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Investigative films focus on wind farm controversies in Australia, UK

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A couple of in-depth reports on communities roiling with wind farm controversies are currently viewable online.  Both seem to present a fairly balanced story, featuring locals struggling with noise, locals and consultants who see the problems as minimal and wind development as necessary and important, and some government officials trying to make sense of it all. My reaction to the first one, Against the Wind, is below; I’ve yet to complete the other, a much longer series from the UK entitled Blown Apart: Wind Farm Wars, which appears to consist of four hour-long segments.

From Australia comes an hour-long investigative report from Four Corners, a 60 Minutes style weekly TV program. The report, entitled Against the Wind, can be viewed here (transcript also viewable online). Both of the featured families who are negatively impacted come off as reasonable folks, not hot-headed complainers or people caught up in fears seeded from internet research. One of them is Noel Dean, a fairly well-known name among those tracking these issues from afar (on the internet, yes!), and the others are Carl and Samantha Stepnell.  Dean and the Stepwells both abandoned their homes due to noise and severe physiological reactions, though they return to work their farms. The Stepnell’s home is 900 meters (over a half mile) from the nearest turbine, with three others within 1200 meters (about three quarters of a mile); they weren’t affected right away, but after about six months began being affected. Though they tried to ignore it and live with it, the were soon being awoken most nights and having headaches and other stress responses.  The stories told by Dean and the Stepnells are familiar to many others within a kilometer or two of wind farms.

The show also includes a glimpse of some recording done at Dean’s home by Graeme Hood, where there was significant energy at lower frequencies, but not as much deep infrasound as Hood had suspected would be needed to account for some of the impacts.  There are clear statements of many of the also well-known responses from industry and pro-wind folks, about the lack of clear data on any negative impacts, as well as footage of an event held by a community group that includes provocative images of burning turbines and distressed speakers urging the whole industry to be “shut down, everywhere” due to health concerns.

While the content of the show is fairly representative of the two sides of the controversy, it slips some in places,

particularly in a segment suggesting that global warming denialism is a key factor in resisting wind development, and also in settling for the too-easy assessment that problems with noise are likely to be self-created, spurred by fearful stories from the internet.  Though both of these factors are indeed part of the mix in cautionary community groups, what we hear directly from Deane and the Stepnells does much to undermine these simplistic explanations.

At the same time, though, it’s hard not to be struck by one comment made by a government official.  After we saw footage of a farmer and wife who host wind turbines on his property expressing concern for their neighbors being so visibly impacted, but noting that they had not experienced any negative side-effects of living with turbines, the official notes that, “curiously,” no one making income off turbines seems to be affected.  He wonders whether having some income “mediates” the feelings of annoyance or being ill.  This is a hard nut for many of the cautionary activists to swallow, and while there’s a pressing need for continuing with ongoing research to understand the relationship of noise and physical reactions, it does seem reasonable to note this “curious” factor. There are certainly some wind farm hosts who regret their decision and have come to dislike the nearby noise, but few if any reporting ongoing health impacts. It’s not ridiculous to see this as a possible indication that the health responses are often triggered by the stress and sleep disruption, rather than directly by the audible or infrasonic noise.

Two final notes from the Australian show:
A segment on recent research that purports to find no health effects is as shaky as the extreme precautionary claim it was designed to debunk. The study of thousands of residents showed no difference in the number of prescriptions written for high blood pressure, heart issues, or sleeplessness between people living close to or far from wind farms.  Unfortunately, the dividing line used in the study was 10km, because this is the distance that one health impacts expert has said she’s seen some negative effects.  By including people out that far in the study, there was no way it would be likely to find any difference in prescription levels; if there is such a difference, it’s likely it would only be perceptible if the study group was limited to those living within a kilometer, or two at the most, from turbines, with the controls being those far out of earshot (perhaps using five or ten kilometers as the near edge of the control population).  Perhaps this research study has data broken down at closer distances, but if so, we didn’t hear about it.

And finally, the show notes that those most distressed by wind development often are expressing a sense of powerlessness in the face of outside developers coming in and changing their communities. Other researchers have for years noted that this sense of powerlessness or not being listened to is indeed one of the qualities that is seen in many community resistance movements related to all sorts of development.  I came away from this show with the sense that current industry efforts to “engage the community” and empower more locals with the information they need to get behind the project is a misguided approach to addressing this part of the issue.  In the end, if the goal is to proceed with “business as usual” turbine siting, exposing rural residents to a new and dominant sound source, then citizens are indeed left powerless by a process that only entices them to “get on board” with what is planned.  Only when the industry shows a willingness to accept that some communities may choose, for their own good reasons, to require larger setbacks will we see this sense of powerlessness reduced.  Likewise, the recent acknowledgement that turbines do make audible noise at nearby homes is a great step forward; yet simply leaving these neighbors at the mercy of that noise, saying they have to live with it, also reveals that they are, at root, powerless in the face of the development.  Any company that creates a program to willingly purchase homes from neighbors who find the noise intolerable, despite being outside the project’s regulatory distance limit, would be taking a huge step toward really empowering locals and diffusing the project-threatening impact of local fears. Some developers have bought nearby homes, but only as a reaction to complaints once the project was operational; to pro-actively commit to do so from the start would do much to reduce the fears that crop up in communities that are now being left, at the bottom line, powerless to do anything to protect themselves, other than to rant.

