Investigating wind energy with Google Earth

Part two: A decision-making exercise

This page describes how Google Earth can be used to investigate wind energy. It's not a self-contained lesson plan and teachers will need to adapt the activities as necessary. I envisage the activities as being suitable for small groups with access to an individual PC running Google Earth. Students will need the Internet in order to make use of the MAGIC online GIS and a number of other web sites. The activities are probably best suited to more able KS3 / KS4 students.

Since this resource was first written the relevant government department has changed from the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) to the Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) The weblinks have been updated, however it should be noted that the new BERR site is overtly pro-wind energy - see for example 10 Myths Explained reflecting the curent political imperative.

Introductory activity:

Taff Ely, an example of a wind farm in South Wales

Get students to make a list of the features that make Taff Ely wind farm a suitable wind energy location. Use the accompanying Google Earth file to visualize the site.
Taff Ely
geicondownload Google Earth file
Exaggerate the vertical scale by turning on the Terrain layer and change the height in Google Earth / Preferences / Elevation Exageration from the default setting (1) to 2.

Main activity:

The aim of the activity is to choose the best location for a wind farm, and then produce an annotated Google Earth placemark.

Here is an example of an annotated placemark:
annotated placemark
A great advantage of getting students to create placemarks is the ease with which they can transfer their ideas to a class folder, the contents of which can be used to set up a peer assessment activity, with the class deciding on the best location/placemark description from the various suggestions. I've tried this and it works very well.

Choose a suitable wind energy location using Google Earth.

Here are some suggested locations.

Combe Martin, Devon SS5947
google earth placemark(Open in Google Earth)

hangman(open photo from Geograph website)


Oxenhope, W. Yorkshire SE0134
google earth placemark



Knowle Hill, Dorset SY9482
google earth placemark



Fullabrook Down* N. Devon SS5340
google earth placemark

Fullabrook Down(photo)


*Fullabrook Down is currently the subject of a planning enquiry. More info... Thanks to Nick Langmead for suggesting this location.

Even better learning will be achieved if students find their own location within a given region - possibly their local area?


Choosing a site:

I recommend that students create their own site assessment index based on the BERR planning criteria open the BERR web page (and select the various issues from the planning sub-menu) Teachers might create an assessment index based on the issues from this page.

The table below shows how students might investigate the sites.

Criteria How to assess

Wind speed
Wind turbines start to work when the wind speed reaches 5m/s. More from Wikipedia article

UK wind speed database
Type in the grid reference of the desired location exactly as described. Don't forget to choose the radio button for the Great Britain region or the search will be unsuccessful. The input dialogue should look like this:
wind database

There is currently debate about the effect of wind turbines on bird populations
More from BERR

Magic Interactive map
From the opening page insert the 4 fig grid reference of each site and use the Rural Designations Other map. A good tip is to click on List of Layers and remove the ticks from all the layers apart from Important Bird areas.
bird layer

Potential effects during the operation of the turbines are again development specific. However, they do tend to relate more to species on the move rather than to habitats, for example birds
More from BERR

Magic Interactive map
From the opening page insert the 4 fig grid reference of each site and use the Rural Designations Statutory You will find many layers that will indicate the ecological importance of the site. These are probably the most useful, once again turn off the unnecessary layers in order to be able to interpret the map properly.:

Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (England)
Biosphere Reserves (England)
Environmentally Sensitive Areas (England)
Local Nature Reserves (England)
National Nature Reserves (England)
National Parks - proposed (England)
National Parks (England)
Ramsar Sites (England)
Registered Common Land (England)
Scheduled Monuments (England)
Sites of Special Scientific Interest (England)
Sites of Special Scientific Interest Units (England)
Special Areas of Conservation (England)
Special Protection Areas (England)

As with other impacts of wind energy, perception of the noise depends on local features (for example rural or urban area, topography), the number of residents and the distance they are from the site, and the type of community affected (residential, industrial, tourist).
More from BERR

Google Earth
Use the Tools to measure distance to nearest dwellings

Shadow flicker
The rotating wind turbine blades can cast moving shadows that cause a flickering effect and can affect residents living nearby.
More from the BERR

Google Earth
Use the Tools to measure distance to nearest dwellings

Highway impacts
Access via site roads to individualturbines for construction and maintenance purposes is required on wind farms.
More from BERR

OS Get a Map site
Find a detailed map of the sites. It should be easy to identify whether the location is adequately served by roads.

Aeronautical and military impacts
Wind turbines can have an impact on aviation activities, typically on radar systems or on low flying.
More from BERR

OS Get a Map site
The OS map should reveal the presence of nearby airports or militatary installations.

Landscape and visual impacts
Landscape and visual impacts are among the most far-reaching effects of onshore wind farm developments. They are generally of greatest concern to the public, and are frequently the reason why wind farm proposals are opposed.
More from BERR

The images on the Geograph site will be helpful. Students may optionally add 3D models to the location in Google Earth using SketchUp. This would help in determining the likely visual impact. They could also make a photomontage of the site adding some wind turbines as desired.


Follow up activity:

Having chosen a site, and justified their choice by annotating a Google Earth placemark, students could produce a report about their chosen location. The visual effect of wind farm development can be shown in two ways; using SketchUp to produce a 3D model of the chosen site, or making a photomontage to illustrate the location with wind turbines:

Using SketchUp to model a wind farm

Should you wish to add 3D models to illustrate the site , the procedure is fairly simple and quick once you have done it once. It would be very easy to teach the procedure, especially if a digital projector is available. A copy of SketchUp is required.

sketchupDownload a SketchUp wind turbine model here.

Zoom to the required position for the 3D model in Google Earth and take a note of the latitude and longitude coordinates. This is easier if you download a cross-hair screen overlay for more accurate placement of the model.
ge icon


Open up the wind turbine file in SketchUp, and edit the location information as follows:
Click Window / Model Info button and Location in the sub-menu. Click Custom location and add the correct coordinates. (Note that the position format is slightly different from Google Earth in SketchUp, so remove any negative symbols and replace them with the correct suffix i.e. N/S W/E)
sketchup screenshot - click to enlargeClick to enlarge

Export the file as a 3D model and the resulting .kmz file should open in the Temporary Places folder of Google Earth.


Open the folder named "turbine" and click on the model, which should appear in the correct location.

Once the .kmz file has opened in Google Earth you may need to edit the height setting so that the model displays properly. Do this by right clicking the file and choosing Edit. Under the Style tab, click Share Style and then go to the Location tab and change "Absolute" to "Relative to Ground"


Making a photomontage of the selected site

Alternatively, it would be a satisfying exercise for students to produce a photomontage to show how the proposed wind farm would affect the landscape. For example:

site view enhanced site view
The photomontage may be easily created in PhotoShop Elements or a similar picture editing package. Download a Photoshop image with pre-selected wind turbine. This can easily be added as a new layer to an existing photograph and scaled to suit the surroundings.


A good plenary activity might be to summarize the pros and cons of the wind energy debate. The British Wind Energy Association conducted research which, rather unsurprisingly, found that local people are broadly in favour of Taff Ely wind farm. There are a great many articles expressing the anti-wind movement here, and for a more positive view of wind energy, the Yes2Wind site provides a good starting point.


Interactive map of UK wind farms (BWEA)


Interactive map of all renewable energy projects in the UK (REstats)

Devon Wind Power (Fullabrook Down)

Camapign against Wind Turbines in North Devon (Fullabrook Down)

Discuss the activity at Digital Geography