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Noise issues scuttle wind farm plans in WI, MA

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The Wisconsin Public Service Commission rejected the only large wind project currently in development in the state, citing noise concerns for homeowners in the vicinity.  The Highland Wind project sound models suggested that turbine sound would not meet the 45dB night time noise standard at about 20 homes. Some of the acousticians who submitted testimony in the Highland hearings suggested that limits of 40dB or less would be more appropriate; doubtless many more homes would be living with sound between that level and the current 45dB standard.  The recent collaborative sound study in Brown County was funded by the PSC in order to help understand the experience there before deciding on Highland’s application.  The developer of Highland, Emerging Energies, is likely to resubmit the application with adjustments to the turbine layout to keep all homes under 45dB.

UPDATE, 5/3/13:  The PSC has agreed to consider a revised plan from Emerging Energies, which may include night-time curtailments of turbines near the closest homes—apparently not routinely, but just when atmospheric conditions especially enhance sound propagation. 

Meanwhile, in the town of Heath, Massachusetts, the Planning Board and Renewable Energy Committee (REAC) has recommended that citizens approve a ban on industrial wind at the Town Meeting later this month.  Again, noise was a primary factor, thanks to the very quiet level of ambient sound in the deeply rural area; the REAC recommended a 2-mile buffer to maintain current ambient sound levels and preclude against any possible property value losses.  

The decision in Heath came on the same week that residents of nearby Monroe and Florida began speaking publicly about their experiences with the new noise from the Hoosac Wind project, which began operations in December.  Michael Fairneny says that at his house 3000 feet away, “My quiet, peaceful, serene world and home has been turned into a reeling of unending noise, annoyance and constant dealing with those in charge to help us.”  Six residents met the press to discuss their experiences, and say that at least 20 are struggling with noise issues. (A rough scan of a Google Earth image of the area, and referring to a map in the the 2003 permit application, suggest that around 150 homes are within about a mile of the turbines, with perhaps 80 within 3000 feet.)

Falmouth turbine options group: no consensus, but impacts are recognized

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Falmouth turbines aerial WEBEven before meetings began, facilitators of the multi-stakeholder group convened in Falmouth  to address widespread neighborhood complaints about noise from two town-owned turbines realized that the original goal of having group develop a consensus recommendation was too high a bar to aim for.  So, the process was dubbed the “Wind Turbines Options Analysis Process,” with a hope of being able to present two or three options to the Selectmen for consideration before this spring’s Town Meeting.

As it turns out, even that goal was elusive; in the end, the WTOP report summarizes four options, which generally reflect the initial stances of various stakeholder groups: take them down (the unwavering stance of the affected neighbors), run them at full power (the preference of the climate action groups in town and of those representing the town’s budgetary interests), or settle for one of two options involving shutting them down for all or part of the night (which satisfies neither the neighbors nor the climate or fiscal constituents).  In all three of the options that will cost the town money (removing turbines and replacing a third to half of their capacity with solar panels, running them full-time and compensating neighbors, and shutting them down for 12 hours each night), the WTOP recommended that the town seek funding from the state to support the initiatives.

UPDATE, 1/30/13: The Falmouth Board of Selectmen voted tonight to recommend that the two town-owned turbines be dismantled, and for the town to ask the state for funding to help cover the town’s debt for the turbines, and for the MassCEC to forgive the town for Renewable Energy Credits  previously purchased as part of the project financing.  The Selectmen will prepare a warrant article for the April Town Meeting, likely to be followed by a town-wide vote in May.

A few things stood out for me as I read through the 55-page report and some of the supporting materials (available at this link).

First and most striking, even among those advocating operating the turbines at full capacity it appears that the reality of the impacts on neighbors is generally acknowledged.  The report stresses that:

Although most of the discussion of acoustic measurement centered around whether, where, and how often the turbines exceeded DEP guidelines, most members of the WTOP acknowledged that operation within these guidelines would still not result in acceptance of the turbines by affected neighbors, since neighbors stated that compliance with the guidelines did not alleviate the health concerns they experienced.

In keeping with this understanding, the section of the report fleshing out the option of running the turbines at full capacity includes several measures meant to provide compensation for nearby neighbors; while brief, these options include purchasing (and reselling) homes, providing financial compensation that neighbors could use as they see fit (sound insulation or masking equipment, pay utility bills, etc.), and the possibility of the town offering a Property Value Guarantee.

A unique feature of the WTOP group was that it included two members whose charge, unlike all the other stakeholders, was to hold “multiple perspectives;” in essence, their task as individuals was to synthesize all the information, much as the group as a whole would ideally do.  With the group unable to find a synthesis of its own, the conclusions of these members are especially valuable.  

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Cooperative Wisconsin turbine noise study breaks new ground

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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… 

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Massachusetts grapples with diverse responses to wind turbines

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Eastern Massachusetts continues to be a hotbed of both small-scale wind development and ongoing complaints in several towns.  Sixteen communities in the area now host one to four wind turbines (not all of which are full-sized industrial turbines); in five of these towns, complaints have been relatively numerous (a dozen to several dozen individuals).  Some of the turbines are owned by towns, generally to power a portion of town-owned facilities, and some are owned by businesses, for their own power, or by private wind developers.  

The Boston Globe published a series of articles this week that offer a good picture of the range of responses and opinions at this point in time:

  • The main article features the full spectrum of views, including comments from neighbors, town officials, green energy advocates, a lawyer, a sound consultant, and a dispute resolution specialist (a slightly different version, abridged but with a couple different neighbor quotes, is also available)
  • Another article covers a recent lawsuit by a couple in Scituate who live just 640 feet from a turbine there
  • And a third article features the generally positive attitudes toward three turbines in Gloucester

RELATED: Falmouth’s First Abandoned Turbine House, a letter to the editor from a former neighbor of one of the Falmouth turbines, who’s cashed out her retirement savings and moved to another town

33dB town noise limits spur request for state approval of NH wind project

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Timbertop Wind has asked the New Hampshire state Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) to assume jurisdiction over a proposed 5-turbine wind farm that straddles the town line between Temple and New Ipswich.  The SEC always has jurisdiction over projects of 30MW or more; the Timbertop project is only 15MW, so the SEC will decide later this winter whether to get involved.

The request came in part due to some differences between the Temple and New Ipswich siting regulations, though the primary concern noted by by Adam Cohen of Timbertop is the noise limits imposed by 2012 ordinances passed in both towns, which set a maximum noise level of 33dB on non-participating neighbors’ property.  “While the ordinance originally adopted in New Ipswich in 2010 was reasonable, the ordinances as adopted in New Ipswich and Temple in 2012 impose substantive requirements inconsistent with SEC precedent and state law,” Timbertop’s recent application to the SEC states.

In some other rural towns, noise complaints become more common as sound levels top 35dB, with sound levels of 40-45dB creating significant community annoyance.  The 33dB limit appears to be an attempt to greatly minimize the chance of serious noise issues for any neighbors, though turbines may still be slightly audible on some nights; see this recent post on noise studies in Woodstock, Maine, with noise levels at about what would be allowed under this ordinance.  

