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NRDC re-opens legal battle with Navy, NOAA over sonar

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Sonar No Comments »

Three years after the NRDC and U.S. Navy reached an agreement that was meant to create avenues for dialogue and collaboration, a new lawsuit filed this week suggests that the hopes both sides held have not been realized. The main sticking point remains the same now as it was then: environmental advocates insist that some biologically rich areas should be entirely off limits to any sonar training activity, while the Navy holds that short-term exercises pose no great risk to wildlife. The final Environmental Impact Statements submitted by the Navy, and the permits issued by the NOAA Fisheries Service (which collaborates closely with the Navy in developing guidelines), allow the Navy full access to extensive training ranges that stretch along most of the coastlines of United States. The suit filed this week challenges NOAA permits issued in 2010 for one of the Navy’s dozen or training ranges, off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. It differs from an earlier high-profile legal challenge, which reached the Supreme Court, in that the previous suit challenged the Navy’s sonar operational guidelines, whereas this one challenges NOAA’s permits.

Navy ranges WEB

The Navy is already beginning work on Environmental Impact Statements that will accompany new permit request for all of its ranges, each of which must receive fresh authorization from NOAA every five years. The Navy has recently completed its first-ever EIS’s for training ranges around the world (a process spurred largely by earlier legal challenges); these 5-year permits were issued for some ranges in 2009, and are due for renewal in 2014 and beyond.  The operating conditions proposed by the Navy and approved by NOAA for the first-round EISs and permits are generally similar to the way the Navy had been doing things for many years. Marine mammal monitoring is maintained on sonar vessels, with sonar intensity reduced when whales are seen nearby, and operations stopped when whales approach very close to boats. The litigants point out that visual monitoring misses 25-95% of whales, and is particularly ineffective in high seas. “We learn more every day about where whales and other mammals are most likely to be found,” said Heather Trim, director of policy for People for Puget Sound, “We want NMFS to put that knowledge to use to ensure that the Navy’s training avoids those areas when marine mammals are most likely there.”

By and large, ocean noise regulations concern themselves only with noise that may be loud enough to cause injury, which occurs only at very close range (under a half mile). More moderate noise, which may cause behavioral changes up to 50 miles away, is assessed in the EIS, but these behavioral changes are generally considered to be of negligible impact to the animals. Recent NOAA permits routinely allow for tens or hundreds of thousands of animals to respond in some way to the sounds of naval maneuvers, with sonars mounted on ships, on floating buoys, and dangled from helicopters being the primary noise source triggering behavioral responses (any behavioral response is considered a “take” in permitting language).

The Navy says that in the Northwest Training Range Complex sonar training exercises typically

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Ontario farmers group says wind farms are tearing communities apart

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines No Comments »

Windfarm and CowsWEB

The Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA), the province’s largest farm organization, has called for a moratorium on wind power development.  In a statement, the OFA says that “we are hearing very clearly from our members that the wind turbines situation is coming to a head – seriously dividing rural communities and even jeopardizing farm succession planning.”

While also stressing the need to address the price paid for wind power, as well as noise issues and concerns about health impacts, Mark Wales, OFA’s President, said that “Most disconcerting of all is the impact wind turbines are having on the relationships across rural communities. When wind developments come to a community, neighbours are pitted against neighbours. The issue of industrial wind turbine development is preoccupying the rural agenda.”

Both the Canadian Wind Energy Association and Ontario Energy Minister Chris Bentley expressed disappointment with the OFA’s position, saying that a current provincial review of the feed-in-tariff program is already addressing many of the OFA’s concerns.  This may well be true of the economic issues, but the deeper question of community impacts is what appears to be at the heart of the OFA’s position, and that’s a question that may not be so easily addressed.

(Image: The Globe and Mail)

UK researchers examine effects of noise on fish, crustaceans

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Ocean, Ocean energy, Science 2 Comments »

A research project in England is preparing to do some of the first field studies designed to see how human-made sound may affect non-cetaceans.  While many field studies have tracked the responses of whales and dolphins in both opportunistic and controlled settings, and some lab studies have noted how fish or other sea creatures react to noise when introduced into tanks, a team from the University of Hull is preparing to project human sounds from a research vessel and see how fish and crustaceans (crabs and lobsters) respond.

