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Do negative expectations cause wind turbine health effects? (AEI analysis and commentary)

Health, Human impacts, Science, Wind turbines 5 Comments »

AEI lay summary of:

  • Simon Chapman, Alexis St. George, Karen Waller.  2013. Spatio-temporal differences in the history of health and noise complaints about Australian wind farms: evidence for the psychogenic, “communicated disease” hypothesis. Download this paper (pdf)
  • Crichton, F., Dodd, G., Schmid, G., Gamble, G., & Petrie, K. J. (2013, March 11). Can Expectations Produce Symptoms From Infrasound Associated With Wind Turbines? Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031760 Read/download this paper (Scribd)

Click here to download a 12p PDF version of this extended post 

If the detail in this post is more than you can tackle, I encourage you to take a look at the first several paragraphs through the brief assessments, then click through and scroll all the way down to the final few paragraphs, which look beyond these two particular studies and reflect on the health effects issue and its role in the larger debate over wind farm siting 

In Australia, the debate about wind farm siting standards has ramped up beyond what we’ve seen in the US and Canada.  Several states have adopted more precautionary setbacks (2km, with some options for closer siting), and this has spurred some pushback from wind energy advocates.  Meanwhile, the Waubra Foundation has become a central repository for information on negative impacts, and has released a series of reports and statements highlighting health effects and home abandonments, while calling for an even more precautionary 10km setback standard.

Recently, two reports were released in Australia that have garnered worldwide attention for their claim that health effects around wind farms are caused primarily by negative expectations promulgated via the web and local chapters of groups such as Waubra.  One of these is a formal study published in the journal Health Psychology by a team from the University of Aukland, and the other is the latest (and most comprehensive) paper from Simon Chapman, a University of Sydney Professor of Public Health and outspoken skeptic about wind farm health claims.  

I’ve long been concerned that the adamantly contradictory statements of both wind advocates and concerned citizens groups are likely to be inadvertently contributing to anxiety and stress among wind farm neighbors, which could well be a major contributor to many of the most widespread health effects (especially headaches and sleep troubles).  These new papers are investigating plausible psychological factors, and both studies add some useful new insights; however, similar to my assessment of a recent peer-reviewed article touted as proof of health effects, digging into these two papers reveals data that is far less clear-cut and absolute than the conclusions drawn by the researchers, and especially as reflected in the simplified popular press accounts of the studies. 

The short version of my assessment of these papers:
The Chapman paper gathers a wealth of information about complaint rates around all the wind farms in Australia, and taken at face value, makes an apparently convincing case for Chapman’s preferred hypothesis about the differences he finds: that the presence of local and national groups harping on possible health effects is the proximate cause of health complaints, and indeed, for the actual appearance of the symptoms themselves among wind farm neighbors.  But Chapman’s insistence that the negative influence of “anti wind farm groups” can totally explain away all the noise problems is ludicrous. His paper frames all his data through this one lens, and makes no effort to consider other possible contributors to the differences he finds in complaint levels. At the same time, his inclusion of existing public health research on the nocebo effect and studies of psychologically-mediated responses to perceived environmental threats is a welcome addition to our consideration of wind farm noise issues; still, as I begin to dig into the actual academic studies that he cites, they seem to be at best suggestive of modest contributing factors, rather than offering data that’s strong enough to be posited as the sole or primary explanations for most noise complaints.

For example, the Crichton paper finds that expectations of negative health effects can create a statistically significant increase in the number and severity of symptoms reported by study subjects exposed to infrasound (and to sham infrasound).  However, the actual data shows only moderate changes in reported health responses, especially in symptom severity, rather than a dramatic difference between the subjects primed with negative expectations and those who were given reassuring information prior to exposure to the sounds.  The average severity of symptoms, rated on a scale of 0-6, averaged 1.67 for the group primed to expect no health effects, and an only slightly higher 1.94-2.13 among those primed to expect negative impacts—a far cry from the intolerable responses being reported by some wind farm neighbors.

