Blow wind blow

Heading towards Grahamstown from Port Elizabeth, long after the smell of sewage that catches in the throat has been whipped away by the ocean breeze, there is a lone wind turbine on the left of the highway.

It is the first of what will soon be many in what is the Coega Windfarm, and is perfectly placed in the Windy City (as Port Elizabeth is known because of its intense coastal breeze off the Indian ocean).

This single turbine  is an experiment for an alternative form of energy in South Africa’s Eastern Cape. It stands at a statuesque height of 140 metres and annually produces 5,700,000KWh – enough to satisfy the energy consumption needs of 2,000 homes for a year – but at the moment it meets the needs of the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium, which was built in anticipation of the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The turbine itself looks exactly like the multitude of white specks that can be seen off the coast of Amsterdam from an airplane, although its majesty is magnified over a thousand times up close and personal.

The sole turbine, just miles away from one of the largest sea ports of South Africa, is a humbling reminder of the immense sources of energy that nature offers – and a reinforcement of how timely Kenya’s attempts to harness them are. And so looking at this single turbine, I cannot help but be reminded of the Lake Turkana wind farm in Kenya, and how it will be the one of the continent’s largest.

As we drove to the main gate of a red warehouse neighbouring the turbine – believing it to be the entrance to the wind farm – a security guard speaking in the musical and click-filled dialect of Xhosa informed his colleagues that I had a camera but didn’t prevent me from taking any photographs of the turbine. He only warned I wouldn’t be able to take any of the warehouse (which turned out to be a steel mill).

In Kenya, if you try taking a photograph of any building – whether commercial or government – it will raise the hackles of security, the property owner and even casual pedestrians. Our recent spate of terror attacks have left everyone more than a little edgy and turned what used to be a country of smiles and welcomes into one that is suspicious and angry. No one can blame us after even our most mundane of venues have become a site for horror and death.

But here, the security team gave us directions to the the site of the turbine down the road, and encouraged us to travel the extra distance and experience it up close. So we hopped back in the car for a short tarmac drive and a shorter gravel one – more like white shoal than the murram we have on Kenyan rough roads – and arrived at the base of the turbine.

The structure itself was a tall, white capsule-like pole with a rounded door at the bottom – something you would expect to see in the Jetsons. The pillar narrowed as it rose higher, and seemed even narrower as its height gave it perspective. Right at the top were three pointed blades, curved at the base and spread like a dandelion.

I expected to hear a whirring from the turbine as it stirred the air in sweeps but it was relatively silent with between nine and 16 rotations per minute.

I even expected some disturbance to the surrounding environment and assumed the intruder in the skies would have frightened most birds away from the area. But was happily surprised to see a black-headed heron nonchalantly crossing the road as we exited the rough stretch. And plenty of plant life including a young resilient one with yellow flowers sprouting in between the grains of white gravel in the parking lot.

The experience of standing under a turbine, quite literally under the large shadow it cast, was nothing like I expected. It was a promising sign of tomorrow’s energy source: one that produces a substantial amount of energy, and doesn’t cause any untoward damage to its environ.

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