New Ipswich Planning Board Vice-Chair Liz Freeman said hat the board felt that it was the right level for a rural town like New Ipswich. “The Planning Board did not think it would be prohibitive and we did not think it was unreasonable,” she said. “It was based on recommendations from consultants with many years of experience on community noise issues.”  The wind ordinances were adopted with large majorities in both towns; Ed Decker, a New Ipswich Planning Board member, stresses that “The will of the people of New Ipswich was made clear by their votes, and it’s inappropriate for the state to override the people of New Ipswich.” 

See this detailed article in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript for more.

Noise study shows Maine wind farm easily in compliance

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About a year ago, ten wind turbines began operation on Spruce Mountain in Woodstock, Maine, and as residents began arriving at summer camps at two ponds between three quarters of a mile and a mile and a half away, they found the turbine noise louder than they had been prepared for, as recounted in a July AEInews post.

Patriot Renewables brought in a sound consultant, who monitored noise levels at a home on Concord Pond, 1.6 miles from the closest turbines, for three weeks during August and September; the results were analyzed both by the consultant and the Maine DEP.  During this period, noise levels only topped the state noise criteria of 55dBA during the day and 45dBA at night when there were nearby sounds other than the turbines.  Turbine noise is reported to have varied between 23-32dB.

Neighbors were asked to report periods in which noise was bothersome, in order to identify any particular wind conditions that may be responsible.  Many (but not all) notifications from neighbors came when the wind was from the northwest at night; a hill to the north of the complaint locations may have shielded the area from wind, making the turbines more audible.

The state DEP consultant noted that turbines were most audible “late at night and in the early morning hours, when background sound levels can be well below 30 dBA. The residents who have filed complaints are evidently characterizing any audible turbine sound from Spruce Mountain Wind during those times as ‘high’ because at those times it is the most noticeable sound.”  

An Oxford Hills Sun Journal article includes more detail on the study, and affirms that some residents have said that it’s been difficult to go from the usual quiet or background noise of singing birds to the repetitive sound of turning blades.  This may well be a case in which noise levels are modest, but still more noticeable than residents had imagined they’d be.  Some pond residents had earlier noted that they were clearly audible on some days, and when at its worst, the noise drove them inside. The town has been considering a new wind ordinance for any future wind farms, in response to the complaints.  The Norway Advertiser-Democrat reported that Bob Elliot, Chair of the committee drafting the new ordinance, stated his group’s website had received “around 30 noise complaints,” but could not tell how many were from the Concord Pond community.  Nearby Shagg Pond is a bit closer to more turbines than is Concord Pond.

Australian Senate Committee rejects bill defining excessive wind farm noise

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An Australian Senate Committee has recommended against passage of a proposed bill that would define excessive noise for wind farms as 10dBA above ambient, and suspend operations of wind farms failing to meet that standard.  In extensive submitted statements and published testimony, the Committee heard from a wide range of witnesses from Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada, including many names familiar to those following the wind farm noise issue.

The final report is also rather extensive; among the key reasons for recommending against passage was the perception that in Australia’s key wind farm areas, current regulations should be sufficient; in rural areas of New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia, noise limits are already 35dBA in quiet conditions.  Yet noise complaints continue to be widespread, though wind proponents and opponents disagree on how many are bothered; the Committee noted that distrust has led many people with problems to not lodge formal complaints with wind companies or regulatory authorities.  The bad blood goes both ways: wind company representatives reported that their attempts to meet with a physician reporting problems have been repeatedly rebuffed, while acousticians studying responses in some problem areas have found it impossible to obtain turbine operations data that would allow them to investigate correlations between operations and their measurements. A provision in the bill to require noise, weather, wind, and power data from wind farms to be made available online was met with strong resistance from wind companies, who felt it was an onerous requirement, and suggested that power data on specific turbines and wind could be “reverse engineered” by competitors and undermine their future project planning; the Committee recommended that such data be made available to regulatory authorities, rather than publicly (though in recommending the bill be not passed, it’s uncertain how or whether the full Senate might take up this point).  Another factor mentioned in the final report is that proponents of the bill presented testimony that suggested to the committee that there was disagreement about whether the proposed 10dBA over ambient limit was the best choice; indeed, some suggested that 5dBA over ambient would be more sensible, and others suggested lower dB limits, especially at night.  

While the focus of the bill itself was audible noise, some of the testimony addressed health effects and infrasound questions; on this point, the committee seemed to be especially interested in a presumed “nocebo” effect, by which an expectation of harm can lead to some proportion of people experiencing harmful effects.  While widespread reports of health effects was a driving factor among Committee members pushing for this bill, the final report suggests that some of the letters submitted, describing a wide range of symptoms, did not suggest any simple cause and effect.  The Committee seemed especially concerned by dozens of letters from areas where wind farms are not yet operating expressing fears about health effects should wind farms be built near them. The final report quotes a study on nocebo and infrasound which will be published next year.  Nocebo has been suggested as an explanation for clusters of health complaints around some wind farms; while the concept has been around for many years in relation to other sources of community concerns, it’s unclear how deeply it has been investigated.  Several witnesses pointed out that any such effect, even if it may apply to some individuals, should not be considered a primary factor when there are viable pathways by which audible sound can cause the observed responses, in particular in relation to sleep disruption by audible noise.  At the end of the Committee’s report, five Senators point out that the ongoing literature review being undertaken by the National Health and Medical Research Council does not fulfill the call by an 2011 Senate report, The Social and Economic Impact of Rural Wind Farms, for the Australian government to fund new epidemiological studies on wind farms and human health. 

Also of note is this excerpt:

The committee wishes to emphasise that it does not doubt that the symptoms are real. It also does not doubt that some people may be affected by audible noise. It is concerned, as Dr Tait from Doctors for the Environment Australia expressed, that the discussion about a purported wind turbine syndrome is hampering progress on the issue:
“Part of the problem, I think, of going around and promoting a wind turbine syndrome and going into communities and getting people scared about wind turbines is that it has muddied the water and it is distracting us from actually dealing with those small groups of people who have got a legitimate problem and do need us to be having some sort of debate about how we as a society work to help them with the issues that they are experiencing.”

The Committee’s records contain a wealth of documentation and perspectives well worth perusing.  The first link above takes you to the Committee’s page on the bill, where you can access a list (with PDF links) of all documents submitted to the committee by witnesses and the general public, as well as a transcript of the Committee’s hearings and testimony made there.

AEI’s 3rd annual wind farm noise report now available

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At long last, I’ve completed this year’s overview of science and policy developments on wind farm noise issues.  It features over 50 pages of new material, along with about the same in Appendices consisting of three research summaries I wrote earlier in the year.  You can download a pdf version of Wind Farm Noise 2012 here

AEI’s three Wind Farm Noise annual reports go into depth on different topics, and they complement each other quite well, though each one clearly engages the issues with more detail and reflects a more nuanced appreciation of the topic than the ones that came before. You can access all three, and AEI’s other publications on the issue, on our Wind Farm Noise Resources page.

But today, this is the one you should take a look at! AEI Wind Farm Noise 2012: Science and policy overview

The crux of the matter: is rural peace and quiet a “right”?

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I just came across a comment that seems to me to cut right to the heart of the question of rural communities where wind farm noise is an issue. This particular comment is another of several made public after the controversial disbanding of a wind farm noise technical work group that appeared poised to recommend tougher siting standards; see this earlier AEI post for that story.  But it hardly matters who made the comment below, or in what particular context, because it really distills the fundamental point of contention:

“We know that a significant number of persons are annoyed by wind farms. . . . I understand that many people live or move to rural areas for the country views and quiet. But individuals do not have rights to quiet or nice views.”