10 Responses to “Investigative films focus on wind farm controversies in Australia, UK”

  1. Colette Mclean Says:

    Again you ignore repeatedly the issue that wind energy will never replace the need for other forms of electrical generation. It’s the wind industry that has spun that simplistic scare argument using the fear over limited supplies of oil (which BTW is not used for electrical generation)to promote their inefficient, unreliable and costly product.

    Maybe it’s because you misunderstand as to how our electrical supply sources came about. The fact is that our conventional sources were all thoroughly vetted prior to their implementation on the grid. In the “old days” the focus was on their suitability to supply us electricity, so the assessments were regarding technical feasibility, reliability, lowest cost, etc. THEY ALL PASSED THESE CRITERIA — before being allowed on the grid.

    Because gov’t is not applying traditional due diligence or standard scientific methodology needed to discern if the claims that the wind industry make are actually true and sharing such with the public, we end up with people superficially supporting these kinds of “green projects without determining if they are environmentally (which includes health and social well being), technically or economically sound. Consequently and unfortunately the larger percentage of the population have been mislead and therefore in turn they continue to support the construction of hundreds of turbines up around rural residents.

    Please understand the fact is that our success and progress as a modern society is almost entirely due to reliable and affordable power. Instead today where everything “green” is sacrosanct, residents like myself are not allowed to question the value of things like wind energy let alone have their concerns regarding noise issues addressed properly with a proper epidemiological study.
    I am very interested in protecting the environment for me and my family, but this green evangelism has gone WAY overboard.

    For instance, are we saying “throw out these conventional sources of power that have enabled our modern society and replace them with unproven, unreliable, uneconomical, unenvironmental ‘renewable’ sources such as wind.” That is insane!

    And where power sources WERE tested for reliability, technical feasibility and economics in the past — this is now completely skipped because they have the “renewable” imprimatur. That is absurd!

    As for the residents coming forward to talk of their problems, from my experience the nature of wind turbine noise is that the low frequency noise as you know is inaudible (it’s not all about infrasounds), and because of this, the health issues seem to be almost subliminal and the subtle creeping impacts are so hard to discern let alone quantify that it’s no wonder that many suffer quietly without speaking up let alone be vilified as a hypochondriac if you dare to speak. I have neighbours who complain of more frequent migraines and sleep loss, yet cannot discern that is because of the turbines. For some the audible portion of the noise is enough for residents to file a formal complaint and sadly after many years there (for some in Ontario 3 to 4 years)there is still no mitigation in sight. This in turn has forced these people to move on and never be heard of again, all because there is no legislation to obligate wind developers to do anything.

    Somehow however your commentary on the issue seems to indicate that the wind industry should simply pro-actively commit to buying people out if residents find the noise disturbing as the solution to the noise problem. How many time have I been told to plainly move away if I didn’t like the noise or that I should simply put up with the noise because the alternatives are much worse (i.e. a gas or nuclear plant in my backyard). With the number of turbines slated to be constructed in the next few years, where does one move to without a turbine in the vicinity? There is also the issue of people making their living from the land raising our nations food. What then??

  2. aeinews Says:

    Colette,
    I am not “ignoring” the question of wind’s efficacy in shifting our energy mix; my focus is noise impacts, and I do my best not to get sidetracked into other topics that I’m not as informed about. Also, my purpose is not to stop wind development (which appears to be your goal); AEI’s purpose is to share information and resources on all manner of sound-related environmental issues, in order to inform public debate. By limiting my focus to sound, I can contribute more effectively. If you read more of my reports and commentary on the wind farm noise issue (see http://AcousticEcology.org/wind ), you’ll see that I don’t “simply” suggest wind companies buying neighbors’ homes (in fact, this may be the first time I’ve come right out and said that). Rather, I’ve consistently said that the solution is not pushing so close to homes on non-participating neighbors, and that it’s key for the industry to move away from its one-size-fits all approach to wind regulation/setbacks/noise limits, and acknowledge that some communities value their existing soundscapes more than others. Indeed, even this commentary is full of understanding and empathy for the situation neighbors find themselves in, and laced with skepticism about many of the arguments used to marginalize those who speak up. If I don’t pass your purity test, I’m sorry, but I hope that you can allow for a range of approaches to increasing awareness and responsiveness to these important issues.