The researchers plan to film animals while playing the sounds of ships, concrete pile driving, or operating wind turbines; the results will provide data for far more accurate environmental impact assessments of offshore construction and renewable energy projects.

For more, see this recent article from OffshoreWind.

Another week, another wind farm noise and health report

Human impacts, News, Science, Wind turbines 6 Comments »

Driven by the rising public clamor about health effects reported by people living near wind farms, officials across the nation and around the world have been called on to assess the veracity of these claims.  This week’s contribution to the rapidly expanding genre of “wind farms and health” literature comes from the Massachusetts Departments of Health and of Environmental Protection.  In contrast to last week’s more comprehensive report from Oregon, the Massachusetts report follows in the pattern of the first two similar literature reviews (one funded by the American and Canadian Wind Energy Associations, and another from the Ontario Ministry of the Environment), in that it focuses solely on direct impacts and previously published research papers.  It also addresses a few of the more recent studies, including those by Pierpont, Nissenbaum, and Rand and Ambrose, generally offering them some affirmations for providing new information worth building on, but finding their results not yet solid enough to base siting policy on.

Except for the sections on these recent papers, there is no place in this report for consideration of actual experiences of people living near wind turbines, despite the presence of a neighborhood full of folks in Falmouth who were no doubt ready and willing to share their stories.  From what I’ve heard from these folks, they would offer cogent, detailed, and level-headed testimony about their experiences.

While I can understand why an expert panel might choose to focus only on published material (to avoid the quagmire of trying to assess the veracity of individuals’ reports), and I give the Massachusetts panel due credit for not artificially limiting itself to papers published in peer-reviewed journals, they dropped a crucial ball in neglecting to even mention the word “indirect” in the course of their 164 page report on health effects, let alone provide any sort of acknowledgement or analysis of the ways that annoyance, anxiety, sleep disruption, and stress could be intermediary pathways that help us to understand some of the reports coming from Massachusetts residents who say their health has been affected by nearby turbines.

While the report’s conclusions

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Leading scientists call for reducing ocean noise

Bioacoustics, News, Ocean, Science, Seismic Surveys, shipping, Sonar No Comments »

NOAA humpback with calf copyTwo of the US’s most widely-respected ocean bioacousticians have called for a concerted research and public policy initiative to reduce ocean noise.  Christopher Clark, senior scientist and director of Cornell’s Bioacoustics Research Program, and Brandon Southall, former director of NOAA’s Ocean Acoustics Program, recently published an opinion piece on CNN that is well worth reading in full.  They stress the emerging scientific awareness that chronic moderate noise from shipping and oil and gas exploration is a more widespread threat to marine life than the rare injuries caused by loud sound sources like sonar.  Here are a couple of teasers:

Today, in much of the Northern Hemisphere, commercial shipping clouds the marine acoustic environment with fog banks of noise, and the near continuous pounding of seismic airguns in search of fossil fuels beneath the seafloor thunder throughout the waters. In the ocean’s very quietest moments, blue whales singing off the Grand Banks of Canada can sometimes be heard more than 1,500 miles away off the coast of Puerto Rico. But on most days, that distance is a mere 50 to 100 miles.

Whales, dolphins and seals use sounds to communicate, navigate, find food and detect predators. The rising level of cumulative noise from energy exploration, offshore development and commercial shipping is a constant disruption on their social networks. For life in today’s ocean, the basic activities that we depend on for our lives on land are being eroded by the increasing amount of human noise beneath the waves.

These stark realities are worrying. But emerging technologies for quantifying and visualizing the effects of noise pollution can help drive a paradigm shift in how we perceive, monitor, manage and mitigate human sounds in the ocean. Ocean noise is a global problem, but the U.S. should step up and lead the way.

