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A typical week in wind farm noise

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 2 Comments »

I’m traveling this week, so not monitoring the news on a regular basis, but tonight I thought it would be useful to simply highlight a few news items that came through my custom Google News section on wind farm noise in the past few days.  The mix of stories is pretty typical of what occurs each week:

PalmyraSupervisorsMeetingWEB

Representing the widespread efforts of local planning authorities to make sense of conflicting voices are two towns, one near the end of its process, and one still close to the beginning.  Supervisors in Palmyra Township in Michigan (right) decided to rescind an earlier tightening of their noise and siting regulations, after a wind developer said the rules as adopted would likely prohibit construction in the town. In a 3-2 vote, the majority were concerned about such a prohibition, agreeing with Supervisor Dale Terry, who said, “I’m not sure that is fair or proper,” while one joined with Steve Papenhagen, who stressed that “I don’t know how we can force this on landowners that don’t want to be a part of it.” The Supervisors re-established a noise limit of 45dB at buildings on neighboring properties, up from 40dB in the previously amended plan.

In Frankfort, Maine, where a four-to-six turbine project is planned, a community meeting on a proposed wind farm ordinance got heated, culminating in a shouting match between a developer and an anti-wind activist outside the building after the meeting ended. (Apparently, they embodied the state of our current dialogue to perfection, each yelling that the other was a liar!) A committee that had developed a draft ordinance presented it at the meeting; they proposed a 1-mile setback, and noise limits of 45dB during the day and 32dB at night, measured at neighboring property lines.  State regulations currently call for 55db during the day, and a recently proposed 42dB at night, measured at homes. Josh Dickson, who served on the committee, noted that noise heard at homes, especially at night, can cause insomnia and hypertension, according to their findings. “At the end of the day, this is research. It’s not perfect. Neither are we,” Dickson told the crowd. “We did the best we can. The decision will be up to you guys, not us.” The small wind developer planning the project, Eolian Renewable Energy, is proposing a setback of three times the height of the turbines, or about 1000 feet, and also calls for using the state noise limits.

A woman from Freedom, Maine, spoke at the Frankfort meeting, and shared an unusually clear and poignant story of noise impact at their home, 3000 feet from one of several turbines.  Her three kids have all been prescribed sleeping pills due to wakefulness since the turbines began operating; this strikes me as particularly noteworthy, since the kids are less likely to be affected by pre-existing concern or fear, which some blame for the reports of sleeplessness and stress in adult wind farm neighbors.

NorthDevonFullabrookWindFarmWEB

In North Devon, England, the Fullabrook wind farm (left) is gradually becoming operational, with all turbines planned to be spinning by the end of November. Several neighbors have noted that noise has been a problem as the wind farm begins to ramp up. Sue Pike’s bungalow is 600 meters (about 2000 feet) from one of the turbines at the new wind-farm and she says: “It is dreadful – the main sound is like a huge great cement mixer going around – then you get the loud whoosh and also whistles and hums. Altogether we have counted four different noises coming from it. Back in the warmer weather when the turbines were being tested we couldn’t open the bedroom or lounge windows – fortunately we are double-glazed so that helps cut out the noise – but we were stewing indoors.”

The wind developer in Devon, ESB, will begin noise monitoring once the wind farm is fully operational. “ESB will continue to work closely with the local community – particularly our immediate neighbours and North Devon Council – to ensure we not only meet all conditions of the planning permission, but that we are able to discuss local concerns and take what measures we can to address issues,” commented a company spokesman. North Devon Council’s Environmental Health Department will also conduct site analysis at five locations in response to residents’ concerns.

On the other side of the coin, Barnstaple town councillor and Green Party member Ricky Knight visited a friend’s house near the wind farm (though the distance wasn’t specified), and said, that “essentially all we heard was the wind, birds and farm machinery. I was not able to discern any sound coming from the turbines. I am in receipt of criticisms (from people who don’t like the wind-farm) but I get far more support from people who simply register confusion about this subject.”

While it’s quite common to hear from wind farm supporters who were surprised and dismayed by the noise levels they encountered once the turbines were operating, we hear the opposite tale from Leicestershire, UK.  There, after living for seven months with a new wind farm, some opponents are saying it’s not as bad as they feared it would be.  The article quotes two former objectors and one wind turbine host and doesn’t specify many distances, but one farmer “less than a mile” away says “I went to all the protest meetings and I was against them from the start. But now, I must say they don’t really bother me. I can’t hear them and I can barely see them. It’s like the industrial revolution all over again – people don’t like change until it actually happens and they get used to it.” This could be a simple case of people a fair distance away being more worried than they needed to be; a quick search online didn’t come up with news reports of problems from other (closer) residents, but it may be too early to assume there are none, especially since they’ve yet to go ’round all the seasons.