  3. Energy Expert Says:

    As an independent energy expert, I have these comments:

    1 – I think it’s admirable that Jim Cummings is trying to maintain a balanced perspective.

    2 – He did a good job in reviewing the two films,

    3 – Anyone interested in this issue should see the movie: Windfall.

    4 – There is a very simple answer to the question posed by the government official about why we don’t hear much about medical issues from turbine leaseholders: they have signed an extremely strict contract PROHIBITING from saying anything negative about wind energy.

    5 – Colette’s comments are very well reasoned.

    6 – Jim’s response seems to miss a key point: no one is asking him to be anti-wind! What Colette is asking is that he be PRO-SCIENCE. As a taxpayer, ratepayer, acoustical expert, environmentally concerned person, etc., he SHOULD be asking: show us the science behind this “solution” that is being mandated on us.

    Put in even simpler terms: show us the proof of the cost-benefits of wind energy.

    That is a legitimate question that ANY citizen can and should be asking.

    What point is there for us to be dithering about incidentals like setbacks, if this alternative energy is a high-cost/low-benefit option to begin with?

    This is all explained in EnergyPresentation.Info.

  4. aeinews Says:

    Thanks for the kind words. I still haven’t gotten to watch the full 4 hours of the UK films, but hope to in the next week or so and will post about it when I do. I recognize that there are debates about the cost-effectiveness and carbon-reduction-effectiveness of wind energy; this is simply not my area of expertise or AEI’s area of contribution to public debate; we can’t all focus on everything, and AEI will continue to be a source of what I hope is constructive perspectives on the noise issues.

    There are likely some lease-holders who are suffering from noise impacts, but there are certainly also many who are authentically not feeling bothered. Just as those of us with concerns about noise impacts want the general public to take neighbors who are struggling with noise at their word that this is a real impact, we also need to acknowledge the reality that not everyone who hears turbine sounds has a negative reaction to it. It’s simply too convenient for both sides to hunker down into closed perspectives that say everyone who complains is a cranky nutcase, or everyone who doesn’t complain is under a gag order. There really IS a lot of individual variability in response (not uncommonly even between a husband and wife living in the same house), and there is a lot of variability in different types of communities. To pretend there is a one-size-fits-all solution (whether status quo 50dB is fine, or every project should be effectively inaudible to all) ignores these subtle yet important factors.

  5. Colette Mclean Says:

    FYI, the U.K. film has been withdrawn from the internet. I managed to view the first hour and part of the last. The most disturbing point for me, is how the company continually ignored a residents request for the noise measurements that were taken at their location, prior to construction. The project manager (who is a local person from the community) did not want this resident (her neighbour) to get the data as it would cause a lot of hassle etc. Jane Davis who is presently persuing the wind developer through a lawsuit in England, was also interviewed in this film, but I only caught a glimpse and she appeared very distraught at the treatment she received by the filming crew.

  6. aeinews Says:

    They appear to be available as downloadable files here:

    http://cdn.cultureunplugged.com/lg/BLOWN_APART_AKA_EP1_6049.mp4

    http://cdn.cultureunplugged.com/lg/BLOWN_APART_AKA_EP2_6259.mp4

    http://cdn.cultureunplugged.com/lg/BLOWN_APART_AKA_EP3_6260.mp4

    http://cdn.cultureunplugged.com/lg/BLOWN_APART_AKA_EP4_6261.mp4

  7. Colette Mclean Says:

    Despite the variability of responses, the fact remains that there is a faction of people who are suffering enough to want to leave their homes. Why would that not be considered a major problem and the further operation and construction of turbines halted until such time the problem can be solved? Instead because it is perceived that few people are suffering, the developer receives carte blanche on the basis that they are supposedly working within compliant levels. In some areas the noise levels are increased to accomodate the industries needs for development. Should people not be the focus here??

  8. Colette Mclean Says:

    I have tried your links to the film Blown Apart and the connection is still not happening.

  9. aeinews Says:

    Interesting. They’re still working for me today…. So I guess I recommend folks give it a try. Doesn’t make sense it would be country-specific, but I guess you never know.

  10. C. McLean Says:

    Just to let others know, the links take a long time to download (over 30 minutes) even with broadband highspeed. I’ve had a chance to see the part on Jane Davis, her distraught reaction on film had to do more with trying to deal with the intense stress she and her family has suffered from the noise and from the treatment she has received from gov’t officials and the wind developer who seem to continually deny the problem she had been experiencing with the noise.

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