On visual impacts, landscape, and NIMBYism

Please note: all links heretofore on this blog will go to English language pages unless otherwise identified.  Inconsistency with that might have been a pain in the butt in previous posts.

The Iberian Peninsula.  Notable are the Sierra de Cádiz, encircled here, and the long white Valle de Guadalquivir, just to the north.

The Iberian Peninsula. Notable are the Sierra de Cádiz, encircled here, and the long white Valle de Guadalquivir, just to the north.

I’d spent much of the past week meeting with and discussing utility-scale solar siting policy.  I was ready for a break.  Someone I’d been talking with recommended that I check out the Parque Natural de Sierra Grazalema, so I did.  The park, which has a lower level of protection than a Parque Nacional, but higher than plain old public land (what of it exists), consists of a series of serrated limestone ridges.  Located in the heart of the Sierra de Cádiz, it is the wettest place on the entire Iberian peninsula, because of storms coming in off the Atlantic.  You can see why in the picture here, where I’ve expertly encircled them in Microsoft Paint.  The are the first and only elevated area that storms in the Gulf of Cádiz will hit, thus dumping an entire ocean’s crossing worth of moisture.

As you can see in this kind of junky map from the booster-ish group Protermosolar, much solar thermal development has been focused in the Guadalquivir Valley.

As you can see in this kind of junky map from the booster-ish group Protermosolar, much solar thermal development has been focused in the Guadalquivir Valley.

Also notable is the Valle de Guadalquivir, the long northeast to southwest trending white area, just to the north of the Sierra de Cádiz.  It is the area with the highest, most consistent solar insolation in all of Spain; as viewable in many solar insolation maps, the boundary of the area of highest insolation tracks directly the northern boundary of the Guadalquivir Valley.  And indeed, it is where the most active deployment of solar, particularly thermal solar, has been.

Anyway, after a week of meetings and plant visits, I really needed to partake in some activity that wasn’t related to utility-scale solar.  So I headed up to the Sierra Grazalema to play around in the mountains.  After taking off up a limestone ridge, I found myself standing on the summit of the peak Simancón, which at 1569m (5020′) is amongst the higher peaks in the Sierra de Cádiz.  I took in the view, and as I’m wont to do, began identifying features in the distance.  When low and behold, what did I see, but…

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I knew it before I even knew it.  It’s the Valle Thermosolar Plant, a 100MW parabolic trough plant located outside of San José del Valle in the Cádiz Province of Andalucía.  It’s owned by Torresol Energy, who in turn is majority owned by Masdar a/k/a the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, which is a subsidiary of the Mubadala Development Company, the official investment vehicle of the government of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates.  And where does their money come from?  Americans buying their oil.  Yes, that’s right oil profits finding their way around the world to install utility-scale solar plants in the hinterland of southern Spain.

Valle Solar as seen from the summit of Simancón.

Valle Solar as seen from the summit of Simancón.

I was just shocked.  According to google maps, I was 25 miles (40 km) away by line of sight from Valle Termosolar.  And yet, there it was, and since the sun was directly behind me with respect to the plant, it actually was shimmering in the distance.  Check out this video (sorry- embedding doesn’t seem to work here) to see it a bit better.

[youtube 6cOv3BgP0Zk]

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Now, I’m no NIMBY-ist.  And, in fact, NIMBY-ism has gotten a really bad name.  With regards to renewable energy, Cape Wind is certainly the most prominent case of NIMBY-ism in American history, featuring the politically powerful Kennedy family not wanting their views from the compound in Hyannis Port destroyed by wind turbines visible in the distance.  As a result, NIMBY-ism is now politically impalatable to the point where arguments are rarely made about visual impacts of projects in America.

In Europe, however, things are different.  NIMBYs still hold lots of sway in British energy politics.  In Spain, there has been a large academic focus on conceptions of landscape, and how landscape planning and integrity are compromised by the dispersion of solar energy developments.  Profesora Maria José Prados (enlase en Español), of the Universidad de Sevilla, has written extensively on this topic, including a prominent article in the highly influential journal Energy Policy, which somebody may have posted a PDF of here, and which that same somebody would highly recommend you reading if you’re interested in understanding the utility-scale solar scene in Spain.

I’m planning on writing a whole post about Spanish academics’ work on landscape integrity and renewable energy, but it is worth noting that it is a variation on the NIMBY argument- their issue with the way that utility-scale solar has been deployed is that it has been in an unplanned fashion, causing dispersed impacts on the landscape, which then shapes how people view the landscape around them, and perhaps how they treat it.  This PDF of a power point (in English), from Doctora Marina Frolova at the Universidad de Granada, gives another good look at what Spanish academics refer to as “landscape” integrity.

Americans might scoff at such NIMBY sounding concerns.  And yet, with some degree of fanfare, film director Robert Lundahl debuted his anticipated documentary “Who Are My People?”, a film which explores the conflict between Native Americans in the California desert and large-scale renewables, which they say are destroying their culture.  And most Americans probably wouldn’t dispute that Native Americans have a valid position to take regarding the desecration of land that is holy to them.  And yet, isn’t this another form of NIMBY?

My point is, in denegrating the concerns of the British or the Kennedys as “just NIMBY-ism”, but exalting the arguments of Native Americans as a valid concern for their spiritual birthright, we are both valorizing and essentializing Native Americans and their connection to the earth, while implying that Western Culture has no legitimate claim to a spiritual connection with place.  This is exactly what the Spanish are getting at- landscape concerns aren’t NIMBY-ism, they are about a Spanish territorial identity- an identity forged of a relationship to the land, dating back millenia, which is being rapidly changed by renewable energy deployment.  And perhaps, in their own crude, privileged, gauche way, this is what the Kennedys are getting at: that they have a spiritual or otherwise important psychological connection to the views from Hyannis Port, and that wind mills in the distance are a legitimate concern of theirs.

Standing at the top of Simancón, I reacted to the sight of a utility-scale solar plant the same way I reacted upon seeing the Mojave Generating Station from the top of the Dead Mountains in the California Desert, or upon seeing the extensive oil fields of the Pinedale Anticline from the top of the Wind River Mountains- concern for the local environment, and yes, some degree of personal dissatisfaction at having what is, for me, a spiritual experience of viewing a landscape from on high, impeded by an industrialized landscape.  I’m not using this post to take a stand in favor of NIMBY-ism, but what I am doing is asking people to reconsider why the knee-jerk reaction is to consider NIMBY an invalid argument.  We humans are a part of the landscape, and if we consider something to have negative impacts to that landscape, simply from an aesthetic point of view, isn’t that an argument worth considering?

I’ll be exploring this topic more this summer, but… please feel free to leave your thoughts below!

3 thoughts on “On visual impacts, landscape, and NIMBYism

  1. Richard Stoffle

    Yes. Nice job on this issue. Our team has been working in aspects of this for decades.

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