Monday 2 September 2013

What cost renewables? - interview with Sue Jane Taylor.

At this year's All Energy Exhibition, I was somewhat surprised to see an artist exhibiting pictures of some offshore wind turbines. They were part of Sue Jane Taylor's exhibition 'Beatrice Works', which will return to Aberdeen in September. Recently I spoke to Sue Jane Taylor about the stories told by the landscapes she draws and paints, and about her plans to depict Pelamis.

'Burntisland Methil Yards Fife' (above) is one of the paintings from 'Beatrice Works'. It shows the construction of the support bases for the Beatrice prototype offshore wind farm. Sue told me she wanted to challenge the view of Scotland, particularly the Scottish Highlands, as an unspoilt wilderness; regarded by many city folk and the rich (dating back from Victorian times) as a weekend playground. For many thousands of years, the Highlands of Scotland have hosted people who made their living there and changed the landscape according to their needs. The wilderness we perceive is very recent; in many areas it is the result of deliberately clearing the land of its inhabitants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sue is interested in how this perception of the Scottish landscape impacts public acceptance of wind power. Her involvement in public education projects has lead her to believe that people who object to onshore wind turbines view:
  • rich landowners benefiting (in terms of rent gaining for hosting wind farms) at the expense of neighbouring residents,
  • and city dwellers benefiting (in terms of power) at the expense of country dwellers.
In both cases, the sense of loss is aesthetic: the intrusion of industry on a wild landscape.

As an artist, Sue Jane Taylor is interested in inviting debate on the idea of renewable energy as ugly, and as not fitting in with the landscape. The wind turbines in 'Beatrice Works' are big, but the landscapes are bigger. In these images, they are imposing and heavy with clouds. Wind turbines need to be tough to survive these windswept environments. The environment is tough on the people too. Methil has been suffering from post-industrial decline for many years, and is now a fabrication hub for offshore wind subsea jackets. The Scotland in these paintings is not twee tweed-clad deerstalking land, but a tough place with a recent industrial heritage.

There were two points she made that were particularly interesting from an engineering perspective: the idea of externalised costs, and the reference to the longer time scale. It seemed that a big objection to windfarms was the externalised costs faced by neighbours in terms of loss of visual amenity. Ironically, the costs and benefits of wind power, like other renewable energy technologies, are concurrent. That is to say, the externalised costs do not spill over into the future, to the extent that is seen for conventional sources of power. Once a wind farm ceases operation, the land can very quickly be returned to 'wilderness'. However, we will still be paying to process nuclear waste in a 1000 years time. The two cases against fossil fuels also inhabit longer time frames: global warming will incur costs many years in the future, while resource depletion is about tapping into the benefits that have been 'paid for' in the past.

Sue plans to feature Pelamis in her next series of works. I will report back as soon as there is news of this exciting project!

Image credits:

'Burntisland Methil Yards Fife' large Working Drawing 2, 73cm x 112cm Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums Collection, copyright (and with thanks to) Sue Jane Taylor:

Beatrice Works touring exhibition

1 September 2013 - January 4 2014  Aberdeen Maritime Museum, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums
13 February 2014 - 13 April 2014      Kirkcaldy Art Gallery & Museums, Kirkclady, Fife, Scotland
September - October 2014              Tankerness Museum, Kirkwall, Orkney Isles, Scotland 

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