Despite the fact that these papers don’t contain a “smoking gun” that explains away negative health effects, as wind advocates may be claiming, their findings can be seen as a likely part of the story.  The small differences found in the Crichton study may be due to averaging over all participants; perhaps some individuals responded more dramatically than her data shows; a stronger effect on some individuals could be embedded in the similarly subtle yet statistically significant trends in the Nissenbaum study that found worse sleep and psychological health among those closer to wind farms.  And the Chapman paper reminds us that those reporting health effects remain a small minority, even in areas with substantial community outcry.  As AEI has often mentioned, even empathetic researchers tend to suggest that significant health effects occur in only 5-10% of the nearby population; as discussed below, a divide is emerging between those who feel that such small numbers reflect insignificant impacts, and those who feel that we can and should avoid or better minimize such effects by increasing setbacks.

A local example of health effects: While statistical or laboratory studies can provide valuable insights, they can also distance us from the actual experiences under consideration. In Falmouth, MA, dozens of turbine neighbors have had enough sleep and health issues that the town is considering removing two turbines.  A bit over 10% of those living within a half mile have filed formal complaints; in some directions, 25% or more have had problems.  This recent article features quotes from a couple of these neighbors (including one, Neil Anderson, who is a longtime renewable energy supporter), and from state and local wind advocates.

Click on through for a more complete summary of these papers, and AEI’s current reflections on the health effects controversies

Read the rest of this entry »

WHOI researchers distill whale calls from seismic survey data

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

Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have completed a proof of concept study that appears to be able to identify individual whale calls in the data collected by seismic surveys.  In the initial data, the researchers were able to cull fin whale calls from the recordings made as airguns blasted their pulses of sound into the ocean floor.  Blue whales are also likely candidates for being heard on the recordings, since their calls also overlap with the frequencies of interest to seismic mapping efforts.

“We have a huge amount of data that can say, ‘Did they change their behavior? Did they stop feeding? Did they stop talking? Did they talk louder?’, and that’s what we want to know,” said WHOI seismologist Dan Lizarralde.

Lizarralde and collaborators are currently seeking funding to develop a computer algorithm that can help with the daunting task of extracting the whale calls from massive amounts of seismic survey data.

For the full story, including spectrograms and comments from other researchers, see this story on LiveScience.com

Floating deepwater wind turbines on track in Maine

News, Ocean energy, Science, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

Ocean-based renewables are destined to be a huge piece of a future carbon-free energy system—tidal, wave, and offshore wind are all likely to become more technologically and economically viable over the coming decade or two. As these offshore renewables mature, they will reduce the current pressure to site wind farms in more populated areas closer to urban electricity load centers.

Statoil Hywind Turbine copyWatching the decade-long struggle in Massachusetts to build Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind farm, researchers and state officials in Maine have chosen a different path: they decided to tackle the engineering challenges of building turbines that can float in deep water far offshore, rather than the social challenges of building wind farms in shallow water close to shore (which use fundamentally the same foundation designs as onshore turbines).  Floating deepwater turbines can take advantage of even stronger, more consistent winds than their nearshore counterparts; along most of the east coast, offshore wind is far more reliable than onshore locations.

After several years of planning, 2013 will see two floating turbine projects in the water off the Maine coast.  A one-eighth scale (57-foot tall) prototype will be tested in a relatively sheltered bay near Castine; the small model must be sited in waves that are proportionately smaller as well, to simulate how a larger unit will do with bigger offshore waves.  Meanwhile, Statoil will be installing 4 3-MW turbines two miles off the coast of Boothbay Harbor; this close-to-shore site will allow for closer monitoring and testing of the units’ durability.  Both projects are aiming toward the eventual construction of large-scale wind farms, likely using 6-8MW turbines, in waters far offshore, though likely not for another decade or so.  The Bangor Daily News puts the big dream in perspective: “to harness the Gulf of Maine’s winds by 2030, placing a full-scale wind farm of about 170 turbines, each taller than the Washington Monument, in the Gulf of Maine. That farm would bring 5 gigawatts, or the equivalent of about five nuclear power plants, of wind energy to Maine’s shore.”

