The Jan. 30 front page of the Burlington Free Press featured a dramatic visual simulation of the Kingdom Community Wind turbines. The image showed 17 wind towers dominating a mountaintop in Lowell. The image came from opponents of the project.
The wind farm is the subject of intense scrutiny and controversy. Residents of the town of Lowell, which voted to allow Kingdom Wind to proceed, are divided over the proposal, as are residents of surrounding towns. The furor has culminated in three weeks of hearings.
This week, the project developer, Green Mountain Power, began circulating a simulation of the towers with much more muted towers set against a grey sky.
John Matthews, the Albany graphic designer and illustrator who created the simulation pictured in the Burlington Free Press, complains the published version doesn’t do justice to his work.
That’s because he said the panoramic photo he created was cropped (and consequently blown up) by Free Press staff so that the perspective is from an impossible vantage – unless you happened to be hovering in mid-air, Harry Potter like, at the location where the photo was taken, on Burton Hill Road in Irasburg.
While Matthews’ panorama has been circulated since last fall, its debut on the front page of the Free Press prompted Patrick Olstad, a consultant for Green Mountain Power, to produce an alternate version. “Ah man,” he said, “that’s just not accurate. And it sets a tone in terms of public opinion that I’m afraid can be hard to correct.”
Wednesday, Green Mountain Power released Olstad’s visual simulation taken from a location very close to Matthews’ site – in which the turbines appear to be much less conspicuous. The image, taken on a grey cloudy day, was not blown up.
The two images present very different perspectives of the project. Matthews, who is an opponent of the Kingdom Community Wind proposal, manipulated the color and contrast of the image to make the simulated turbines stand out. He also placed the wind towers in a longer line across the ridgeline. Olstad, the Green Mountain Power consultant, shot the image on a grey day. In Olstad’s depiction, the turbines look small, and they appear to fade into the background.
Both photos contain 21 turbines, the maximum GMP has applied for. The turbines are spaced quite differently in the photos, with Matthews’ showing two apparently huge turbines much further to the right. Olstad commented that Matthews had located those two in the wrong place and made them appear “maybe twice as tall” as would be accurate.
Matthews says that the photo published in the Free Press was cropped from a much larger panorama. Using a series of eight pictures in a high-resolution digital camera (19-20 megapixels per shot), he “stitched” together the photos to put the towers in perspective to a good-sized swath of the scenery around them. He would have preferred to have the entire panorama published, or nothing at all, but someone else submitted the photo and Matthews did not communicate his wishes to the paper. The Free Press did not respond to inquiries about the decision to use the cropped photo.
Matthews says he took the panorama shots last fall, just as it was getting dark. He photographed from the same place, to get the lights on top of the wind measurement towers, while he could still see the silhouette of the mountain. The lighted measurement towers gave him the basis he used to size the wind turbines he added into the image.
“I wasn’t trying to show some outrageous impact,” Matthews insisted. “All I was trying to show was that if somebody on Burton Hill was selling maple syrup, and they want to show a picture of their farm, now they’re going to have to show it with towers in the background. And I tell you, maple syrup with a picture of a windmill in it won’t sell.”
Green Mountain Power’s image was constructed by Olstad of LandWorks, the Middlebury-based consulting firm that Green Mountain Power employed as their aesthetics consultants on the wind project.
Olstad says there are no written professional standards for visual simulations.
“Some aesthetic consultants use different methods. There’s different software you can use. But I think that the end result is probably going to be pretty similar for those that are experienced doing it.” He underscores the importance of the 3-D computer model in the process, and says he is not aware of any case where aesthetics consultants for different clients have used that 3-D model to produce visual simulations that differ significantly from one another.
VTDigger has placed the photos on top of each other, with the same horizontal scale. That comparison makes it easy to see that they were shot from about the same elevation, from spots relatively close to each other.
The two simulations were not taken from exactly the same spot, and the photographers disagree on how close they were. Matthews says his panorama is shot 10-12 miles from where the turbines will be; Olstad says his is 7.4 miles to the nearest visible turbine. (The entire wind farm stretches nearly three and a half miles, as the crow flies.)
In Matthews’ fall panorama photograph, dark turbine blades, thicker than the towers they sit atop, stand out against the sky. According to brochures for the two turbine types under consideration for the project, the blades would be significantly thinner than the towers; both turbines and towers are to be painted white.
Olstad’s panorama was taken on a gray, early February day. He manipulated the photo to increase the contrast, he said. “We actually darkened the ridge and turbines and lightened the sky to create contrast and represent more of a worse-case scenario.”
Olstad has been working at LandWorks for three years, and his company has a three-dimensional computer model of the terrain, including the proposed turbines. When Olstad took his panorama shots, he used GPS to get the coordinates of the spot where the tripod stood. Back in the office, he plugged the GPS point into the 3-D model to get a line-drawing illustration of the wind farm from that vantage. He then overlaid the photo panorama with the computer illustration to get the outlines of the turbines and used a little technical “magic” to insert the turbines in a realistic way.
The LandWorks simulations are done so that if a person stands where the panorama was taken and holds a printout at a normal viewing distance, 11 inches, then the size and appearance of the printout and real life will be the same.
For this to work, Olstad emphasizes, it’s important that the panorama photos have the right focal length. In the film world of 35 mm cameras, the standard was 50-55 mm focal length. With his digital camera, he used 56 mm, which he says is equivalent to somewhere in the standard range for a 35 mm camera. Olstad said he thought Matthews’ simulation as published in the Free Press looked zoomed in.
If the camera is zoomed in further than that, things in the background look too prominent; think of photos of the setting sun or rising moon as big as a house on the horizon. If the camera is zoomed out further (shorter focal length), things in the background shrink compared to what a person would observe in real life.
Matthews would not say what focal length he used, but he did say he adjusted it on his digital camera to give the equivalent of a 50 mm lens on a 35 mm camera. When asked whether his focal length was close to the 56 mm Olstad used, he said it was close – but he shot with the camera sideways. Matthews said Olstad took the panorama shots with the camera in normal landscape position, which introduces more distortion.
Neither image has been entered into evidence for the Public Service Board proceedings.
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