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AEI taking new direction on wind farm noise – leaving the grey areas to compile concrete information

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For the past three years, I’ve been learning what I can about the ways that wind farm noise affects nearby neighbors.  While most online information tends toward the black-and-white—the sound levels are lower than most human noise sources and current siting standards are fine; the noise is invasive and we need to totally rethink the efficacy of wind energy—AEI has been dedicated to fleshing out the shades of grey. A noise that drives one person crazy is considered a gentle whoosh by another; ranching areas tolerate wind farm noise at levels far above those that are causing problems in rural areas where residents especially value peace and quiet; community noise standards that minimize complaints about, say, road noise, can appear to be too high for wind farms.  As important as it is to tell the whole story, including the fact that much is yet unclear, I feel a bit adrift in the grey these days. When it comes right down to it, how does one describe a shade of grey?

In the coming months, AEI is going to take a different approach.  More to the point, I’m going to focus my energies toward a different purpose, a new task.  Rather than trying to “tell the story” in a way that helps everyone see the issue from a larger perspective, I’m going to use my time and energy to put together a toolkit aimed at providing the necessary information to allow anyone to come to their own conclusions: an annotated collection of concrete information about the sound levels and varied community responses observed around wind farms. Given the limits of what one person can do, it probably won’t be totally comprehensive, but it will draw from the full spectrum of researchers and experiences, and will attempt to provide some context to understand what is known, what is mostly unknown, and where we might most fruitfully direct further investigations.

I think that AEI’s publications over the past couple of years have done a fairly decent job of telling the big-picture story of wind farm noise. The various presentations, articles, and reports have taken different approaches toward a common goal: to explore the paradoxes and subtleties that belie both the black and the white views.

The value of AEI’s efforts may be reflected by the wide range of players in this debate who refer to our publications: concerned citizens, state and regional “wind information” programs, county commissioners, renewable energy trade magazines, pro-wind environmental groups, and leading acousticians who are beginning to recommend lower noise limits. (I should note that it’s common for wind advocacy groups from both sides of the divide to quote AEI rather selectively and self-servingly, missing AEI’s point of bridging the gap.)

In my two annual recaps of the issues, I’ve tended toward extended narratives, attempting to put the diverse data and contradictory personal experiences into some larger contexts that make sense of the full range of responses and perspectives; I believe that only when everyone acknowledges the validity of other viewpoints and even diverse direct experiences, will we be able to move forward in a constructive discussion and decision-making process. Wind energy developers need to hear what heavily-impacted neighbors have experienced and take it at face value; likewise, community activists need to acknowledge that many people do live without major problems with the noise levels they’re concerned about.  Neighbors struggling with noise aren’t making it up or simply trying to ban wind energy, and wind companies aren’t routinely covering up evidence of noise or health issues. (Truth be told, some community groups that stress noise or health impacts ARE working to challenge wind energy on all fronts, and some developers HAVE rudely dismissed more cautionary acoustical experts and neighbor complaints—but both of these over-reaching responses represent what we need to move beyond in discussing wind farm noise.)

In the past few months, I moved a step or two away from my “non-advocacy” foundation, and began to suggest directions and solutions that I thought would be constructive ways forward.  The strongest recurring theme has been the benefits of significantly reducing noise limits, to protect unwilling neighbors from having to accept a substantially changed local soundscape, while providing an easy easement process to allow building closer to neighbors who don’t mind hearing the sound of turbines.

However, I realize that my stance has been based on several assumptions/presumptions. First, that wind energy is an important part of our future energy mix, and the question is just how close to homes they should be built. Second, that health impacts (direct or indirect via sleep disruption, stress, anxiety) are relatively rare.  And third, in communities that are not primarily working farms and ranches, a high proportion of neighbors who can readily hear turbines are experiencing significant quality of life impacts.  I still think these are all valid assumptions, but I’m making a conscious choice/effort to step back from feeling so sure about any of them. The fact is, I don’t know enough about the economics or grid integration and CO2 reduction issues to know how wind contributes in the short or long run; and, we have few reliable studies of how prevalent health or annoyance reactions really are around wind farms. The information I’ve seen on each of these three issues is contradictory, though they all seem to me to lean toward the opinions I’d been settling into; still, even in my embrace of the grey, I’ve probably been too definitive on each.

So, moving forward, I’m going to be more agnostic on all counts. I’ll continue to cover new science and policy news on the AEInews.org blog/feed in much the way that I have been.  AEI’s two in-depth annual reports on wind farm noise, published in early 2010 and mid-2011, will remain valuable for their attempts to present an all-encompassing perspective on the noise issues.  Particular shorter writings and conference presentations from 2010 and 2011 remain useful as introductions, as well.  All this is accessible at http://www.acousticecology.org/wind/

My in-depth reports going forward will change in tone and focus.  They will aim less to tell a story, and more toward simply compiling, with brief annotation, both concrete and subjective reports that I think are valuable touchstones as others make sense of this issue, and find their own ways through the varied tones of grey they will encounter as they attempt to balance the contradictory, yet often all valid, information and perspectives.  Rather than continue to describe the grey, I want to provide a tookit from which regulators, developers, and citizens can paint their own pictures.

I look forward to continued input and ongoing education from the wide range of colleagues who have informed my perspectives up til now. This includes acousticians (both cautionary outsiders and more mainstream consultants), wind farm neighbors, state personnel working on wind issues, biologists and other field researchers, trade magazine editorial staffs, non-profit organizations working on wind and/or wildlife issues, and people working in the wind industry as developers and contractors. This latter group is the one I’m least connected with so far, though I’m making an effort to reach out to them, in hopes of finding common cause with folks in the industry who recognize that the black-and-white, one size fits all picture is untenable.

Thanks to the permanent archive that is the web (at least until that mega solar flare wipes it all out!), AEI’s previous work will remain readily available.  I am incredibly grateful for the many kind words of encouragement I’ve received over the past few years from folks in all those categories I just listed.  I hope and trust that this shift of focus will provide another type of service and information that can contribute to the creation of wind farm siting policies that protect rural quality of life while allowing wind energy to fulfill its potential in our evolving energy mix in the years to come.

3 Responses to “AEI taking new direction on wind farm noise – leaving the grey areas to compile concrete information”

  1. C. McLean Says:

    I am personally interested in reading the reference material which substantiates your assumption that wind energy is an important source of electrical generation going forward. Many thanks!

  2. aeinews Says:

    Sorry C, but my work will continue to be focused on the noise issues. There are plenty of others looking at the larger questions of energy strategy. My whole goal is to move beyond my assumptions and mostly focus on just reporting on science, policy, and experiential reports that I find especially useful; from there, others can draw their own conclusions. My remaining “agenda” or assumption will be that everyone should be engaging respectfully and openly with each other, and incorporating the diverse data and experiences that we have to work with.

  3. Catherine Bayne Says:

    ” I hope and trust that this shift of focus will provide another type of service and information that can contribute to the creation of wind farm siting policies that protect rural quality of life while allowing wind energy to fulfill its potential in our evolving energy mix in the years to come”

    Old assumptions die hard…

    Prejudice is truly insidious.It often takes lack of evidence as proof when that absence actually reveals an unwillingness to demand adherence to the Scientific Method.

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