UPDATE, 5/9/13: University of Maine researchers unveiled their 1/8 scale floating turbine foundation.  See article and video here.

UPDATE, 7/12/13: Late-session political maneuvering in the Maine state legislature has led Statoil to put a hold on its plans for floating offshore development in the state.  Governor Paul LaPage, a vocal critic of Statoil’s plans, vetoed an energy bill and in order to move it forward, demanded that an existing contract with Statoil be temporarily shelved to allow the University of Maine to file a bid as well.  LaPage and other fiscal conservatives have objected to the contract approved by the state PUC,  which pays Statoil a higher rate than other Maine electricity sources (the logic being that this small surcharge now will lay the groundwork for a new job base in the state as offshore industrial wind matures over the coming couple of decades).  The Statoil contract approved by the PUC uses up all the state incentives that have been approved for offshore wind in Maine.  It’s unclear whether the UMaine team wants to submit a bid; many see long-term cooperation between Statoil and UMaine researchers as the more fruitful way forward. An ideal scenario may find both projects getting contracts from the PUC, and thus be able to compete for some upcoming federal incentives for offshore wind development. In any case, the bill only holds up the commitment to Statoil for a few months, so the company’s sudden announcement of a hiatus may be more posturing than a fatal blow to Maine’s ambitious offshore vision. Local coverage here, here, and here.

MAJOR UPDATE, 11/7/13:  Since July, Statoil has definitively abandoned its project in Maine, citing political uncertainty that agreements will be upheld, and the University of Maine has released its plan, which aims to develop a 12MW pilot floating turbine project in the next few years, with the long-term goal of 500MW of deep water turbines by 2030, generating power at ten cents or less per kilowatt.  Here’s the latest.

The challenges for floating offshore wind are well-summarized in a recent article from SustainableBusiness.com:

Floating turbines cost less to install than conventional tower-based designs. They can be assembled onshore and then towed out to the installation site, eliminating the expensive and arduous process of building them out in the open ocean. On the flip side, the huge amount of steel needed to make turbines sturdy and heavy enough to withstand rough waves is too expensive. Engineers are working on solutions to get around that, such as intelligent systems that pump ballast water from one tank to the next as a way to stabilize turbines.

One thing that’s clear is the need for specialized turbine blades that can produce energy even as they rock and tilt on ocean waves. All that motion means more wear and tear and can also interfere with power generation. For now, all these designs are performing well, the question is more about which can be produced reliably at the lowest cost.

There has been some local resistance in Maine, especially about the power purchase agreements between Statoil and Central Maine Power for the energy from the pilot project near Boothbay Harbor, for which Maine’s electricity customers will be paying a premium.  State officials maintain that the small extra cost is a worthwhile investment in an offshore wind industry that could pay huge dividends in manufacturing and construction jobs in the years to come.  This is also a long-term investment in an electricity-generating future that can wean us from fossil fuels.  

While Maine’s electricity is already relatively climate-friendly, thanks to significant hydroelectric resources, the development of floating offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine could send lots of clean electricity to Boston and other New England cities.  Onshore wind in the Maine hills faces significant resistance as well, with locals feeling that the price paid by industrializing ridgetops and building new transmission corridors is not worth the modest benefit in green energy for neighboring states; the much smaller impacts of offshore wind may change that cost-benefit equation.   First, though, floating turbines will have to prove themselves durable, and the materials cost must be trimmed.  While that research is underway, offshore wind planners will need to insure that wind farm locations don’t interfere with key fishing habitat.

California regulators reject Navy training plans despite federal approvals

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

The California Coastal Commission has rejected the Navy’s 5-year plan for training and testing activities that recently received provisional approvals from the National Marine Fisheries Service.  In a unanimous vote, CCC members said the Navy’s environmental studies failed to back up its claim that impacts on marine life would be negligible during the years 2014-2019.