Knight’s experience in Devon, as contrasted with Pikes, is a great illustration of the disconnect that continues to dog wind farm development and ordinance-writing. I think we can safely assume that Pike’s not imagining the sound that’s bothering her, and that Knight visited at a time and place where the turbines were inaudible (and it must have been daytime, since farm machinery was operating). Complicating the challenge before town boards is a widespread uncertainty about who to trust; as noted by Palmyra Supervisor Jim Isley, “I have to wonder sometimes if one side doesn’t exaggerate their claims, and the other side perhaps doesn’t tell all that they know.” Indeed, AEI’s continuing attempts to make sense of the polarized rhetoric coming from the two sides suggest that both tend to overstate their case. Developers often downplay potential noise issues; for example, the Eolian website lists typical rural sound levels at 40dB (probably a 12 or 24 hour average), while night time sound levels in deeply rural areas are often measured as low as 20dB, so that a turbine may become a truly dominant sound. Meanwhile, community groups tend to assume that the worst-case responses they hear about elsewhere will be common, even at great distances. For example, a letter published this week about a proposed wind turbine at a gravel plant in California, expressed concerned that a school is “only 1.5 miles away.” The letter claims that Oregon requires a two-mile setback (they don’t: though their noise limit is one of the lowest, 36dB, setbacks tend to be in the half-mile to mile range). Even many more cautionary acoustics experts, who tend to favor noise limits of 30-35dB, suggest that 2km (1.25 miles) is a reasonable minimum setback, with some recommending a mile and a half; the gravel plant turbine doesn’t appear to be close enough to warrant alarm or heightened concern. We clearly have a long way to go before we can have a clear, reasoned discussion about whether current setback standards are providing a degree of community noise protection that’s similar to that we’ve become used to from other noise sources.

Assessing the noise impact of a wave energy installation

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science No Comments »

Ireland Wave EnergyWEB

IBM is collaborating with The Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland to measure the noise output from a wave energy installation of the west coast of Ireland, which is one of the world’s most promising areas for wave power development.  The acoustic data will be collected in real-time, and will will produce one of the largest continuous collections of underwater acoustic data ever captured. This data will be made available to marine researchers and regulatory agencies to further advance knowledge of natural and man-made underwater sound, and help develop standards and reporting, benefitting marine environmental agencies as well as industries including renewable energy, shipping, and offshore oil and gas.

“Underwater noise is a global environmental issue that has to be addressed if we are to take advantage of the huge potential of ocean energy,” said European Union Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.  “This project is a great example of collaboration among global companies, industry experts and government agencies, and will help us make real progress toward practical and sustainable ocean energy systems.  I’m delighted to see Ireland playing a lead role in this area, which has great importance for meeting the EU’s energy challenges.”

Illinois forum addresses wind farm health issues, gag orders

Health, Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No Comments »

A brief article from a local paper in Illinois shed some new light on two key issues that have come up in many communities considering new wind farm proposals.  The meeting of the Lee County Zoning Board of Appeals featured an hour-long presentation from Carl Phillips, an epidemiologist who has published a peer-reviewed study saying there is “overwhelming evidence” of health effects near turbines. He said that people up to two miles away have reported health issues such as sleep and stress issues and mood disorders.  When asked what percentage of residents report health problems, he said that there have not been solid studies of that, but that his best guess, based on what research has been done, is about 5 percent of those within a mile or so. This relatively low estimate may surprise some, but such reports from many wind farms lead Phillips to conclude that anyone denying health effects exist is ignoring the evidence or “trying to mislead.” And, even this low estimate was challenged by representatives from Mainstream Renewable Power, who characterized Phillips’ presentation as “personal hypotheses.” (Ed. note: the continuing effort of industry representatives to discredit suggestion of any problems at all, including Phillips’ modest 5% estimate, or recordings that reflect higher levels of sound or amplitude modulation than expected, has become a major impediment to constructive engagement on wind farm siting decisions; ongoing diligent study by more cautionary experts deserves to be given more credence.)

In addition, the mayor of the village of Lee asked representatives of Mainstream whether confidentiality agreements signed by landowners leasing land for turbines will prevent them from discussing any health problems that they may notice once the turbines are operating–reflecting a widespread concern that health problems may be under-reported due to such agreements.  One Mainstream rep spurred laughter from the audience when he said he couldn’t talk about what the confidentiality agreements address, since they’re “inherently confidential.” But another Mainstream rep stressed that the agreements do not preclude talking about health. (Ed. note: Many confidentiality agreements with landowners are primarily designed to keep financial details private; this is especially true when a house is bought by developers.)

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

Wind turbines 3 Comments »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wind farm noise, health issues continue to grow—and get jumbled—in Ontario

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 12 Comments »

AEI Commentary

The wild and turbulent public debate about wind farm noise issues continues to generate steady new eruptions in Ontario.  And while what’s coming out could be extremely valuable information for others struggling to support a more cautionary approach to wind farm siting, media reports are contributing to an increasingly jumbled public perception about the troubling health impacts that some wind farm neighbors have experienced.

Ironically, the spotlight currently shining on Ontario could be shedding a clear, focused light on the shortcomings in current siting standards – even Ontario’s relatively stringent ones. That light would reveal regional regulatory staffers raising concerns about whether the standards as currently applied are in fact protecting residents from undue disruption by wind farm noise, increasing anecdotal evidence from homeowners and realtors that wind farms make it harder to sell homes at their fair value, and telling examples of homes bought at market value by wind developers and later sold at large losses.  Instead, these important and fascinating stories are being jumbled into a far less coherent mess of public perception, with negative health impacts becoming the dominant theme. (See the final paragraphs of this post for AEI’s prescription for moving forward more constructively.)

As real as the health effects can be — there’s no doubt that some nearby neighbors have struggled mightily with them, to the point of leaving their homes to find relief — it doesn’t serve the public to conflate every noise complaint with a health complaint, or to distort the sources of noise complaints to make the suffering of the most afflicted appear to be far more widespread.  This is, unfortunately, the effect of recent media reports from Ontario, Read the rest of this entry »