(For the record, the comment is in a letter from a former manager of the state renewable energy program, to an incoming manger.)

The argument is often made that turbine noise is far less intrusive than what city dwellers live with all the time, or that wind farms are not as loud as tractors, trucks, snowmobiles, or other mainstays of rural life.  These both skirt the central question, which is whether people, or communities, in rural areas can be justified in their complaints about noise, or in adopting ordinances that require significantly lower noise levels than the industry is used to (or perhaps even lower noise limits for turbines than what is accepted in noise from the everyday activities of rural life).

Many of the towns and counties that have recently established larger setbacks or lower sound limits are attempting to protect their residents’ rights to the rural quality of life and sense of place that they live there to enjoy.  The most extreme of these have setbacks large enough (2 miles) or noise limits quiet enough (as low as 25dB at night) to effectively offer absolute protection to existing peace and quiet; in so doing, they may also be effectively banning industrial wind development (though allowing for easements to build closer to willing neighbors may offer a way forward in towns where there aren’t large enough areas of open space to accommodate such standards).  

This is something that is likely to be played out in court, as wind developers, and at times residents wishing to lease their land to developers, have claimed that these strict rules represent illegal “takings.”  This week, the town of Peru, Maine, became the latest to adopt a strict wind ordinance, and the threat of such a legal challenge was a major point of contention as the planning board and Board of Selectmen discussed the proposal.  (The ordinance passed 585-30.  It calls for a 1.5 mile setback to property lines, noise limits of 35dBA during the day and 25dBA at night, and permanent sound monitoring after construction to assure compliance.) 

Kingston Board of Health faces packed house on wind farm noise

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Kingston, MA, is the fourth town in the area to experience widespread public complaints about noise from small wind farms.  As in Falmouth, Fairhaven, and Scituate, town officials have begun holding hearings to hear from affected residents.  On Monday, the Kingston Board of Health voted to consult with the town’s attorney, to explore what options may be available to them.  There are two privately-owned wind facilities in town; the discussion this week centered on a single turbine owned by Independence Wind, while previous controversy has swirled around three turbines on land owned by Mary O’Donnell.  See the Boston Globe article for full details on the meeting; here are some highlights:

Kially Ruiz, co-owner of the Independence turbine, which began operating in May, said that he would not change the turbine’s operations unless there is proof it’s out of compliance with state noise limits; O’Donnell concurred, saying “Everyone in the room Monday knows all my turbines are well within the limits for noise.”  As a result of previous complaints, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is scheduled to hire a consultant to do sound measurements this winter, with results by spring.  This may well turn out to be another project in which turbines operating within legal sound limits still cause noise problems.  Such experiences have spurred some community groups and acousticians to recommend lower noise limits in areas close to many homes.

Ruiz insisted that his turbine is basically inaudible in surrounding neighborhoods, which have a highway, train station, and wastewater treatment plant in the area. “I think the neighbors are hearing a lot of things.  It’s just not the turbine.”  But Board of Health member Daniel Sapir begged to differ: “I went to the Reillys’ home at midnight, and I heard the whoosh,” he said. “You may say it’s not physically possible, but it’s happening. It’s real.”

Neighbor Doreen Reilly spoke of sleepless nights when that whoosh permeates the house, and said their lives “have been turned upside down. This has caused more anxiety than I have ever experienced. Our peace has been stolen from us. . . . We want our lives back.”

As the sun moves north along the horizon, shadow flicker has become an issue for her and others; they asked the health board to order the turbines to be shut down at night and for the hour or so a day when flicker occurs at nearby homes.  Of the flicker, she said “It causes headaches….It’s in every room of my house, and it makes you want to flee your home.”  

It’s not just sleep and peace that affected. Sapir, the Board member, experienced a dire impact that cannot be so easily brushed aside: late-afternoon flicker ruining a Patriots game: “It was so annoying I couldn’t enjoy the game,” he said. “The poor dog was cowering in the bathroom.”

New paper quantifies sleep, mental health effects near wind farms

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AEI lay summary:
Nissenbaum, Aramini, Hanning. Effects of industrial wind turbine noise on sleep and health.  Noise & Health, September-October 2012, Volume 14:60, 237-43  Online access

A paper recently published in the journal Noise & Health is getting a fair amount of notice in the media; this article from The Telegraph is perhaps the most detailed coverage, noting that “the findings provide the clearest evidence yet to support long-standing complaints from people living near turbines that the sound from their rotating blades disrupts sleep patterns and causes stress-related conditions.”  This article from Ontario includes comments from co-author Jeffery Aramini and Canadian government and wind industry spokespeople.

SEE UPDATE AT BOTTOM OF POST re: Critique of this study contracted by AWEA/CanWEA and released on November 14. 

The recent paper is the formal published version of research previously presented at a 2011 conference, and summarized by AEI earlier this year.  The study employed three widely-used health questionnaires – Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) to assess sleep quality, Epworth Sleepiness Score (ESS) to assess daytime alertness, and the SF36 for general mental and physical health – to compare sleep and health among 38 people living within 4600 feet of two wind farms in Maine to that of 41 people living in the same areas, but 2-4 miles from turbines. The authors conclude that “the levels of sleep disruption and the daytime consequences of increased sleepiness, together with the impairment of mental health, strongly suggest that the noise from industrial wind turbines results in similar health impacts as other causes of excessive environmental noise….Industrial wind turbine noise is more annoying than road, rail and aircraft noise, for the same sound pressure, presumably due to its impulsive character. This has led to an underestimation of the potential for adverse health effects of industrial wind turbines.”

The paper is being hailed as solid peer-reviewed proof of sleep and health effects of living near wind farms, though its findings appear less dramatic than the reporting.  It certainly does add some important, solid data that will be helpful in quantifying what have been largely anecdotal complaints and case reports.  A similarly rigorous survey in New Zealand, using a related WHO health-related quality of life questionnaire, was published in Noise & Health last year by Daniel Shepherd (also included in the AEI summary noted above).

While the new study found average sleep impairment and daytime sleepiness to be higher among those living closer to turbines, and the average “Mental Component Score” of the health assessment being lower among turbine neighbors, the data shows moderate trend lines, rather than dramatic differences.  Below is the data for the PSQI (lower scores reflect better sleep):

Nissenbaum PSQI WEB500

As you can see, there is a wide scatter of sleep quality – from the top to bottom of the scale – both among turbine neighbors and those living far from turbines.  This dramatic individual variability is, I’m sure, typical of the population in general, and so any trend line at all is a finding of note.  Still, there appears to be little indication that sleep quality is strikingly worse among neighbors, with the difference being apparent as a modest shift in the average.

The impact on sleep was most significant on those living closest (within 750 meters/2460 feet), where the average PSQI was 8.7, as compared to a PSQI of 5.6 among those living the farthest (over 5300m/3.3miles); there was a much smaller difference between the two middle groups (average PSQI of 7.0 at a 2500-4600 feet versus 6.6 at 2-3 miles). More striking perhaps is that 78% of the nearest neighbors, and 66% of the entire neighbor group, had a PSQI above 5, considered a threshold of concern, as compared to just 44% of those living over 2 miles from turbines (because of the wide scatter, the overall 66/44 difference was not statistically significant).  Even more notable may be that 12 (32%) of those within a mile had scores of 10 or more, as compared to only 6 (15%) of those over 2 miles.

