Eye of the Beholder

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Scotland, a small ancient nation to the north of England, and a part of the United Kingdom, generates a relatively high proportion (13%) of its electricity from renewable sources, predominantly taking the form of hydro-electric generation. However, most Scots, and many of the visitors to Scotland, and to the remote places where the hydro-schemes have been sited, would hardly complain that the scenery is tarnished by their presence. Some might think that a few of the Scottish dams actually add to the grandeur of their location. On the other hand, a zealot for wilderness might see only man-made artefacts that are 'polluting the landscape', but this would be an extreme view. The concept of 'wilderness' is becoming increasingly difficult to promote in today's world, which has become highly sculpted and modified by mankind, in order to support a population that has rapidly outgrown the ability of the planet to sustain it naturally. Wilderness is where modern human beings have never been and where their presence on the planet is not apparent. Where on Earth is that! When one sees photographs of remote mountains, remote islands and even very remote, seemingly pristine Antarctica, showing evidence of contamination originating from human activity, it is clear that humanity's flawed stewardship of the planet has resulted in there being really nowhere left where it is possible to view truly unsullied landscape or seascape. James Lovelock, the renowned originator of the Gaia hypothesis, who was a young man in the 1940s, has cogently opined that:

Even in my lifetime, the world has shrunk from one that was vast enough to make exploration an adventure and included many distant places where no one had ever trod. Now it has become an almost endless city embedded in an intensive but tame and predictable agriculture. Soon it may revert to a great wilderness again.

In making the above observations it is difficult, as a scientist, not to be reminded of a rather famous experiment created by John B. Calhoun [15]. It has since been widely referred to as the mouse universe. In July of 1968 four pairs of mice were introduced into this Utopian universe - at least for mice. The universe was a 3 m square metal pen with 1.35 m high sides. Each side had four groups of four vertical, wire mesh 'tunnels'. The 'tunnels' gave access to nesting boxes, food hoppers, and water dispensers. There was no shortage of food or water or nesting material. There were no predators. The only adversity was the limit on space.

Initially the population grew rapidly, doubling every 55 days. The population reached 620 by day 315 after which the population growth dropped markedly. The last surviving birth was on day 600. This period between day 315 and day 600 saw a breakdown in social structure and in normal social behaviour. Among the aberrations in behaviour were the following: expulsion of young before weaning was complete, wounding of young, inability of dominant males to maintain the defence of their territory and females, aggressive behaviour of females, passivity of non-dominant males with increased attacks on each other which were not defended against. After day 600 the social breakdown continued and the population declined toward extinction [15].

The conclusions drawn from this experiment were that when all available space is taken and all social roles filled, competition and the stresses experienced by the individuals involved will result in a total breakdown in complex social behaviours, a despoiling of the habitat, ultimately resulting in the demise of the population. Dr. Calhoun believed that his research provided clues to the future of mankind as well as ways to avoid a looming disaster. One would like to think that there should be no parallels between mice and men, but the evidence is not encouraging. Of course, Rabbie Burns, if he were alive today, with his knowledge of the nature of the 'timorous beastie', would not be surprised, either at the results of the experiment or at Dr. Calhoun's inferences. Rabbie Burns is just possibly the most influential Scot who has ever walked on the surface of the planet after James Clerk Maxwell.

While wilderness may no longer exist we should of course be concerned to preserve significant areas of the planet where nature can be given 'free reign'. Balancing 'nature' and human 'progress' has been a difficult problem for human society since the industrial revolution and it will greatly increase in a world with a population approaching 10 billion, dependent wholly on renewable resources. If, as we have seen, significant levels of electrical power can be extracted from reservoirs and dams, without blotting the landscape, when these are sensitively located, how much is this likely to be true of other renewable resource collectors. Hydroelectric schemes are a good example since these are well established and exist in sizeable numbers in several countries, such as Canada, Norway and Sweden, yet in their building, the evidence suggests that local populations were not often outraged by any perceived environmental damage, although others may have been intensely distressed by losing flooded homes. It is also appropriate to note that some of the images emanating from China and India, are quite disquieting, demonstrating that even today hydro-electric power developments are not necessarily friendly to the local environment, particularly at the civil engineering stage. But it seems likely that once they are 'bedded down' and operational, that they will gradually merge into the landscape much as long established hydro-power stations have done. Most of the Scottish hydroelectric schemes - there are a lot of them -are impressively in character with the scenery, and it is difficult to imagine that they could give offence to walkers or climbers seeking to enjoy the rugged Scottish landscape. The environmental impact of hydro-schemes like these is not negligible of course, but neither is it gross, unlike unsympathetically routed major roads and motorways, the careless siting of visually unappealing petrol/gas stations, or of conspicuous agri-business warehouses and sheds, to name but a few human constructs, which litter the countryside. Nevertheless, it seems pertinent to ask to what extent this experience of inoffensive and uncontroversial hydro-schemes remains true in other parts of the planet?

