Wind turbines as political artifacts

Winner discusses the notion of technologies in society having consequences in human relations and associations. He says that arguing the inherent political nature of technologies can be understood through the technology’s compatibility with particular social and political relationships. He exemplifies this through solar energy:

“Many advocates of solar energy now hold that technologies of that variety are more compatible with a democratic, egalitarian society than energy systems based on coal, oil, nuclear power”

In Ontario, energy is delivered and distributed in a few different ways:

  • 56.8% – Nuclear power, powering 8.1 million homes
  • 17.4% – Hydro power, powering 2.4 million homes
  • 15.8% – Natural gas, powering 2.2 million homes
  • 8.9% – Wind power, powering 1.2 million homes
  • <0.5% – Solar energy, powering only 58,000 homes

http://www.waterloochronicle.ca/opinion-story/6768422-nuclear-energy-s-still-a-good-option/

It is clear from these statistics, that our current energy needs are predominantly supplied by centralized systems. Nuclear power is the main supplier in Ontario. Three Nuclear stations in Ontario generate this energy: (1) Bruce Nuclear Generating Station; (2) Darlington Nuclear Generating Station; and (3) Pickering Nuclear Generating station

nuclearplantson

These few locations distribute energy throughout the province. In contrast, following is an image that shows the locations of wind turbines in Ontario:

windturbineson

In comparing these images, it is clear that Wind turbines are more scattered throughout the province, exemplifying the decentralized structure Winner speaks of.

Nuclear power is actually a decent way of generating energy without the harmful effects characterized by fossil fuels, coal, etc. It is clean and does not harm the air or water. It is considered an effective Greenhouse Gas mitigation option. This said, it does produce radioactive waste that scientists have yet to discover how to safely and properly dispose of. As well, it poses a threat of nuclear disasters, where catastrophic radiation could be released into the environment in the case of an earthquake, or other natural disasters, as we saw with the Fukushima crisis in 2011.

Wind turbines do not pose this environmental threat, although are often critiqued as having negative health impacts on people who live near them (stress, sleep deprivation, hearing loss, seizures, high blood pressure, tinnitus and cardiovascular disease). These critiques have been strongly researched and have proved that there is no scientific evidence that links these adverse health effects with the presence of wind turbines. This said, they can be seen (and heard) as annoying, and extended periods of annoyance could realistically have long term negative effects in my opinion. This has led to a movement in opposition of wind turbines in cities, characterized by the name “NIMBY” (Not In My Backyard). This exemplifies Winner’s point that technologies themselves can have a political effect.

A problem exists, then. Although wind turbines show the ability to decentralize energy systems, and give more autonomy to communities that use its power, they do not meet the energy needs of the province and have negative associations with many people who live in close proximity to them. Nuclear grid systems exemplify a reliable and centralized structure, however enhances the dependence of millions on only three systems, with a constant running risk of disaster.

I’m not so sure we could realistically completely change our systems in consideration of the dependence we have on reliable energy today. This said, in understanding the power of technological artifacts, over time with the development of more technologies, perhaps ideologies can progressively develop, in tandem.

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1 Comment

  1. The comparison you make between centralized systems and decentralized systems is really interesting and I think it illustrates an impending change in how energy is being supplied in Ontario, which is perhaps moving away from centralized systems to more decentralized ones. One thing that resonates with me from this example is Winner’s statement of how it is a foolish move to blame the hardware, or technology, when rather it is not the technology itself that has political qualities but the system it exists in. Growing up in the heart of a wind farm in Chatham-Kent, my town has generally negative attitudes towards wind turbines, but as of late and listening to varying complaints, it is not really the technology itself that has been causing political controversy, but rather the social and economic system it is embedded in, a point I’m alluding to Winner. For example, people have been complaining that the turbines have been built too close to the airport in Chatham-Kent, making it dangerous for aircraft to land and take off. Blame is immediately shifted to the turbines, rather than the administration that has chosen where to build them. The turbines are being given agency as if they are individual actors in this system, even though they are just a technology. I think this too illustrates how technologies have political consequences, as a result of the system they operate in. Winner also talks about how power and authority is arranged in these systems, which further impacts the political consequences, and I think this also applies to wind turbines. A lot of small towns argue their administrations were not provided enough of a role in deciding how many turbines should go up, where they should be built, and so on. This has created an extensive amount of political turmoil among the power structures involved, which in this case is between the municipal and provincial governments. I think this exemplifies Winner’s second illustration of the two ways artifacts contain political properties, which is how man-made systems appear to require particular kinds of political relationships.

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