In December, four acoustic consulting firms collaborated to study wind turbine noise at three Brown County, Wisconsin homes that had been abandoned by their owners after the nearby Shirley Wind Project began operations. The study, organized by regional environmental group Clean Wisconsin and paid for by the state Public Regulatory Commission, will help inform the PRC’s consideration of a proposed new wind farm in the area.
Two things stand out about this new study. The first is the choice to bring together several acousticians who have previously been widely cited by opposite sides of the turbine siting debate. The study team included one firm (Hessler and Associates) commonly hired to do sound assessments for wind developers, another (Rand Acoustics) that has become widely championed by concerned citizens groups because of its much more cautionary assessment of turbine noise, and a third (Schomer and Associates) whose work has often been in the middle ground, with particular papers being seized on by each side in the siting debate; the fourth firm (Channel Islands Acoustics) has worked much less on wind farm issues than the other three. This diverse group of acousticians produced a 13-page consensus report (edited to 12 pages in the final version submitted to the PSC), along with an appendix report from each team, all of which focus on different aspects of the study that they found most compelling.
The second virtue of this study is that it clearly documented, for the first time, specific sources of infrasound (sound at frequencies below 20Hz) and low-frequency noise (audible sound above about 20Hz) from turbines that are consistently measurable inside homes. The data they collected clearly showed peaks in the sound spectrum that correspond to the “blade passing frequency” (BPF) of just under 1Hz, or one pulse per second, and several harmonics of the BPF up to about 5Hz. These pulses showed up both inside and outside the closest home, 1280 ft from the nearest turbine. In addition, they measured a more modest infrasound and low-frequency peak at 15-30Hz, which reflects the natural resonance and flexibility of typical home construction; this peak may have been triggered by turbine sound or by wind or other outdoor sound sources. One of the acousticians, Rand, notes in his appendix a possibly corresponding pulse of outdoor sound in the 9-14Hz range that can be associated with inflow turbulence hitting turbines. Still, the infrasound that was measured in this study, as in most other similar measurements of wind turbine noise, is at lower dB levels than what is typically considered perceptible by humans. (Ed. note: two emerging yet still limited bodies of work suggest that turbine infrasound may have rapid peaks that approach standard perceptual thresholds, and that our ears may respond physiologically to sounds at lower levels than are perceived; nothing in this Wisconsin study address these questions, though later analysis of the data may contribute to the study of short-term peaks.)
Since the study took place in homes that were abandoned by homeowners who all complained of debilitating health effects, including sleeplessness, nausea, and depression, part of the goal of the study was to see whether they could identify any possible acoustic triggers for these negative responses. The authors collectively noted that “the issue is complex and relatively new” and concluded that this work “was extremely helpful and a good start to uncover the cause of such severe adverse impact reported at this site.”
The consensus report, signed by all members of the team, introduces a new hypothesis, based on a US Navy study that found that vibrations can trigger nausea in pilots when in the frequency range of up to 0.5-0.9 Hz, with the peak “nauseogenicity” occurring at 0.2 Hz. Of particular concern is that as turbine blades get longer, the BPF is being reduced; only the recent generation of turbines has dropped below 1Hz (thus perhaps helping to explain the recent surge of health complaints among a subset of turbine neighbors), and planned larger blades will drop close to that 0.2Hz range of maximum inducement of nausea. While stressing that this is, as yet, a very preliminary supposition, especially since it involves a study based on physically vibrating the body, while turbine infrasound is a vibration of the air around a body, the authors still agreed that:
The four investigating firms are of the opinion that enough evidence and hypotheses have been given herein to classify LFN and infrasound as a serious issue, possibly affecting the future of the industry. It should be addressed beyond the present practice of showing that wind turbine levels are magnitudes below the threshold of hearing at low frequencies.
In particular, the research team agreed that a further literature search for studies related to vibration-induced nausea should take place (Paul Schomer is working on this), and that a “threshold of perception” test should be conducted, to see what proportion of residents are able to perceive the faint signals in either audible or infrasonic ranges. Only one of the five acousticians, Rand, could detect sound at all residences; he also reported headache and/or nausea (it is also noted that he is the only one among the five researchers who suffers from motion sickness).
As often happens, the reaction to this study ranged from “this changes everything” to “this is nothing new,” with some saying it proves negative effects and others that it proves wind energy is safe. For a run-down of the reactions, a brief look at each of the four appendices, and links to download the study, click on through…