptly clean the turbine and tower, returning the site to its pristine condition. They know that no manager at a nuclear power plant or an auto assembly line in a Western country would long keep their job if they permitted oil to pool on the shop floor. A wind plant is no different. Operators and employees alike understand that the public intuitively judges management by how they execute such simple chores as housekeeping, for if the company shows little concern for the obvious, how much do they care about less visible tasks, such as the safe disposal of hazardous wastes.


 Wind turbines are not inherently dangerous and every aspect of a wind plant should convey the sense that wind energy is more benign than other forms of energy. Wind turbines and wind plants should be welcoming. Designers can accomplish this by eliminating fencing and warning signs, and by providing points of public access, footpaths among the turbines, and information stands. By using a public resource, the landscape’s visual amenity, wind developers bear an obligation to inform the public how they are using this public resource responsibly. The wind industry can do so by building visitors centers. These need not be elaborate and can take the form of simple kiosks or even simple signs that provide basic information about the wind plant and what it does.


 In general, the proscriptions for optimizing aesthetic acceptance can be summarized by noting that designers, developers, and operators should make every effort to be a good neighbor. Only when the wind industry places as much importance on being a good neighbor as on aerodynamic efficiency will the public welcome wind turbines into their backyards.


 (1) Robert Thayer and Heather Hansen, “Consumer Attitude and Choice in Local Energy Development,” Department of Environmental Design, University of California-Davis, May, 1989, 17-19.
(2) Maarten Wolsink, “The Siting Problem: Wind Power as a Social Dilemma,” Department of Environmental Science, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, undated.
(3) Maarten Wolsink, “Attitudes and Expectancies about Wind Turbines and Wind Farms,” Wind Engineering, 13:4, 1989, 196-206.
(4) Maarten Wolsink, “The Siting Problem: Wind Power as a Social Dilemma,” Department of Environmental Science, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, undated.
(5) C. Westra and L. Arkesteijn, “Physical Planning, Incentives, and Constraints in Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands,” paper presented at “The Potential of Wind Farms,” European Wind Energy Association special topic conference, Herning, Denmark, September 8-11, 1992.
(6) Bridgett Gubbins, “Living with Windfarms in Denmark and The Netherlands,” North Energy Associates, Northumberland, England, September, 1992, 7.
(7) WIMP. Phase III. “Wind Implementation Monitoring Program,” see the Visual Element, Draft Report, Riverside County, Riverside, Calif., October, 1987, C-12-15.
(8) R. Fulton, K. Koch, C. Moffat, “Wind Energy Study, Angeles National Forest,” Graduate Studies in Landscape Architecture, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, Calif., June, 1984, 64.
(9) WIMP, Phase III, “Wind Implementation Monitoring Program,” Draft Report, Riverside County, Riverside, Calif., October, 1987, C-4.
(10) Robert Thayer, and Carla Freeman, “Altamont: Public Perceptions of a Wind Energy Landscape,” Center for Design Research, Department of Environmental Design, University of California, Davis, Calif. February 2, 1987, 25-26.
(11) Robert Thayer, and Heather Hansen, “Wind on the Land,” Landscape Architecture, March, 1988, 68-73.
(12) Robert Thayer, and Heather Hansen, “Wind on the Land,” Landscape Architecture, March, 1988, 68-73.
(13) Steve Ginsberg, “The Wind Power Panacea: Is There Snake Oil in Paradise?,” Audubon Imprint, Santa Monica (Calif.) Bay Audubon, 17:1, 1-5.

Copyright © 1995 by Paul Gipe. All rights reserved. This document may be reprinted for non-commercial purposes only. No portion may be used for commercial purposes without the express written permission of the author.

Portions of this document have been adapted from Wind Energy Comes of Age. Copyright © 1995 by John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. For more information about this topic see Part II, Chapters 8, 10, and 13 of “Wind Energy Comes of Age.”