Clark and Southall make three specific recommendations: to establish a more comprehensive network of acoustic monitoring stations in order to better understand our overall acoustic footprint in the seas; to encourage and accelerate development of noise-reduction technologies (especially to make ships quieter, and also to develop new technologies for oil and gas exploration and underwater construction that generate less noise); and a shift in federal regulations from avoiding acute injury, toward protecting ocean acoustic habitats and ecosystems.

Ocean listening stations go online; US Navy aims to filter out its activities

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Science, Sonar No Comments »

A growing network of ocean observatories are adding hydrophones to their arrays of instruments, opening ears into the undersea world.  The data has been shared widely among scientists for the past few years, and a website, Listening to the Deep Ocean Environment, is now compiling the real-time acoustic streams from 15 of the observatories, allowing anyone to listen in; another 11 observatories will be added in the coming months.  This excites scientists and citizens alike. (Though truth to tell, most of the audio streams aren’t all that interesting to listen to most of the time!)

The US Navy isn’t quite so pleased, however. According to a recent BBC article, US Navy oceanographers have arranged to filter data from one of the largest ocean observatories, NEPTUNE, off the coast of British Columbia.  Citing concerns that the recordings will disclose areas of Navy operations, real-time recordings are cleansed of Navy ship (and presumably sonar) sounds, then returned to NEPTUNE operators for uploading to the web. 

Cornell University’s Chris Clark doubts that the Navy’s approach will catch on at other observatories around the world.  According to a piece on The World, from PRI and the BBC, (sounds above from there; roll over tiny screens to ID the sounds), Clark says the US Navy doesn’t own the ocean acoustic environment and has to accept that what was once military technology is now in the hands of civilians.  “The cat’s out of the bag, the horses are out of the barn, whatever the metaphor is, it’s happening,” he says.  The piece notes that this is similar to what happened with satellite imagery. For decades, it too was sensitive military data, but now anyone can go on Google Earth and look down from space.

Fish survey sounds reduce humpback songs 120 miles away?

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

AEI lay summary of the following paper:
Risch D, Corkeron PJ, Ellison WT, Van Parijs SM (2012) Changes in Humpback Whale Song Occurrence in Response to an Acoustic Source 200 km Away. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29741. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029741
Read or download online (free)

An ongoing research project that monitors whale calls and shipping noise in Stellwagen Bank east of Boston Harbor has reported an unexpected reduction in humpback whale songs during an 11-day period in which their recorders picked up low frequency sounds from a fish-monitoring system 120 miles away.  If this data does indeed represent whales ceasing singing or moving away in response to the distant sonar, this would be the first clear-cut indication that discrete human noise events may affect marine mammal behavior outside the immediate area.  The authors note that these results could suggest that impact assessments need to consider effects at longer ranges, and that effects may occur at received sound levels much lower than those generally considered worthy of concern.  This study simply reports the reduction in singing; any longer-term effect that may have on the animals is unknown (these are not mating calls).

The reduction in songs occurred at a time of year (early fall) when humpback songs are beginning to increase in this area; on years when the fish sonar was not in operation, the numbers of songs steadily increased over the 33-day study period.  But in 2006, when the fish sonar was heard at Stellwagen Bank for 11 days (8 of which included sonar sounds for over 7 hours), the number of minutes per day when humpbacks were singing dropped, some days to zero.  The average (mean) number of hours of whale song dropped from about 75 in the previous 11 days to about 15 minutes during the time the fish sonar was heard, before increasing to close to 3 hours per day once the sonar transmissions ceased.

The figure below shows the data from each of three years.  For each year, there are 33 days of data, with the middle 11 days being the period (Sept. 26-Oct 6) in which the sonar sound occurred in 2006.  The open circles are the mean minutes/day for each 11-day period, with the rectangular boxes representing the upper and lower quartiles of data for each period; black dots represent one or two days in each period in which the calling rates for that day were unusually far outside the range for other days in that period.

Risch 2012 dataWEB

Ed. note: Interpreting the results of vocalization studies is complicated by the fact that there is much variability in vocalizing rates, and response/sensitivity to human noise, from one animal to another; and similarly, in numbers of whales in the area from year to year.  (This acoustic data counts singing minutes, but not animal numbers, which must be monitored visually.)

