Renewable energy and natural landscapes

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl

President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

As renewable energy installations expand, there is growing disagreement over the type and location of the systems.

Initially, PV and wind installations were small sources of energy. Those homeowners who wished to use the technology had systems installed on their buildings or in their yards. The initial vision was that of energy independence for individuals and decentralized or distributed energy systems for communities. While that vision remains, it has been surpassed by large, commercial installations known as wind and solar farms.

Those who prefer to see the beauty and harmony of natural and rural landscapes and often object to their installation are ridiculed as being “nimby” (“not in my back yard”).

In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rejection of nuclear power has included a “massive expansion of renewable energies — as rapidly as possible,” some citizens are rebelling against what they see as defacing “vast swaths of territory.” To them, large wind and PV installations threaten the picturesque German landscape.

Advocates of wind and solar farms are frustrated by efforts to block their installations. They see renewables as the best way to provide energy while minimizing global environmental damage.

One highly-valued natural area is the Rock River Valley, particularly the section between Rockford and Dixon.

At a recent Prairie Preservation program, landscape architect Dean Shaeffer made a presentation about the native landscape movement and its impact on park planning along the Rock River. Basic to the movement was the concept of harmony with the beauty of nature.

Early park planning came from Europe. Jens Jensen, from Denmark, one of the early leaders in the native landscape movement, observed the American landscape and its intrinsic harmony. Limbs of trees in the prairie grew parallel to the ground, creating harmony. Flowering tree layers and understory flower layers were also parallel, creating a totally harmonious picture.

Landscaping was in harmony with the prairie style of architecture being introduced at that time — also parallel, horizontal and harmonious. It was the new American vernacular.

Parks in the Chicago and Rock River regions were designed to implement the early visions of being in harmony with the beauty of nature. Rather than the customary straight lines, curved plantings at the edges of open grassy areas were laid out following the vision of the designers. Nothing was measured.

Parks laid out along rivers in the Chicago and Rock River regions that create the impression of being totally designed by nature were actually designed by artistic eyes and hands.

Nature is right, but man is straight,” attributed to Henry David Thoreau, seems the appropriate quote for their philosophy.

In marked contrast is typical modern American landscaping, which Gerould Wilhelm refers to as being filled with “lollipop trees and gumdrop bushes,” along with fussy modern architectural styles not in harmony with nature.

With the Rock River Water Trail’s acceptance into the National Water Trails System, will communities rise to the challenge of utilizing renewable energy sources in a manner harmonious with the highly-valued scenic quality of the river valley?

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the April 17-23, 2013 issue

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