'Nerd tourism' pulling more curious visitors to wind farms


By AGENCY

The sun setting behind wind turbines at the Saint-Nazaire offshore wind farm, in Guerande peninsula, France. — Reuters

The sheer size and scale of wind turbines, which can stand over 240m tall and rotate at up to 322kph, is often used against them. Speaking in Britain’s House of Commons last year, Neil Parish, then an MP and chair of an influential environmental committee, expressed a typical view: “Why do people come to many of our great constituencies? Because they are beautiful,” he said.

“Tourist(s) love to come to them, but I promise that they do not come looking for solar or wind farms.”

Except there is growing evidence that, at least sometimes, they do. A number of companies now offer wind farm tours to curious tourists who are keen to understand how the turbines work and what they’re like up close.

In Scotland, adventurous visitors can mountain-bike and hike around an onshore wind farm, and boat tours in Britain and the United States offer the chance to sail right underneath a turbine’s blades. In Denmark, small groups can even climb an offshore turbine themselves. While there’s no data to indicate the size of this nascent slice of the hospitality sector, there is ample research to suggest that travellers are not only unfazed by wind farms, but find them objects of fascination.

“They’re the biggest rotating devices on the planet. They dwarf a 747 (Boeing aircraft). At sea, they’re a little otherworldly,” says Jeremy Firestone, a University of Delaware professor in the US who took a group of students to visit a wind farm off the shore of Rhode Island in 2016. He called the experience “like Disneyland for adults”.

Moneymakers

The wind farm Firestone visited, about 6km from Block Island, has been in operation since 2016. It was the first commercial offshore wind farm in the US. Tours started the same year, and now run around five times annually. Boat captain Charlie Donilon, who piloted Firestone’s tour and still runs them today, supplements the view with informative chatter about wind power and construction of the giant turbines.

Many of Donilon’s clients are academics looking to learn more about renewable energy, but some are pleasure-seekers throwing in a wind farm tour alongside lunch and a trip to the nearby lighthouse.

“I thought, ‘This is definitely going to be a moneymaker’,” Donilon says, comparing wind farms to America’s greatest infrastructure. “It’s hard to believe that these giant structures were built by man. You might put them in the same category as the space shuttle, or the Hoover Dam.”

Of course, some people are drawn to anything that spins, splashes or bangs. In Scotland, hydroelectric energy already has an 80-year history; dams, though far from naturally beautiful, have become an attraction and a resource for tourists and school groups.

“Industrial tourism” or, less charitably, “nerd tourism”, has also long pulled people to Britain’s mills, mines and canals.

“You wouldn’t have been able to go to the big gas power stations because they’re not really open, but this is an opportunity, and people are interested in it,” says Simon Cleary, economics director at Scottish consultancy Biggar Economics.

Curious tourists who are keen to understand how giant turbines work and what they’re like up close can go on a wind farm tour. — PixabayCurious tourists who are keen to understand how giant turbines work and what they’re like up close can go on a wind farm tour. — Pixabay

Windy sites are often already wild, beautiful places that depend on visitors for their economy, making it particularly important to understand how tourists feel about visible turbines. Last year, Biggar conducted a study meant to evaluate whether a proposed onshore development in Wales, visible from 13th century Caerphilly Castle, would hurt visitor numbers. It found that visits to Scotland’s Stirling Castle had risen by 60% since the construction of a similarly visible wind farm, a trend driven not by the turbines themselves but by “the Outlander effect” a historical TV drama that boosted interest in Scottish castles.

Still, views of modern turbines from the ramparts did not seem to prevent fans from indulging in fantasies of rolling hills populated by 18th century Highland warriors.

“People are less sensitive to the visual impact than you might think,” Cleary says.

Turbines closer to shore are more likely to put off beach-goers, although whether people’s behaviour actually follows survey results is harder to say. “The economic effects are likely to be not that significant to communities,” says Firestone, who has co-authored studies on the topic.

Another study last year by academics at Oxford Brookes University in Britain found that the “overall impact on tourism appears relatively benign, and sometimes positive”, though the report cited concerns that the novelty will wear off as turbines become commonplace. It helps if offshore wind companies engage with the local community and with businesses, and invest long-term in visitor centres and local staff.

Not a ‘monster’

One of the longest-running wind farm boat tours, off the coast of Denmark near Copenhagen, offers visitors the rare opportunity to actually step inside. The Middelgrunden wind farm, which consists of 20 turbines built in 2000, was at the time the world’s largest offshore wind farm, and the first to be cooperatively owned – 10 turbines are owned by around 10,000 members of a cooperative, and 10 are owned by the local utility.

For a total cost of 12900 kroner (RM8,298) per group, visitors are ferried to a turbine, where they climb over 64m of internal ladders to reach the top and a view of 19 others stretching in an arc into the distance. It’s a unique opportunity because wind turbines built after 2009 tend to have elevators rather than ladders. These can only hold two people at one time, one of whom must be a professional operator, making such tours impossible.

Hans Christian Soerensen, a civil engineer and one of the founders of the Middelgrunden project, first asked local skipper Alex Garavano to take people to the windmills two decades ago. Last year they ran around 30 tours for up to 18 people each time, with Soerensen present to answer questions and provide information.

One of the goals of the cooperative is to educate people about wind power. Soerensen, who also works as a consultant on wave and tidal power projects, says close interaction is key to tackling public opposition. “People are scared about what they don’t know about,” he says. “That’s what I have seen many, many times, when we have new projects in regions which don’t have wind turbines. That’s what we try to demonstrate here in Copenhagen when we have people visiting. This is really not a monster.”

In particular, he says, getting close to the turbines dismisses worries about noise, often one of the major sources of concern.

Firestone says interest in boat tours like these, as well as viewing turbines from the shore in “curiosity trips”, might simply outweigh any negative effect of their being built. Developers of onshore wind farms can also drive tourism by improving the local area, and adding signage, trails and mountain-biking facilities – factors far more important to visitor numbers than the simple visual. Cleary points out that the offshore Rampion Wind Farm, completed in 2018, is visible from Brighton Pier, one of England’s most popular free tourist destinations. A proposed expansion of the farm now faces concerted local opposition, but the existing 116 turbines haven’t yet dented interest in the English holiday town.

Paul Dyer, the owner and skipper of charter company Brighton Diver, has offered a boat tour since the Rampion farm opened. Many of his clients are locals who see the turbines from the south coast every day and want a closer look. “It’s turning on the tourists, if anything,” he says.

“There were a lot of people against it before they built it, and then it’s grown on everybody. It looks nice – especially at night, when they light it up.”

Less well-documented is whether other land-hungry renewable energy sources, like solar farms, can exploit the same effect. Individual solar panels lack the awe-inspiring size of a wind turbine, and the visual impact of rolling fields being smothered by shiny panels inspires fierce opposition. In a letter to a local newspaper recently, the chair of a residents’ association implored planners not to approve a solar project on Britain’s Isle of Wight, citing the “breathtaking” views advertised to visitors. “This precious scenery is threatened,” she wrote. “Don’t kill our tourism golden goose.”

But there’s little evidence of these negative impacts, either. Solar farms are frequently added to caravan parks and holiday villages in sunny places like Cornwall and Australia. Both South Korea and Vietnam have pushed solar-energy projects as travel destinations, and some businesses are already succeeding at solar tourism. In North Carolina, Montgomery Sheep Farm offers solar farm tours alongside stargazing and working with animals. In southern England, the community-owned solar and wind project Westmill has been offering public tours since 2008. In 2015, it welcomed its 10,000th visitor. – Bloomberg

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