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Oregon “Health Impact Assessment” addresses key indirect wind farm noise impacts

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

The Oregon Health Authority has released a draft of its first “Strategic Health Impact Assessment on Wind Energy Development in Oregon.”  The approach taken by Oregon health officials marks a subtle but significant departure from previous government reports on the topic.  Most fundamentally, rather than being simply a literature review of past studies, this paper is a first attempt to sketch out the parameters by which health impacts of specific projects might later be assessed.  The hope is that a final HIA would provide a basic understanding and framework that could allow future specific developments to look at local details, rather than repeating this big-picture overview.  While it’s not all that clear how this framework for understanding the possible direct and indirect health effects will be used to actually assess on-the-ground responses in communities, the paper is notable for inclusion of several indirect pathways by which annoyance and sleep disruption can lead to physiological impacts, and also for its consideration of the impact of community discord on stress and well-being.

To begin with, the authors emphasize that “HIAs are guided by the World Health Organization’s definition of health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.'”  At the same time, the report makes clear that completely avoiding all health effects is not necessarily the goal, recognizing that economic development and public health are not in opposition to each other, but mutually inter-related, so that “the long-term public interest is best served when the interdependence of these goals is recognized and balanced through a process that empowers people to shape their lives and communities.”  This investigation has particular timeliness in many Oregon communities, given that Oregon’s current 2500MW of wind capacity will double when projects under construction or approved are completed, and would more than triple if those in the permitting process now are built out.

The report follows many others in finding that direct impact on the body from the sound levels commonly received around wind farms is not likely, and that infrasound is generally below levels that are likely to be perceived.  But unlike other reports, which often simply mention that annoyance is possible in response to audible wind farm sound, this one looks more closely at the health effects of stress and annoyance.  In particular, it concludes: “Sound from wind energy facilities in Oregon could potentially impact people’s health and well-being if it increases sound levels by more than 10dBA, or results in long-term outdoor community sound levels above 35-40dBA.”   And further: “The potential impacts from wind turbine sound could range from moderate disturbance to serious annoyance, sleep disturbance and decreased quality of life.  Chronic stress and sleep disturbance could increase risks for cardiovascular disease, decreased immune function, endocrine disorders, mental illness, and other effects.  Many of the possible long-term health effects may result from or be exacerbated by sleep disturbance from night-time wind turbine sound.”

Especially notable in this report is an entire section on “community conflict,” and the conclusion that “Community conflict over controversial siting or environmental decisions may contribute to or exacerbate this stress, and thus increase the risks of these negative health effects,” and that “rural communities may be disproportionately impacted by community-level conflicts because these conflicts may erode traditional sources of social and interactional support that community members rely on.”

Also strikingly, the report acknowledges that sound levels “at or near” regulatory limits can trigger these effects.  Therefore, it recommends that “planners should evaluate and implement strategies to minimize sound generation from wind turbines when outdoor sound levels are at or near Oregon’s standard for wind turbine noise,” and suggest close consideration of site-specific factors that can affect sound propagation and perceived loudness, especially at night.  The idea appears to be that this site-specific analysis can help to minimize the error factors in more generalized sound modeling (which can routinely lead to brief periods of sound well above that suggested by the models), thus reducing the likelihood of excess or “just at the limit” sound events.

These and other considerations of subtle, indirect effects, as well as differences in noise sensitivity and responses to wind farms among both individuals and communities, make this report far more comprehensive than most that have come before.  It does not, however, make a case that all these impacts or health effects are necessarily likely to occur at levels that would preclude wind development.  I recommend you read it in full to get a better sense of the overall context within which these innovative perspectives are included.

In particular, the report stresses that long-term average sound remains the best predictor of annoyance and thus possible health effects; it notes an EPA recommendation that if a sound source is new to an area, 5dB should be added to its sound output in assessing likely negative community responses, though again notes that problems are related to 5-10dBA increases in 24-hour sound averages caused by turbines, more so than short-term increases in sound.