Sleep disruption is widely considered a primary precursor for stress and other health effects, including headaches, emotional instability, difficulty concentrating, and possibly higher blood pressure. While this study did not find that those living closer to turbines have any notable difference in the Physical Component Scores (which includes pain, vitality, and physical function), they did find a reduction in the Mental Component Score, which assesses social functioning and emotional problems. As you can see below, while again the trend line shows a modest shift in the average scores, here the distribution of scores is quite dramatically shifted among those living closer:

Nissenbaum MCS WEB500

The overall average MCS was 42 among turbine neighbors, and 53 among those living at a distance; both lie well within the 35-60 range that is considered typical of most people.  Those with scores below 30 are at significantly increased risk of clinical depression and need of mental health care; as you can see, the likelihood of this is much higher among those living closer to turbines.  We might note as well, though, that there is a solid cluster of turbine neighbors with high MCS scores, which reminds us that negative effects are far from universal. Still, just half as many people closer to turbines score over 60, the point considered a threshold of extremely solid mental health; similarly, only 7 (18%) of neighbors score over 55, as compared to 20 (49%) of more distant residents.

This study is an important step forward in our assessment of sleep and health effects around wind turbines.  It’s a stretch to tout the results as “proof of health effects,” as some of the press coverage implies, as the results don’t show dramatic or inevitable effects on sleep, and in fact no difference in overall physical health. However, the study provides quantitative confirmation that living near turbines can have measurable effects, and lays the groundwork for follow up studies.   As the authors note in their conclusion, this kind of study needs to be replicated more widely to prove causation, and “further research is needed to determine at what distances risks become negligible, as well as to better estimate the proportion of the population suffering from adverse effects at a given distance.”  Here’s hoping that studies like this and Shepherd’s will indeed spur continued research that moves our body of knowledge forward.

And one more finding of note: Among people living 2400-4600 feet (.45-.87 miles)from turbines, 35% said their sleep is worse at home than it is when they go away from the turbines.  But twice as many, 70%, said they wish they could move away from the area (78% of those living closer than 2400 feet would also like to leave their homes).  This is yet another reminder (as confirmed by the Shepherd study) that severe impacts on quality of life and sense of place are often much more common than are health effects.  (In addition to the intrusion on rural sense of home and place for many, impairment of rural quality of life could well trigger to the stress that may underlie some of the health effects.)  While it’s important to keep digging to clarify the extent and mechanisms of sleep and health effects, we shouldn’t lose sight of the larger, and in some ways more fundamental, questions about rural quality of life.

UPDATE, 11/16/12: Well, that didn’t take long. AWEA and CanWEA (the US and Canadian wind industry trade associations) commissioned an Ontario environmental sciences firm to  review the Nissenbaum et al study; the authors critique the methods and findings as reported.  You can see the critique here, or download a version with my comments (some of which agree with the critique, and some of which question whether technical issues really reflect shortcomings in practice). After years of stressing that there’s no data to suggest a relationship between wind farms and sleep or health effects, it seems important to the industry to shoot down the under-funded research that’s taking place where community response has been notable.  While it’s certainly valid to point out shortcomings in any research that’s out there, the same degree of diligence is rarely applied toward pointing out the limitations in the studies being cited as indications that health effects are no great concern.  This rapid critique is an example of the current internet-driven trend toward waging science by press release (again, not without some justification, since this study is being widely touted as “proof” by anti-wind activists). More useful would be the funding of solid epidemiological studies of health and sleep around operating wind farms, including some where complaints are common and some where complaints are rare.

32 neighbors file noise complaint at new VT wind farm

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The formal noise complaints have begun at Lowell Mountain, Vermont, even before the project is fully online.  Thirty-two neighbors filed a complaint with the state Public Service Department after two days of troublesome noise this week from ten of the eventual 21 turbines.  Low clouds may have contributed to the noise levels, which woke several people in the early morning hours of November 3, and continued through that day and the next.

UPDATE, 12/3/12: Green Mountain Power reports that the excessive noise on the weekend of November 3-4 was caused by a build up of wet snow on the blades. GMP spokesman Robert Dostis says that if neighbors had called them about the noise, the turbines would have been shut down immediately.

About half of the people who signed the letter live within a mile and a quarter of the turbines (6 within a mile, 9 more within a mile and a quarter), with most of the rest between two and three and a half miles away (7 heard it from over 3 miles).  Many noted that the noise was clearly audible inside their homes. 

VT Lowell half mile ringThe Lowell Mountain project has been contentious from the start, with mountain preservation activists blocking construction at times.  During construction, blast debris from the site crossed property lines of some neighbors, leading to a legal back-and-forth in which land owners were temporarily prevented from being on those parts of their property (where some individuals set up tents in an effort to block the blasting).  Kingdom Community Wind, the developer, was pleased that no one lived within a half mile, and few within a mile (see map above; blue ring is half-mile), and confidently quoted a DOE estimate that at just over 1000 feet, the turbines would be no louder than “a quiet bedroom.”  And though the project is popular among many in the region, it appears that we are about to be hearing from another community where turbine noise causes more widespread push-back from those living nearby than the reassuring assumptions would suggest.

UPDATE, 11/15/12: A local radio station adds this response from Green Mountain Power’s Dottie Schnure, who said the noises were an anomaly. “There are some very specific conditions if they happen at once– based on wind speed, weather conditions, moisture in the atmosphere– that can create noise. So, when that happens we are able to modify our operations so we do not create a noise issue.”  Schnure says residents are encouraged to call up and report excessive noise, something that wasn’t done immediately in this case.

UPDATE, 11/9/12: See this good piece on a Vermont independent media website; the reporter visited with project owners and opponents the day after the above letter was circulated by the Nelsons.

UPDATE, 11/8/12: A local paper, the (Barton) Chronicle, has published an article detailing some of the comments of those hearing the turbines last weekend; the article is not yet on the paper’s (limited) website, but may appear at this link soon. It’s archived on the National Wind Watch site here.  Three people living two to three miles away thought is sounded like a distant jet, while another thought it was wind from an approaching storm. “I had to agree with my wife, finally, that it was not just the wind over the mountains,” said David Lawrence, over three miles away, “If that is their sound it’s totally unacceptable.”  Don and Shirley Nelson, among the closest neighbors at just under a mile, have long opposed the project; still, they were shocked at the severity of the noise. “I knew it was going to be bad,” Mr. Nelson said Monday. “1 had no idea it would be this bad.”

“It was just like being tied to a chair with a train going by,” Ms. Nelson said. “And that train took all weekend to go by.” Inside her home, Ms. Nelson added, “it sounded like a terrible chimney fire.”

A man working in his sugar bush between one and two miles from the turbines, called it “the goddamnest roar you ever heard in your life.”  He and his son were unable to hear each other, even yelling, when about a hundred feet apart in the woods.

Geoffrey Commons of the state Public Service Department said this week, “We will gladly take complaints, and we are keeping a record.  Noise monitoring will be done according to a plan … that will not start until all the turbines are in operation” Mr. Commons said.

