November 9, 2011

BLM testing camouflage to hide new energy structures

$90,000 design paid for with federal stimulus funds

A camoflage pattern that the BLM tested this fall, simulated on a natural gas compressor station near Parachute, Colorado. (Guy Cramer)

By Mary Catherine O'Connor

In an effort to reduce our reliance on non-renewable and foreign energy sources, the government wants the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to boost the amount of renewable energy development it permits on public lands. That means we’ll be seeing more wind turbines and solar panels as we ply the nation’s wide swaths of public lands, especially in the mountain west.

There’s not much that can be done to lessen the visual impact these energy generators will make on the landscape. But the BLM is trying to lessen the visual punch that the many maintenance buildings and other ancillary structures, used to support these power stations, will pack, reports High Country News.

Near Rifle, Colorado, the BLM recently completed a series of tests to gauge the effectiveness of different paint applications to camouflage these outbuildings. To help create the designs, the agency turned to landscape architects, an engineering and design firm and camouflage-design experts who usually help the Department of Defense conceal its soldiers and buildings.

The desired aesthetic isn’t a huge jump from the BLM’s existing color scheme of green grays and browns–well, except that the agency has to completely reverse its approach of using monotones and instead use a series of layered hues, applied through stenciling. The secret sauce is in blending the palette in a manner that blends into the surrounding fauna, which can actually range widely, from “mountain meadow, sub-alpine conifer woodland and sub-alpine aspen, to sagebrush steppe, scrub oak and piƱon-juniper,” writes HCN’s Kimberly Hirai.

The trick to good camo, she writes, is not just visual, but also pshycologiocal [sic]. The patterns that the BLM tested combine large and smaller designs in differing hues. The design needs natural geometric shapes that echo those in the background in order to trick the eye. Our brains register these shapes in the background and have already “catalogued” them by the time the camouflage enters our field of vision.

Funding for the camo project — specifically the $90,000 needed to hire the design engineering firm — came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Reducing the scenic impact of buildings associated with renewable energy development on public lands is just one part of a larger mitigation effort to reduce the negative effects of such programs. And it’s also rather simple compared to trying to resolve issues such as solar panel farms harming desert tortoise populations or turbines linked to avian mortality.