Virtual Reality and Wind Energy: A Powerful Combination

I will never forget my first experience with virtual reality (VR). It all started on a pier in the ocean, almost being able to feel the wind blowing through my hair – although I knew that was impossible. I was launched to the top of a wind turbine, and as I turned my head I realized I could look wherever I wanted: I was inside a virtual world. I breathed in deeply, feeling the freedom of a limitless view over the ocean. I flew down to the platform at the bottom of the wind turbine, and I felt my body landing on the platform – again, impossible. That was how realistic the experience was.

When I started working for Bosch & Van Rijn, a Dutch wind energy consultancy company, I never expected to rub shoulders with VR, but right now, I am part of a team that is exposing VR to others. When I think of VR, I think of the future. For such a long time, VR has been a promise alongside the vast developing technology industry, but it never seemed to become real. Science-fiction movies were made about it, and it has been haunting our imagination ever since. Now it is within our reach, and the possibilities are endless.

VR and Wind Energy

But what can VR do for wind energy? Because that is the statement: the combination of VR and wind energy is powerful. This article will underpin that statement with four arguments; the first two are based on psychological theories and the second two are based on practical experiences.

wind energyThe first argument is based on the two-factor theory of emotion. The theory states that we cognitively label the physiological arousal of one factor to be caused by another factor. The VR experience can be seen as one factor and the wind turbines that are shown during the experience as another factor. Because most people are positively aroused by VR, VR can make people feel positively about wind turbines. For example: I was very excited before I started my VR experience and felt physiologically aroused by the flying movements I made, but all I could talk about was how cool it was to stand on a wind turbine, how much I enjoyed the view, and how I had to use my whole body to be able to see the entire wind turbine. The arousal was due to the VR, but I cognitively labelled it to the wind turbines.

Due to the technological developments, wind turbines are getting better, and also bigger. Wind turbines are the largest moving man-made structure ever engineered, and it’s hard for people to grasp how a structure like that will influence the landscape. To fully understand how big that is we have to experience it up close. VR is a great way to do that. You will literally feel the impact a wind turbine has on the landscape, and because you have to move your whole body to be able to see the entire wind turbine, it is easier to understand how big it truly is, and thus it is easier to relate to it.

Bosch & Van Rijn has a lot of experience with energy project communication. Opponents can be extremely vocal, which can cause a lot of delay in project development. One reason stakeholders are against wind turbines is that they are scared. They fear the noise wind turbines will produce and the impact they will have on the landscape. VR is invaluable in that situation. It gives people the opportunity to experience the big structures, the real impact they will have on the landscape, and the noise they will actually produce. Taking away the fears that were so big in their imagination makes their perception more positive.

wind energyThe best thing about the combination of wind energy and VR is that it actually works. We boldly took our custom-designed VR experience to the Dutch Energy fair. During the three-day fair, about 170 people experienced our VR system. I talked them through the experience, and every single one of them was enthusiastic and couldn’t believe how realistic it felt. They loved the view they had on the wind turbines and couldn’t stop talking about how close some of the blades came to them. Some people even experienced fear of the height of the turbine. We had a lot of conversations before, during and after the experience. They were always positive, and the main topic, unconsciously, always was wind energy. Our experiences at the fair confirmed what we already knew: VR does change people’s perspectives on wind energy.

Before I started working at Bosch & Van Rijn, I had no idea what VR could mean for wind energy. But due to the two-factor theory of emotion, the incapability of people to relate to huge structures, and experiences in the practical field, I am convinced that there is a connection. VR is a powerful tool to let people experience wind energy in a positive way, which makes them feel more positively about wind energy. So yes, VR and wind energy is a powerful combination!

Images credit: Bosch & Van Rijn

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Anne Schipper is junior consultant wind energy at Bosch & Van Rijn, a Dutch wind energy consultancy company. Bosch & Van Rijn's services include spatial planning, project communication, policy design, and technical studies. Virtual reality als all the possibilities it has are being explored in a wide range. Anne focuses on the social aspects of the development of wind energy projects. With her background in environmental studies she analyses and evaluates social processes and communication strategies. 

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