When it issued the project a certificate of Service Board set “a strict, objective standard” for maximum turbine noise. It limits sound to 45 decibels outside a neighbor’s home, and 30 decibels inside their bedrooms. “If they’re not meeting that,” Mr. Commons said of GMP, “the board has been very clear that they’ll have to make changes in order to meet it.”

AEI Commentary: on negligence and the evolution of standards

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This week, sixty people living within a mile of the Hardscrabble Wind Farm in upstate New York filed suit against the manufacturers of the turbines, owners of the project, and consultants who prepared environmental assessments. Since the new lawsuit is apparently aiming to collect damages from the wind farm owners, rather than challenging the project’s operating permits, it takes a line of attack that’s hard for me to get behind, because of its need to show negligence.

As I prepared my post on the lawsuit, I found myself reflecting on the larger context within which today’s wind farm noise controversies are taking place.  What follows is an AEI Commentary that grapples with the difficult and contentious process we are in the midst of, and AEI’s place within that process.

I can appreciate why the Hardscrabble neighbors chose to target company finances rather than local zoning authorities; when permits have been granted based on a clear public process, there is generally very little legal recourse. And, when one’s life is upended, it makes sense to want those behind the upheaval to take responsibility. I’ve certainly heard wind farm neighbors elsewhere, after finding that procedural challenges led to no meaningful change, wondering whether looking for monetary compensation would be a better way to get companies to realize that their siting practices are not as benign as they seem to think. Still, it’s hard for me (distant from the impacts and biased toward working together) to accept that rather than simply claiming that the project has been more impactful than the planning documents presumed, the suit seeks to lay blame by claiming that “all of the defendants acted willfully, recklessly, were grossly negligent, and/or acted with a conscious disregard…”

In particular, I’m troubled that the noise consultant who did the sound modeling is a named defendant (not only the company, but the staff acoustician as well). 

Read the rest of this entry »

60 neighbors sue NY wind farm operators for negligence, nuisance, liability

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Sixty people who live within a mile of the Hardscrabble Wind Farm in Herkimer County, NY, have sued the operators of a 37-turbine wind farm that began operating in early 2011.  Initial press reports suggest that the suit does not aim to shut the wind farm down, but to receive damages payments based on a litany of specific impacts, ranging from noise-induced headaches and sleep disruption to reduced productivity of livestock.  

The complaint as filed is available here, which details the specific impacts claimed by each plaintiff; many include loss of enjoyment of outside activities on their land, and inability to open windows due to noise; some include loss of income due to noise (including as a voice teacher), and some note behavior changes in domestic and wild animals (one notes that bear, deer, turkeys, and grouse no longer frequent his land).  No specific damage amount is requested.

It’s likely that any attempt to shut the wind farm down would be difficult if not impossible, since the project is operating under validly obtained permits.  In recent months, Iberdrola, which manufactured the turbines in the Hardscrabble project, has been experimenting with a new Noise Reduction System after noise monitoring indicated that the turbines occasionally broke the 50dB town noise limit.

Hardscrabble with farm copyI don’t like to say “I told you so,” but this AEInews post from autumn 2011, published after the first public complaints about noise at Hardscrabble, is well worth re-reading, as it includes a lot of detail about the sound levels projected in the project’s planning documents.  As I noted there, this is just the sort of project that has become more problematic in recent years, “aiming to thread a very difficult needle, as they site turbines amongst hundreds of home sites, using noise standards that are pushing the edges of what is tolerable to residents who value the local peace and quiet.”  While local noise standards allow turbines to be up to 50dB at homes, what stood out here was the noise contour maps, which showed over a hundred homes in the 40-45dB zone, and quite a few more in the 45-50dB zone (about half of these close homes were host families).  As it turns out, it seems that here, as elsewhere, a significant proportion of those hearing the turbines at around 40dB are indeed being bothered by the noise.  This is becoming a recurring theme at wind farms in the northeast (including Ontario) and the upper midwest, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.  The root of the problem is that noise levels long widely accepted as tolerable for other sources of community noise are triggering complaints in a significant minority of residents near wind farms.  As wind farms move from wide-open spaces of the west and into closer proximity with large numbers of rural homeowners, noise issues are on the rise (though still not occurring at many wind farms, and likewise, not bothering everyone even where problems arise).

As longtime, very mainstream, acoustical consultant David Hessler recently noted, in a Best Practices document compiled for the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, “the threshold between what it is normally regarded as acceptable noise from a project and what is unacceptable to some is a project sound level that falls in a gray area ranging from about 35 to 45 dBA (Ldn: full 24-hr average sound level).  Citing the classic Pedersen, et al studies, he notes “relatively high annoyance rates of around 20 to 25%” among residents living in areas with project sound of 40-45dB.  He thus currently recommends a mean (Ldn) sound level of 40dB at residences in most cases, or 45dB “as long as the number of homes within the 40 to 45 dBA range is relatively small.” (For more on this Hessler guidelines document, see AEI’s overview of low-frequency noise research, available here)  While Hessler’s approach may have helped at Hardscrabble, we don’t have solid information on what the full day-long average sound levels have been there.  Neither the noise modeling beforehand or press reports of the post-construction monitoring include the averaging time used; with the monitoring finding the project generally under 50dB, it’s possible that daylong averages, including times when the wind isn’t blowing, were below 45db, or possibly even 40dB.  In any case, those recommendations were published nearly a year after Hardscrabble began operating, and two years after the final acoustical assessments were completed.

Since the new lawsuit is apparently aiming to collect damages from the wind farm owners, rather than challenging the project’s operating permits, it takes a line of attack that’s hard for me to get behind, because of its need to show negligence. Instead of distracting this post with thoughts on this, I’ve just posted an extended commentary in which I address this question of negligence within the context of the fundamental and widespread reassessment of the noise impacts of wind farms that is underway within the industry, the acoustical engineering community, and the public.  


Tehachapi area braces for wind energy expansion

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Kern County, CA, surrounding Bakersfield and straddling the mountains and the Mojave desert, is home to one of the more iconic wind farms of the first round of the US wind industry.  Just east of Tehachapi, over 5000 turbines were built during the 1980s and ’90s.


Now, faced with a slew of new wind projects, the Kern County Planning Department is working double-time to find a way to manage the future build-out of wind (and solar) development in the region.  This week, county planners began hosting meetings at which the latest planning maps are being presented for public comment.  Fourteen new wind farms have already gained approval for construction within the proposed Wind Inclusion Areas, with three others awaiting permits.  

Teh new plansOn the map to the left, yellow represents the existing development pictured above, and the other colors each represent a new development. For those living within this roughly 11 x 17 mile Wind Inclusion Area, the prospect is daunting.  April Biglay, a local activist who’s been encouraging the county to proceed with caution, attended the first meeting, and said, “I think it’s bittersweet. I think the county is making a huge effort to get under control the production of wind energy. At least the studies are in. At least they are looking at these areas, I mean it’s better than nothing.” 

Some landowners who live outside the designated wind zones are frustrated that the county may, in effect, preclude future wind development outside of areas where it’s already well-established.  Phil Wyman, one such landowner, says, “The only difference between us and the people who got permitted is that they did it yesterday and we want to do it today or tomorrow.”