Recorded images of the reservoirs and dams of the world, and travelogues, which report the impressions of professional itinerants, are not difficult to track down. Extensive and wide ranging picture galleries are to be found on the web. Photographers, presumably with a 'good eye' for scenically appealing views, seem to find that hydro-electric dams are worthy of their attention. It is probably fair to say that the best dams have a rugged beauty and a grandeur which makes them aesthetically appealing, and in viewing them it is possible also to see impressive engineering (Fig. 1.1), which has enabled a large water storage and electrical power generation problem, to be solved with elegance. Of course with images one has to be cautious these days, since 'doctoring' is easy, but the evidence seems to

Fig. 1.1 The impressive Hoover Dam straddling the Black Canyon of the Colorado River in Arizona. The scale can be gauged from the vehicles and cabins on the cliff ledge to the right of the dam and in the forefront of the photograph

be that the majority of hydro-systems around the globe are by no means scarring the landscape.

Visually dams are not unlike bridges. The best are stunning, while most are commanding, because they represent raw man-made strength resisting the power of nature, but expressed in elegant engineering language. A testament to this statement is the fact that the Itaipu Dam, between Brazil and Paraguay, is listed as one of the wonders of the modern world. They are structures which are designed for a very specific purpose, perhaps like castles in a former age, and that purpose informs their design. It seems not unreasonable to suggest, therefore, that hydroelectric schemes, once built, in addition to being ecologically benign, contribute little in the way of visual pollution to the natural environment - a growing feature of modern life. Unfortunately, in the past forty to fifty years, planning authorities at the behest of politicians, who have been prone to making poor choices to accommodate swelling populations, and burgeoning car ownership, have succeeded in furnishing the industrialised world with a plethora of rather depressing towns and cities. These dystopias are generally a disagreeable mixture of urban dereliction and sub-urban sprawl criss-crossed with ugly streets that have been subordinated to the car and other road vehicles, to the obvious detriment of all else. Furthermore, the intervening countryside, or what is left of it, is degraded by vast motorways systems, interspersed with drab motorway service stations, grim out-of-town supermarkets, sprawling industrial estates, belching refineries, and dismal airports. It would not be difficult to add to this list. Human beings, it seems, are generally much better at diminishing the natural landscape, than enhancing it, with their buildings and artefacts. Of course there are a few exceptions to this human predilection for scarring the countryside. Ironically these, because they have become visual treasures, are themselves being spoilt by unsustainable visitor numbers. The relevance of these jottings is this; as a species, we seem to be doing pretty well at degrading most of the visually uplifting vistas on Earth, that still remain to be enjoyed. Consequently, complaints about the deleterious impact of emerging renewable power stations, such as wind farms, are hard to take seriously, particularly since these 'intrusive objects' could help to preserve the ecological health of the planet.

In fact, the visual and environmental disturbances likely to be incurred by many sustainable power stations, such as those employing wave, or tidal, or geothermal energy sources, are not going to be of significant concern to the public, since the infrastructure, as we shall see, is of limited size (like oil wells or coal mines), and there is no reason for the associated generating plants to be other than sparsely distributed over the surface of the Earth. On the other hand wind farms and solar power stations are potentially vast, for reasons which will be explained in Chap. 3. In some parts of the world renewable power systems, but wind farms in particular, are being introduced in a piece-meal, apparently uncoordinated fashion, which raises questions as to their effectiveness. Consequently, despite the atmospheric advantages accruing from their adoption, it is inevitable that some special interest group with profound concerns about the destruction of treasured scenery and natural landscape will raise objections to their construction. Obviously the need, to balance the visual impairment and the possible ecological harm to the natural environment, which technology can cause, with the demands of the growing economies of the industrialised world, is not new. In fact, the scales have usually been weighted heavily in favour of economic advancement.

Technology for a sustainable future is perhaps a bit different from developments in the past, which have generated much anger and heated debate among environmentalists - in some cases with good reason. It is a pity CO2 and other greenhouse gases are not slightly opaque to light, like an urban smog of the 1950s, but maybe not so dense. If environmental campaigners against wind farms and solar farms were able to see their precious landscape only indistinctly through a blurring haze of CO2 gas, they would soon accede to the need for extensive 'forests' of wind and solar collectors. Mind you not everyone dislikes these forests. The inestimable newspaper columnist, Ian Bell puts it this way [16]: 'As blots on the landscape go, wind farms are not the worst. I would really like to pretend to think differently, but I don't, and I can't. Beyond the pale I may be, but to my eye these things are pretty enough, in a good light. So there'. In the Scottish paper, the Herald, of the 27th July 2008, in the letters page, David Roche remarks: 'The plains of Denmark and north Germany have massive wind farms which provide spectacular visual interest in a flat landscape'. It is difficult not to conclude, from all this, that any environmental damage brought about by the emerging infrastructure associated with an electrical supply industry built around renewable sources of power, is unlikely, at this point in time, to add much to the degradation that has already been perpetrated on the planet by mankind, during the era of fossil fuels.

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Renewable Energy 101

Renewable Energy 101

Renewable energy is energy that is generated from sunlight, rain, tides, geothermal heat and wind. These sources are naturally and constantly replenished, which is why they are deemed as renewable. The usage of renewable energy sources is very important when considering the sustainability of the existing energy usage of the world. While there is currently an abundance of non-renewable energy sources, such as nuclear fuels, these energy sources are depleting. In addition to being a non-renewable supply, the non-renewable energy sources release emissions into the air, which has an adverse effect on the environment.

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