The critical necessity of scaling up renewable energy to meet the challenge of climate change implicates vast swaths of American landscape. Renewable energy infrastructure has long concerned itself with minimizing its visual impact, in order to decrease opposition from local landowners and users of the landscape. As energy facilities proliferate across the landscape, their visual impact can be expected to grow as well—both in terms of the scale of installations, as well as the amount of territory affected.
On public lands, renewable energy infrastructure has had to compete with alternate public uses of the land, including scenic and recreational values. Managers of public landscapes have developed specific procedures for describing the visual impact to landscapes stemming from energy development, and specific methodologies to evaluate whether a particular project should proceed.
In most contemporary energy planning processes that include landscape design professionals, these designers’ scope is limited to comparing the visual impact of discrete energy installations: the spacing, height, and alignment of wind turbines or solar panels, for example. We argue for a more inclusive approach to incorporating spatial design considerations, earlier in the planning process, as a way of incorporating public aspirations and opinions about the energy landscape, expanding the field of potential planning outcomes, and identifying synergies for co-locating multiple positive elements. How can energy infrastructure actively participate in the shaping of a positive landscape experience, and not just try to minimize its impact on the landscape?
This paper will present several examples of infrastructure-driven landscape transformations that actively incorporated public input and visual assessment considerations, at the municipal and regional scales, in order to develop energy planning frameworks with high social acceptance. One case study looks at the spatial planning around wind turbine installations in the Wieringermeer polder in the Netherlands, which used design to develop a consistent image for wind installations, and create a "recognizable new layer in the cultural landscape" that reflects the qualities, scale, and character of the underlying landscape (H+N+S Landschapsarchitecten, 2014). One other European example demonstrates the impact of an iterative design process in producing the successful Middelgrunden wind farm in Copenhagen, Denmark.
We analyze the potential of these kinds of planning processes on American renewable energy infrastructure planning. We note examples of energy planning that are successfully minimizing conflict between social and ecological stakeholders, focusing on California programs such as the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (DRECP), but that would benefit from incorporating design methodologies more extensively to manage visual landscape impact.
Szumilas-Kowalczyk, Hanna K. and Pevzner, Nicholas, "Getting Beyond Visual Impact: Designing Renewable Energy as a Positive Landscape Addition" (2019). Visual Resource Stewardship Conference. 11.