And, while noting that “a small number of epidemiological studies have linked wind turbine noise to increased annoyance, feelings of stress and irritation, sleep disturbance, and decreased quality of life,” with “annoyance from wind turbine noise…more likely when levels exceed 35-40dBA,” the report also stresses that except for some sleep disruption and reports of lower energy, people closer to turbines may report a lower sense of how healthy they perceive their environment to be, or lower satisfaction with living conditions, but that there is generally “no difference between the two groups for social, psychological, and general health-related quality of life.”  Still the report acknowledges the role (and limitations) of case series reports, which are more often simply dismissed by other similar reports.  Finally, the report stresses the contributing role played by general attitudes toward the wind energy development, and encourages an open process that provides opportunities for widespread public engagement and a clear process for reporting noise or health issues if they arise, as well as urging developers to outline and communicate proposed mitigation techniques that can be employed should problems arise.

Oregon’s draft HIA can be downloaded here as a pdf; comments are being accepted through March 30 at this website.

On quiet Maine lake, new wind farm over a mile away spurs noise issues

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 2 Comments »

This probably looked like a great place for a wind farm: only a handful of homes within a half mile, and nearly all the more densely-populated roads to the east and west well over a mile from the ridge on Flathead Mountain, where the Record Hill Windfarm was to be built.  After the bad experiences at Mars Hill and Vinalhaven, where residents within 3000-3500 feet reported serious noise issues, this location likely seemed like just the ticket. But this week, after a month of operations, several residents told the Roxbury selectmen that the slowly turning turbines had changed their peaceful lakeside existence for the worse.

Linda Kuras told the selectmen, “I know what the ice in the lake sounds like and this noise is not that. This is a repetitive thumping sound: a whemp, whemp. What was once a quiet night’s sleep is now this.” She described the low-frequency sound as being akin to heavy items in a clothes dryer tumbling around.  Selectman Tim DeRouche concurred, saying, “It sounds like wind gushing right over the mountain. It sounds like a jet.”  Both DeRouche and Kuras live along Roxbury Pond (noted as Ellis Pond on Google Maps); the closest homes along the lake shore are between a  mile and a quarter and a mile and a half from the turbines, according to this map from Record Hill Wind.

RecordHillWindFarm Roxbury ME

Selectmen encouraged residents to report their complaints to the State Department of Environmental Protection, which is still in the process of setting up a complaint management system for this new wind farm.  Record Hill’s director of community relations, a Roxbury resident, was in attendance, and noted the issues; he also shared that one turbine is awaiting a replacement part to fix a problem (the article didn’t clarify whether this turbine is operating or not).

By all accounts, the noise at the pond is not particularly loud, and is only sometimes audible, most notably when the pond and environs are otherwise dead quiet (which, we may presume, is one of the reasons many folks live there).

Wisconsin towns say: wind farms not so bad, but no more!

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

A fascinating article appeared in Midwest Energy News just before the holidays, looking at the current feelings in Kewaunee County, home Wisconsin’s first two large-scale wind farms, which started operations in 1999 and 2000.  Twelve years later, some residents who had raised concerns seem to have come to feel the impacts are less than they feared; if Andrew Nowak, who voted against the proposal when he served on the local zoning board, is any indication, though, their enthusiasm is lukewarm.  Nowak says the sound of his neighbors’ turbines, about a quarter mile away, don’t bother him, but when asked if the wind farm had been a good thing for the community, said simply, “I don’t think they’ve been bad.”

While some locals continue to resent the wind farm’s presence in their community, most seem to have accepted it.  Local appraisers and city clerks say that they haven’t seen any sign of property values dropping in the townships as a whole, and in fact, there are some indications that land values may have risen more than in nearby townships; in addition, at least eight new homes were built within a mile of the wind farm in recent years.  (Note: see the paragraph below, regarding property buy-outs of some neighbors within a quarter mile or so.)

However, at the end of the piece, the “all’s well that ends well” theme is tempered by the fact that “few residents interviewed think the community would favor more wind farms in the area.”  Nowak affirms this, as does Lincoln Assessor and Zoning Administrator Joe Jerabek, who said, “We the people of the Town of Lincoln have made our contribution to renewable energy.”