Looking at the big picture, the Wind Inclusion Zones (the lighter areas on the map to the right) represent a small portion of the sprawling county, though arguably a substantial portion of the transition zone between the mountains and desert.  A much larger “Proposed Kern County Wind Resource Area” was released in draft form at similar meetings late last year; the new maps retain the southern portion of that Resource Area, but greatly reduce the northern extent of wind development.

Kern County is in an especially intense version of the local decisions being faced by communities in many parts of the country.  Local opposition to wind expansion is based on many factors, including dominating the landscape and concerns about wildlife, especially raptors.  For those living in the Inclusion Area, noise is a significant concern; neighbors of current wind projects in the area say that turbines are commonly audible to a mile or more, and under the new proposals, many more people in what has been a quiet, remote landscape will be living within earshot.  

At the same time, military exclusion zones, fire hazard areas, existing parks and national monuments, and other factors combine to limit wind and solar development to a small portion of the area in which they might otherwise make economic or energy-production sense (ie areas of reliably high winds or bright sun).  There are no easy answers to questions about how best to balance energy production against local impacts; Kern County offers an especially vivid sense of the tensions involved, with its creation of virtual sacrifice zones that, while not huge in the grand scheme, are large enough to impact many residents.

For more info:
Kern County powerpoint presentation (pdf version)
Inclusion/Exclusion zone detail map
Full county map 
Two local environmental groups fighting wind expansion 
A local economic development group supporting renewable energy projects

Turbine sound studies coming soon in two Massachusetts towns

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Two small wind farm projects in southeastern Massachusetts that have stirred neighbor complaints about noise over the past several months will be tested for compliance with state noise limits.  Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) rules require that noise sources increase existing noise levels by no more than 10dB.  This summer, one of the turbines in nearby Falmouth was found to sometimes exceed that difference at night, and was temporarily shut down except for some daytime sound testing periods. Both Falmouth turbines remain off at night, and are now operating during the day.

In Kingston, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (CEC) will oversee the sounds tests, and in Fairhaven, where over a hundred residents have filed health complaints, the Massachusetts DEP has begun to conduct the tests, as they did in Falmouth. Laurel Carlson of the MassDEP has said she does not expect to find a noise violation in Fairhaven, where existing background sounds should be higher.  “In the middle of the night it was 29 decibels (in Falmouth) — we call that national park quiet,” she said. “We’re not expecting to find that level of quiet in Fairhaven or any other community.”

UPDATE, 8/10/12:  Good piece in the Boston Globe today recapping the latest noise monitoring developments.

Follow the Falmouth Wind Turbines Options Analysis process

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The town of Falmouth, Massachusetts has been the site of some unusually wide-ranging efforts to come to grips with the unexpected impacts on nearby neighbors after two town-owned turbines began operating at the local wastewater treatment plant.  Several dozen neighbors, most living within a half mile or so, have spoken out consistently about their experiences with turbine noise, leading to an evenly split town meeting last spring in which about half the town meeting voters asked that the turbines be shut down, and half urged the selectmen to pursue a collaborative process to come up with a solution to the problems.

In response, a committee was formed to come up with a set of options to offer to the selectmen, hopefully in time for the fall town meeting, though it may take longer.  The process is being facilitated by the Consensus-Building Institute, which has created a website where you can track the progress of the committee. Here you can find generalized meeting minutes (usually available within three weeks after each meeting; look for items called “Final Meeting Summary” under each date), presentations made at meetings, and some outside documents, including the full collection of testimony from over forty residents submitted to the Falmouth Board of Health when it held a hearing on the issue.   In addition, local public access TV is making videos of all meetings available; links to these videos appear on the CBI page as well. 

As laid out by the group as it began its process, the core interests at stake include the following, with the understanding that any broadly acceptable long-term plan for the turbines will need to respond to some extent to all of these core interests:

  • Health, safety and well-being of impacted abutters
  • Property rights and economic impacts on property for abutters
  • Implementation of Falmouth’s climate action protection plan goals to reduce use of fossil fuel
  • Fiscal impacts on the town’s taxpayers and town services
  • An amicable end to a conflict that has divided and challenged the town’s relationships and reputation

The participants have been selected to represent the following interests:

  • 5 residents primarily concerned with adverse impacts of the turbines on neighbors, including health and economic impacts
  • 2 residents primarily concerned with implementing Falmouth’s climate action protection plan to reduce use of fossil fuel
  • 2 taxpayers primarily concerned with the Town of Falmouth’s fiscal well-being
  • 2 residents with strong empathy for all perspectives. These representatives are primarily concerned with a fair and effective process that may lead to an amicable outcome and reunite the town
  • 3 Town Departments
  • 2 liaisons from the Board of Selectmen attend all meetings and are available to answer questions, but do not participate at the table

New Maine wind farm spurs a dozen complaints around lakes

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Ten wind turbines in Woodstock, Maine began operating last December, and now that summer camps are occupied on two local ponds, noise complaints are starting to roll in from up to a mile and a half away.  The turbines are more than three-quarters of a mile from any homes; a few homes (perhaps 10) are within a mile, and another dozen or so are within a mile and a half (see location map). So far, Woodstock’s wind ordinance committee has received more than a dozen letters of concern about unexpected noise impacts, a number that would seem to represent a significant proportion of residents within that area.  The Bethel Citizen recently published a very lengthy article detailing many of the neighbors’ experiences, as well as responses from the state Department of Environmental Protection and the wind farm owners.  Among the highlights:

ME spruce mountain wind farm from concord pond 1 5mi copyOne year-round resident notes that the noise is loudest when his home is downwind of the turbines, and adds, “What is most interesting to me is that they seem loudest on the calmer days.  That is, if the wind is barely existent, I can really hear them roaring.”

A woman with a camp on Shagg Pond said that on the Friday before July 4th holiday, “The noise was so horrific at my camp that I couldn’t stay outside,” she said, saying she had suffered headaches. “It sounded like an airplane that never left the top of my house.”

A permanent sound monitor installed 2000 feet from the Spruce Mountain Wind (SMW) property line between the last turbines and Shagg Pond had its wires chewed by mice, so has not been collecting data recently.  While SMW had earlier applied to the state DEP to discontinue routine monitoring, and instead respond only to specific complaints, that application was recently withdrawn.  Earlier monitoring data, as well as spot checks after two complaints (one in February and one in July) showed that the project was operating within its permit conditions of 55dB in the daytime and 45dB at night.  Ed. note: once again, we may be looking at an example of a high permitted level leading to intrusive noise conditions (well above other sounds) even when in compliance; in addition, if there are compounding factors that cause higher sound levels in conditions hard to identify or replicate (e.g., unusually high degree of inflow turbulence), a short spot check may not catch the same noise conditions, even if winds are from the same direction and speed.

The Woodstock committee charged with drafting a town ordinance to govern future wind farm construction had been considering a 1-mile setback as one possibility.  Given the recent complaints, committee chairman Bob Elliott said they may need to consider larger setbacks, lower noise limits, or both. In addition, they are considering a requirement that project developers fund an escrow account to allow the town to hire its own consultants as needed.

