Giant Whirligigs In The Sky: Learning To Love Wind Turbines

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The wind turbine is officially a sanctioned icon of American ingenuity, on display in (what seems like) three out of five car commercials. As the newest model Chevy or Toyota zips by, the Brooklyn and Golden Gate Bridges signify urban prowess from sea to shining sea, the vast desert straightaways remind us of pioneer days and rugged individuality. And now, clusters of sleek, white twirling rotors signify the cool triumph of the present.

To be sure, these high-tech windmills are an elegant alternative to belching smokestacks and looming nuclear plants. They are beacons of hope that seem to promise we’ll be able to invent our way out of the coming climate catastrophe. They prove that our new technology is beautiful, despite the evidence of clunky cell towers and bleak solar “farms.”

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their fair share of detractors. Critics complain their whooshing sound is annoying and that the blinking shadows thrown off by these overgrown fans are potentially hazardous. While studies dispute the latter claim, planning boards and developers should certainly take every precaution.

Maybe someday they will come to be seen as national treasures, like our cherished bridges once decried for ruining the landscape in the name of commerce and progress and greed.

So it was a good thing that the new turbines in Gloucester, my favorite vacation spot, are located in an industrial park on a hill surrounded by fields and forests. With no neighbors to annoy, the local media had no objections to report. In fact, many residents signed their names on the blades that are more than 100 feet across and rotate in winds that average 16 miles an hour. “I wanted to put my name on a piece of history,” one woman told the Gloucester Times. The turbines provide power for municipal buildings like City Hall, schools, police stations and even the sewage treatment plant, all while saving the cash-strapped city almost $470,000 a year.

They are even the source of bragging rights; Gloucester is the first Massachusetts city with not one but three big turbines, including the tallest one on the East Coast. They all top 400 feet, higher than the Statue of Liberty, a mere 305 feet by comparison. The tallest, at 492 feet, is just 63 feet shorter than the Washington Monument.

They are, in other words, hard to miss, visible all over Cape Ann, and well beyond. From one odd angle, the Madonna on top of Our Lady of Good Voyage Church looks like she is about to be toppled by needle-like propellers, which are over a mile away.

I couldn’t quite believe my eyes the first time I saw the turbines from Good Harbor Beach, which is the place I try to envision while waiting for the dentist’s syringe. They don’t loom so much as hover, but they do, undeniably, change the landscape. To the equation of sea + sand + sky — “giant whirligig” must be added.

This is not meant as a rant against the encroachment of civilization. I want my power, my connectivity, my internet. I’ve never been bothered by the acres of condominiums that sprawl across from my “pristine” seaside retreat. And I’m downright fond of the two-story motel that commands a view of the beach, retro neon sign and all.

I suspect that, after a few years, the giant turbines won’t seem intrusive and newcomers will see the twirling towers as local landmarks, like the lighthouses. Maybe someday they will have cute nicknames or even come to be seen as national treasures, like our cherished bridges once decried for ruining the landscape in the name of commerce and progress and greed.

This program aired on February 7, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.