Building a virtual wind farm

Mon, 05/24/2010 - 4:00am
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5/24/10 — John Hecklau, principal at Environmental Design & Research in Syracuse, N.Y., has been providing visual simulations for proposed wind farms since 1999.

Deepwater Wind contracted EDR to provide the computer-generated images of the proposed Block Island farm. The company has been in the trenches of offshore wind for some time; it provided the first visual simulations for Cape Wind nine years ago.

Hecklau says that the early land-based wind farms were “warmly received,” by the public, but controversy has dogged each successive project, especially in the Northeast. Nowadays, there’s “not an easy project anymore in the Northeast. Every project, some opposition.” Projects in the Midwest, he says, receive much less opposition.

In his experience, while there are a variety of reasons given for the opposition, “it boils down that people don’t want to see them.”

How’s it done

According to Hecklau, the developer provides the coordinates of the proposed farm, then the specifications of the turbines themselves — height, dimensions, colors. In the case of the Block Island farm, there was a foundation detail as well. The company utilized software to create a digital rendering of the turbine. Meanwhile, photographers visited the island and took photos from various locations with certain criteria in mind: open views toward the site ideally containing “alignment features,” such as houses, silos, etc., to create the model.

The company then used high-end animation software called 3D Studio Max — which has elements of AutoCAD and Photoshop — to meld the photo image with the computer-generated wind turbine.

Hecklau says one of the difficulties with producing a simulation for Cape Wind was that there was no foreground — “nothing to align to.” So it was difficult to provide a sense of scale.

Cape Wind was also one of the rare occasions where those opposing the farm provided an alternative simulation, which Hecklau says differed little from EDR’s.

The industry standard, sayd Hecklau, is to provide an image that is equivalent to what would be viewed through a 50 mm lens — to come close as possible to replicating human vision.

Even their best efforts, though, cannot provide the entire field of vision, which would include more from the periphery, “critical” to how one views the area, he says.

In last week’s Block Island Times, a local group opposing the wind farm — Beautiful Block Island — isolated a wind turbine image from one of EDR’s simulations.

Hecklau said that what was presented was not what the naked eye would see, but rather something analogous to what would be seen through a pair of binoculars: foreground and background were compressed, and spatial perspective was squeezed out.

“Unless you’re looking at it with a pair of binoculars, you’d never see it this way,” said Hecklau.

Still, even without the zoomed in image, some residents have found the size of wind turbines depicted in EDR’s simulations daunting.

At a meeting with Deepwater Wind last month, Tourism Council President John Cullen said that many, after seeing EDR’s simulations from the Spring House, were taken aback about “how looming, how large” the turbines would be.

Paul Rich, Deepwater chief development officer said the renderings were accurate and that Deepwater “never shied away that these are large machines.”