UK tax authorities affirm property value loss near some wind farms

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The UK Valuation Office Agency has begun setting some new precedents by approving property valuation reductions for some homes near wind farms. It appears that only a few properties have been downgraded so far, and it is unknown how many such requests have been submitted and denied.  As reported in The Telegraph:

In one recent case a couple saw the value of their home 650 yards from the Fullabrook wind farm near Braunton, Devon, fall from £400,000 to £300,000 according to a local agent’s estimate. The couple, who were not attempting to sell their house, told the VOA that the persistent whooshing noise caused by the turbines and the visual intrusion – including a flickering shadow when the sun is directly behind the blades – made their property less valuable. The VOA accepted their argument and agreed to move the property from council tax band F to band E, amounting to a saving of about £400 a year, the Sunday Times reported (subscription required).

The Sunday Times story goes on to note that the VOA has received other applications for property value reductions near wind farms, though the number is unclear because only those reaching appeal are made public.  At least three other properties have had reductions approved, though factors other than sound alone reportedly came into play.  At least one successful appeal, by Jane Davis, came after real estate agents refused to even list the property she had moved away from because of wind farm noise.  

Health Canada launches 2-yr, 2000-person study of wind farm health effects

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Health Canada, the country’s health department, is preparing to launch a study of health effects among residents near wind farms.  The study as currently planned will be based on interviews and physiological measurements of 2000 people living near wind farms of 8-12 turbines.  Each participant will fill out a self-reported health survey, and will be tested for stress hormones, blood pressure, and sleep patterns.  Study subjects will live from under 500 meters from turbines to over 5km.

The research design and methodology has just been made public, and is open for public comment until August 8.  Among the key methods outlined, with my initial thoughts in brackets:

  • Sleep patterns will be monitored using wrist-worn devices for seven consecutive nights. [Will this be long enough to capture sleep-disruption trends, if they exist?  It would be good to ask study participants who self-report sleep disruption whether the week chosen for testing was representative of their worst weeks, average weeks, or below-average weeks, in terms of sleep quality.  A pilot study will examine the usefulness of adding a sleep diary to the full study protocol; this should be encouraged as a way to assess sleep patterns over a longer period of time, ideally including seasonal differences.]
  • Sound levels will largely be modeled based on measured sound levels near the turbines, including sound into the infrasonic range; these models will be validated in the field at distances of up to 5km. [It would be good to know the full range of frequencies that will be modeled and measured.  In addition, medium- to long-term validation measurements in the field would be useful, in order to capture a better sense how often worst-case noise periods may occur; such events may be relatively rare or seasonal but be important elements in community response, especially stress responses.  Models to be utilized should be based on recent studies that have found lower frequency elements of wind turbine noise often attenuate at a lower rate than higher frequencies; this is especially important in considering any possible effects of audible low frequency sound at distances of a kilometer/half mile or more.)
  • Sampling out to 5km (3.1 miles) will allow researchers to generate a dose-response curve based on the sound levels of the turbines.  [5km is probably a decent distance to use for an effective control, in that turbines are nearly always inaudible at such a distance.  I would hope that the study design can assure that there are enough subjects at close range, especially within 1km (.6 miles) and 2km (1.25 mi). to be sure that any reported and measured health effects will be statistically significant.  While I appreciate the need to have statistical significance at all distances, “wasting” too many subjects at greater distances could make it more difficult to be sure of any effects found at the distances where they appear to be more common, and at which there is apt to be a greater range and complexity of responses.]
  • [While a dose-response relationship is a foundation of many health effects, there are many other factors that tend to make individuals more or less susceptible to whatever health stressor is being studied.  It would be helpful to include assessment of some of the factors that could be contributors to a health effect from wind farm noise, including noise sensitivity, pre-existing vestibular issues, and susceptibility to motion sickness, among others.]

Michigan PSC disbands wind farm noise work group that was poised to recommend 40dB limit

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This is somewhat old news, but a recent article brought it to my attention. The Michigan Public Service Commission’s Wind Working Group, an advisory committee, appointed a Wind and Health Technical Work Group in 2010 to look at siting standards; they were charged with making recommendations regarding physical safety and noise limits.  Dr. Jerry Punch, an audiologist and professor emeritus at Michigan State University, was chosen to chair the panel. Kenneth Rosenman a professor of epidemiology (occupational diseases) at MSU was co-chair.

Over the course of their first year of meeting and discussions, it became clear that Mark Clevey, a manager for Consumer Education and Renewable Energy programs with the State Energy Office, didn’t agree with the direction in which the panel seemed to be heading.  “He (Clevey) came to a few meetings and then stopped coming,” Punch said. “Later, we were contacted and told that they had reorganized and that the work group was no longer needed.”

Soon, Clevey was presenting the work of the Wind and Health group under his name; this March 2011 presentation is the final mention of the project in the records of the Wind Working Group, which has met three times since then. In that presentation, Cleavy stressed the role of community engagement to alleviate concerns, and posited that there is insufficient evidence to spur any changes in current noise standards, which stand at 55dB.

However, Punch, Rosenman, and one other member of the Technical Working Group released their own report, summarizing what had been the emerging recommendation of their group before it was disbanded.  The key recommended change in Michigan standards is that noise from wind turbines should be limited to 40db at night, as measured outside homes. It’s not entirely clear if they’re recommending a 40dB annual average, or a 40dB average over a number of 10-minute periods.  Their recommendations also include the option for wind developers to obtain waivers from homeowners, to allow sound levels higher than 40dB; but they recommend an absolute maximum of 55db, which is the current state noise limit for wind farms.

UPDATE, 7/22/12: A followup report from the same source as the above article details a bit more of the behind-the-scenes conversation among Michigan regulators.  This followup details an email sent by John Sarver, who had recently turned his State Energy Office job over to Clevey, written to Clevey and Julia Baldwin, who was moving to the Michigan PSC as Renewable Energy Section Manager.  Sarver advocated that the Technical Work Group be allowed to complete its process, but that they should be made aware that Clevey was not planning to make regulatory changes based on the report; he also encouraged them to delete their internal emails on the topic “because of the possibility of FOIA requests.” (And, indeed, it was a Freedom of Information Act request that revealed this email.)



Massachusetts towns address turbine noise issues

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A trio of towns in southeastern Massachusetts continue to address turbine noise issues in response to neighbor complaints about sleep disruption and health effects near small wind farms of three to four turbines each.  

In Falmouth, which was the first of the towns to have turbines begin operating close to homes, the affected neighbors have joined a committee charged with coming up with a set of options to present to the Selectmen, hopefully in time for the November town meeting.  

Across the bay in Fairhaven, where even more people live within a half mile or so of turbines that began operating this spring, the Board of Health has received over a hundred complaints, and asked the developer to submit a plan for how he might be able to reduce noise and flicker issues; the first response, received this week, was more focused on doubting the veracity of the complaints.  Sumul Shah, the developer, stressed that nearly two-thirds of the 132 complaints had come from either plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the town seeking to dismantle the turbines or others who had publicly voiced their opposition to the turbines before they were operational, suggesting that since some others seem to tolerate the noise, those complaining should be able to also.  Ed. note: Indeed, many nearby neighbors objected to the turbines as they were being permitted, based on the problems that had cropped up in nearby Falmouth.  The fact that some of these same people are now experiencing noise issues should not come as much of a surprise to anyone; about fifty of the complaints have come from people not involved in either effort to stop the turbines.