Indeed, the article, while headlined and framed to suggest that initial fears have been unrealized, mentions that one landowner “and a few others” continued to object about wind farm impacts for years afterward, though offers only one quote from this perspective, a former Town Board member who hasn’t changed his view since voting against the plan.

One local, dairy farmer Joe Yunk, who moved away from the area after struggling with the noise only to find his new land targeted for a wind development, submitted a formal comment to the Wisconsin PSC in July 2010, in which he notes that Wisconsin Public Service, the developer of one of the two early wind farms, bought out two neighbors within a year (after noise issues cropped up) and demolished the homes, while several of his neighbors received below-market buy-out offers. After suing the company to purchase his property (two turbines within a half mile, the closest 1300 feet from his home), they settled with him for slightly under the market value, and his home was put on the market by the developer for 30% below its appraised value.

It appears that in this region of Wisconsin, the community impacts and attitudes pretty much reflect what we’ve seen elsewhere: in the community as a whole, the wind farm is generally accepted (though not exactly celebrated) and overall property values show no dramatic decline, while for a subset of the community the wind farm continues to be seen as an unwelcome presence, and some of the nearest neighbors find their lives severely disrupted.  Once again, it appears that larger setbacks, to prevent these life-changing impacts on the few, combined with easements to allow closer siting to willing neighbors, could have avoided the enduring “bitterness” that Nowak mentions at the article’s conclusion.

Belugas continue to struggle in face of Cook Inlet development

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

NOAA Fisheries has released its latest annual estimate of the beluga population in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, and the numbers are sobering.  Their 2011 estimate, 286 animals, is the second-lowest found in the 18 years of surveys, and is 20% lower than last year’s count.  However, NOAA officials stress that year-to-year counts are approximate, with differences in observing conditions and beluga distributions accounting for an error range of plus or minus as many as a hundred animals; long-range trends are more reliable indicators.  Officials say they did not see a large enough number of dead whales this year to suggest that there was indeed a 20% decline.

“Only three dead belugas were reported this year, which indicates that large numbers of mortalities did not occur in 2011,” said Alaska Fisheries Science Center Director Doug DeMaster (over the past ten years, an average of 10 whales a year have been found dead). “While NOAA remains concerned that this population is not showing signs of recovery, at this time we do not believe this estimate represents a marked decrease in the population.”  Indeed, twice before, the counts showed even larger declines, with later years suggesting that actual numbers were not so dire; the previous low count, 278, occurred one year after a count of 366, and two years later, counts were back up to 375. However, since then, counts have been at least 10% lower than that high.  This is especially worrisome, in that this genetically-distinct population of belugas has been listed as endangered, and NOAA designated much of Cook Inlet as critical habitat. (Many other beluga populations remain in other areas, including the western and northern coasts of Alaska, and northern and northeast Canada).

On the longer term, NOAA notes that there appears to be a continuing gradual decline in Cook Inlet beluga numbers, estimated at about 1% per year.  This population of belugas experienced a population crash in the 1980’s (from 1300 down to around 300) which is widely blamed on over-harvesting by native subsistence hunters, but has not recovered since the hunting was limited.  Pollution, limited salmon runs, and noise are all considered likely factors in the population’s struggle to survive.

Cook Inlet is a large waterway, leading from the southern Alaska coast inland to Anchorage and Wasilla; a major port expansion is underway, as well as oil and gas exploration and development.  For more on the backstory here, see these previous AEInews post from 2008-2011.

 

Wind historian and booster urges remote locations for new wind farms

Human impacts, Wind turbines No Comments »

WindfallWEB

A new book, Windfall: Wind Energy in America Today, by historian Robert Righter,  was recently published by University of Oklahoma Press.  Righter also wrote an earlier history of wind energy, published by UofO Press in 1996.  In the intervening years, of course, the wind industry has blossomed from its initial mini-boom-and-bust in the California hills (Altamont, anyone?), with bigger turbines, larger government incentives, and growing commitment to reducing our reliance on fossil fuels (coal and natural gas) for electric generation all leading Righter to feel that an update was in order.

