The Arcane Craft of Managing Viewsheds for Renewable Energy

Analyzing the visual impacts of renewable energy projects has long been a tricky craft. Projects that have a large visual impact tend to draw opposition from those who live nearby, claiming that the project will be an eyesore.  Modeling such impacts on a landscape before project development can be difficult, however what used to be primarily the domain of artist’s renderings has become much more accessible through GIS technologies.

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A Bureau of Land Management simulation of 450′ power towers and mirrors in the Chuckwalla Valley

The most high-profile battle over the visual impacts of renewables is Cape Wind. Pitting old-school, old-money Northeastern liberals (most visibly and obviously the Kennedy family) against a New England natural gas plant operator, the debate around Cape Wind helped make NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) a household word and showed just how powerful (and expensive) the appeal of an unspoiled view is.

“Visual resource management,” (VRM) in the parlance of land managers, is a tricky element in the siting of renewable energy projects.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has an entire Visual Resource Management program, containing over a thousand pages of a recent Solar Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS).  It includes detailed renderings of dozens of different views of solar plants from different mountains nearby (see above).  BLM has also explicitly stated in the PEIS and other environmental review documents that it is siting projects to minimize their impacts to VRM.

A brilliant new visualization by Chris Clarke of ReWire, which shows the area from which a 750’ concentrating solar power tower could be seen, is illustrating the difficulty of determining visual impacts.  The proposed project, the Palen Solar Energy Generating Station, is located in the Chuckwalla Valley, an area with multiple existing and proposed solar energy projects, about 200 miles east of Los Angeles.

Clarke’s analysis shows lines of sight across a radius of almost 100 miles, meaning that the power tower could be seen from the tops of mountains as far away as Nevada.  These findings stand in stark contrast to a similar analysis done by the BLM in the aforementioned PEIS (seen here).  When viewed side by side, the BLM’s analysis seems almost primitive, leaving far flung features out of its purview altogether.

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A rendering of Visual Resource impacts from the potential build-out of the Riverside East Solar Energy Zone in a recent environmental impact statment

It is interesting that such energy is expended in environmental review documents on Visual Resources Management.  If somebody is standing on the side of a mountain, 75 miles away from a solar power tower and see it glinting in the distance, how impacted are they really?  What about someone who is driving across an empty desert valley?  Is there even room for aesthetic arguments when discussing our energy future?

Objecting to a project on the basis of a spoiled view seems almost callous, and Cape Wind has proven that such arguments don’t have lasting power.  In recent weeks, Cape Wind has obtained new financing from abroad, and is set to potentially break ground before the end of the year.  If even the power of the Kennedys eventually give way to the new energy realities of the 21st century, it seems likely that Visual Resource concerns will remain on the periphery in siting decisions.