Board of Health member Barbara Acksen said she was appalled by Shah’s letter, saying “We were not at all pleased with the report. He should just be responding to the data and not casting aspersions on people who complain,” she said. “You can’t just say ‘Well, these people didn’t like the turbines before so their complaints don’t matter.'”  Shah says that he can’t consider mitigation options until it’s determined whether the turbines are out of compliance with state or local noise statutes; the state DEP will begin noise tests sometime in the coming month. it appears that this may become another in a series of projects in which a wind farm may operate largely or totally within its permitted noise criteria, while still causing widespread noise issues for neighbors.  This situations suggest that many noise standards may not be sufficient in communities used to peace and quiet, yet home to a moderate density of homes.

Meanwhile, in Kingston, residents continue to express dismay at turbines that began operating earlier this year.  Chris Dewitt said his heart aches at the impact these turbines have had on his family and his neighbors. He said he personally has been woken up early in the morning, around 3:30 a.m. one day and 4 a.m. the next, because of the noise of the turbines. “This is not sustainable,” he said. “Think about this decision in respect to the people.”

One of the more revealing comments I’ve seen lately about living near turbines was in a comment submitted to the paper that ran the Fairhaven story:

I live 2/3rds of a mile away from them. Not a day doesn’t go by I don’t hear them. Not 1. I say again 2/3rds of a mile away! How loud do they need to be for them to be heard at that distance – constantly? Most nights the noise isn’t loud enough to keep me awake. Sometimes it is. So it is my experience that the people who live much closer have a very very legitimate complaint. I can’t imagine living closer to them.

McCain, Reid succeed in quest to stop Grand Canyon overflight rules

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CanyonI guess the third time was the charm for John McCain in his relentless quest to undermine the National Park Service’s decades-long effort to slightly reduce aircraft overflight impacts in the Grand Canyon backcountry.  Since the NPS released its draft plan several months ago, McCain had crafted amendments to a couple of pieces of legislation in an effort to codify the status quo overflight rules; this week, it was inserted into the Transportation bill that was passed by the House and Senate and quickly signed by President Obama.  The Arizona and Nevada congressional delegations, including Harry Reid, had supported the effort to assure no changes to air tour operations (most air tours are based out of Las Vegas, allowing casino visitors a quick look at the canyon).

Despite the fact that the NPS draft would have allowed more annual tourist flights than have ever occurred, the air tour industry painted the plan as an economic death sentence.  The plan would have created some seasonal flight path restrictions, offering different areas of the park a bit more sonic space at different times of year, and, most substantially, would have kept air tours out of the sky for an hour after sunrise and an hour before sunset.  I have to wonder if the sunset restriction may have been the bitterest pill for the air tour operators to swallow, though it would have been a substantial boon for hikers and river rafters.  Given the relatively soft definition of quiet being attempted, to have a couple hours a day of soft light and no air traffic seemed to me to be the fairest solution.

The NPS plan would have aimed to let 70% of the park experience “substantial natural quiet,” which means no planes audible 75% of the time (i.e., planes can be audible one minute of four, or fifteen minutes per hour, hardly a pristine soundscape).  The McCain effort as passed will maintain the status quo of substantial natural quiet in half the park; the other half of the park has no limits on aircraft audibility.

See these links for earlier AEI coverage of the final NPS draft and subsequent legislative attempts to derail it.  Here’s initial news coverage of the final stealth success in derailing the process.

Two dozen families struggling with noise at Pinnacle Wind Farm

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The State Journal, a West Virginia business magazine, recently published a comprehensive article updating the situation at the Pinnacle Wind Farm in Keyser, WV, where more than two dozen families continue to struggle with noise from 23 turbines atop a steep ridge line (see earlier AEI coverage).  

At the beginning of June, the state PSC dismissed a complaint by neighbor Richard Braithwaite, which asked for turbines to be shut down at night, saying that because no sound conditions were placed on the site certificate issued by the PSC, it has no jurisdiction to consider such complaints.  Spot measurements taken at Braithwaite’s home measured 45dB, well below the 56dB state noise limit; Braithwaite has regularly measured higher sound levels both inside and out, and a PSC staffer who visited agreed that the noise was “very prominent” at times.  In dismissing the complaint, the PSC noted that while it would not step into the situation, the neighbors could seek recourse through a nuisance claim in civil court; the neighbors are considering such a step.

This week, Gary Braithwaite (Richard’s brother) filed a new complaint, asking for a full shut down of the project.  It’s unclear how this complaint may differ procedurally from the earlier one in ways that could change the PSC’s lack of jurisdiction.  Meanwhile, the article also updates the progress that Edison Mission Group, the wind farm developer, is making on their plans to install sound-reduction louvres on the turbines, which is expected to reduce routine sound levels by about 7db; it’s unclear whether this will reduce noise issues, since for many neighbors, it seems to be blade noise that is most problematic. UPDATE, 7/7/12: The PSC has dismissed Gary Braithwaite’s complaint, noting its similarities to his brother’s complaint.

For those following this and similar community noise response situations, the full article is well worth a read.

Court approves smaller Goodhue wind setbacks; hurdles remain

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The Minnesota Court of Appeals has issued an expedited ruling that affirms a 2011 Minnesota PUC decision to issue a permit for the Goodhue wind farm using smaller setbacks than the county requires.  While the county requires a 10-rotor diameter setback from non-participating neighbors (about 2700 feet, or just over a half mile), the PUC let the project move ahead with setbacks of about 1600 feet.  The Court ruled that the PUC can supersede county rules when it has “good cause.”  The court documents say the 10-RD setback “would essentially prevent all wind energy projects in Goodhue County,” which was apparently the core good cause for overruling the county ordinance.  (Ed. note: I’m not sure whether the county standard allowed for easements to build closer to willing neighbors; such easements offer a way to allow projects to proceed while minimizing noise impacts on neighbors who especially value rural quiet.)

Strangely, the Court said that it had seen the 10 rotor diameter rule as a “zero-exposure standard;” in fact, a half mile would not avoid audibility or ocassionaly intrusive noise , especially at night, though it would reduce the number of homes experiencing relatively louder sound exposures.  There are roughly 200 homes within the 1600 to 2700 foot zone.  Many of the more substantial negative impacts reported by wind farm neighbors occur in this range.

While National Wind, developer of the 78-megawatt project, aims to begin construction within weeks, in hopes of being operational by the end of the year in order to qualify for expiring production tax credits, hurdles remain.  The PUC rejected the company’s eagle monitoring and protections plan in February, and the developers have been planning to obtain an optional take permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to protect themselves in the event of that a bald eagle may be killed.  A bird and bat protection plan is also still pending, and National Wind had earlier said that legal uncertainties had affected their ability to attract investors.  In addition, the Coalition for Sensible Siting, which lodged the appeal ruled on here, may well choose to continue their challenge to the State Supreme Court; they have 60 days in which to lodge that final appeal.

Update, 8/6/12: CSS has decided not to appeal. This article also suggests that due to outstanding wildlife permits, as well as legal action by some land owners who are trying to void their leases, project developers have stopped pushing to build this year, and are awaiting resolution of these issues, as well as the possibility of a one-year extension to the production tax credits.

Local coverage of the latest developments:
Minnesota Public Radio
Rochester Post Bulletin
Pioneer Press

Earlier AEI coverage of PUC deliberations and initial appeals is here