As a hearty advocate of wind energy and continued rapid growth of the industry, Righter will startle many with his strong call for not building turbines “where they are not wanted.”  He spends chunks of three chapters addressing the increasing problems caused by wind farm noise in rural communities, chides developers for not building farther from unwilling neighbors, and says that new development should be focused on the remote high plains, rather than more densely populated rural landscapes in the upper midwest and northeast.  While not ruling out wind farms in the latter areas, he calls for far more sensitivity to the quality of life concerns of residents. (Ed. note: Righter’s book shares a title with, but should be clearly distinguished from, a recent documentary investigating local anti-wind backlash in a NY town.)

Righter seems to be especially sensitive to the fact that today’s turbines are huge mechanical intrusions on pastoral landscapes, a far cry from the windmills of earlier generations.  At the same time, he suggests that a look back at earlier technological innovations (including transmission lines, oil pump jacks, and agricultural watering systems) suggests that most of us tend to become accustomed to new intrusions after a while, noting that outside of wilderness areas, “it is difficult to view a landscape devoid of a human imprint.”

He acknowledges the fact that impacts on a few can’t always outweigh the benefits for the many in generating electricity without burning carbon or generating nuclear waste, but goes on to ask:

No matter how admirable this is, should a few people pay the price for benefits to the many?  Should rural regions lose the amenities and psychological comforts of living there to serve the city?  Should metropolitan areas enjoy abundant electricity while rural people forfeit the very qualities that took them to the countryside in the first place?  The macro-scale benefits of wind energy seldom impress local opponents, who have micro-scale concerns.  The turbines’ benefits are hardly palpable to impacted residents, whereas the visual impact is a constant reminder of the loss of a cherished landscape.

Righter also takes a realistic stance about the fact that our appetite for electricity leads to inevitable conflicts wherever we might want to generate it. He says, “…wind turbines are ugly – but the public produced the problem and must now live with it.  Turbine retribution is the price we must pay for a lavish electrical lifestyle.”

But unlike most wind boosters, he doesn’t content himself with this simple formulation.  He goes on to stress that even as recently as 2000, most experts felt that technical hurdles would keep turbines from getting much bigger than they were then (500kW-1MW).  The leaps that have taken place, with 3MW and larger turbines in new wind farms, startle even him:  “They do not impact a landscape as much as dominate it….Their size makes it practically impossible to suggest that wind turbines can blend technology with nature.”  He joins one of his fellow participants in a cross-disciplinary symposium on NIMBY issues, stressing:  “Wind energy developers must realize the ‘important links among landscape, memory, and beauty in achieving a better quality of life.’  This concept is not always appreciated by wind developers, resulting in bitter feeling, often ultimately reaching the courts.”

He was obviously touched by the experience of Dale Rankin and several neighbors in Texas, who were affected by the 421-turbine Horse Hollow Wind Farm.  Righter generally agrees with my experience there, that such wide open spaces seem the perfect place for generating lots of energy from the wind.  But two of these hundreds of turbines changed Rankin’s life. These two sat between his house and some wooded hills, and Righter says that to him, “the turbines seemed inappropriate for this bucolic scene.  For the Rankins the change is a sad story of landscape loss…”  He asked whether the developer had talked with them before siting the turbines here, but they hadn’t, since the land belonged to a neighbor and local setback requirements were met, so “the utility company placed the turbines where its grid pattern determined they should be.  Perhaps such a policy represents efficiency and good engineering, but (reflects) arrogance and poor public relations….(The developer) crushed Rankin with their lawyers when fairness and reason could have ameliorated the situation…the company could well have compromised on the siting of two turbines.  But they did not.”

On the question of noise, Righter is equally sensitive and adamant, stressing the need to set noise standards based on quiet night time conditions, “for a wind turbine should not be allowed to invade a home and rob residents of their peace of mind.”  He says, “When I first started studying the NIMBY response to turbines I was convinced that viewshed issues were at the heart of people’s response.  Now i realize that the noise effects are more significant, particularly because residents to not anticipate such strong reactions until the turbines are up and running – by which time, of course, it is almost impossible to perform meaningful mitigation.”

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