The Navy’s studies and permit requests suggest that its activities off Southern California could cause 9 million behavioral impacts, 2000 injuries, and up to 130 deaths, though the Navy and NMFS expect impacts to be far lower, and whatever effects do actually occur to have negligible biological impact on populations.  The CCC wants to see more solid science to back up the Navy’s claim that the large numbers will not reflect actual impacts.  Contrary to the Navy’s claim that their projected impact numbers are much higher than what will actually occur, Michael Jasny of the National Resources Defense Council told Commissioners, “We think these are underestimates.”  (See previous AEInews coverage of the Navy and NMFS assessments: New NMFS Navy “take” permits: outrageous or reasonable?)

During the previous 5-year planning round, the CCC took a similar stand, and a Federal Court agreed to some additional precautionary requirements that somewhat limited Navy operations; that ruling led first to a Marine Mammal Protection Act exemption issued by President Bush, and finally to a Supreme Court ruling granting the Navy broad discretion to make operational decisions, and limiting court oversight.

Mark Delaplaine, a coastal manager for the CCC, noted the difficulty of assessing actual impacts: “I’m just torn between the fact that we haven’t seen strandings in this area, and these very large numbers (in Navy estimates) that are really a cause for alarm,” he said.  Still, he stressed that “you have to have additional precautions….It doesn’t make sense to train where there are large amounts of sea mammals.”

The CCC asked the Navy to voluntarily adopt a set of additional precautions in California waters, including larger safety zones in which they would shut down sonar and explosive operations when animals are nearby, avoiding several designated marine sanctuaries and areas known to host seasonal concentrations of blue, fin, and gray whales, and remaining at least 1km (a bit over a half mile) offshore.  The NRDC concurs with these requirements, and encourages a couple more, including avoiding sonar and explosive activity at night, when nearby animals are much harder to detect, and using the Navy’s instrumented ranges to help detect animals.

The Navy declined these requests. “We understand that the Navy is obligated to be consistent with the state’s coastal zone requirements, to the maximum extent practicable,” said Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga. “And we believe we are.”

For more details on the hearing, see these articles from the Orange County Register and AP.  For a deeper look at the Navy and NMFS studies, see the AEInews lay summary of the Atlantic and Pacific 5-year plans.

Yellowstone snowmobile plan finally getting off its merry-go-round?

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Human impacts, News, Vehicles, Wildlands No Comments »

It’s been a couple of years since we’ve checked in on the eternal Snowmobiles in Yellowstone debate, and in what’s sure to be a shock for those who’ve been following the issue since the Clinton administration, not much has changed!  During Team Obama’s first summer, Ken Salazar announced that the ongoing string of temporary winter use plans would be extended for a couple of years while the NPS accepted comments on yet another round of EIS preparation.  The Clinton adminstration completed an full EIS process, and announced its final ruling (which banned snowmobiles) just in time for the winter during which W was sworn in; the Bush NPS team suspended that plan and launched a brand new round of comments under a new set of temporary rules.  While the Bush plan didn’t ban snowmobiles, it did require, for the first time, that all groups of snowmobilers go with a local professional guide.  This requirement led to a dramatic decrease in snowmobiles entering Yellowstone; most snowmobilers prefer being able to be footloose, and the huge expanses of National Forest land in the region became their preferred playground.  Complicating implementation of that plan, however, were dueling Federal court rulings that appeared to contradict each other; some of these uncertainties lingered on into 2009, as the Obama administration began overseeing the process.

Snomobison011805In the years since, the two-year extension of the Bush-era temporary plan stretched to four, and finally the new proposed plan has been released.  In truth, it isn’t all that different than the Bush plan in terms of total numbers of snowmobiles and snowcoaches, though it tweaks a few elements in ways that may reduce some impacts, especially air quality, over time.   It seems likely that the noise impacts will be roughly similar to those documented in a series of studies we covered here in 2009, in which NPS researchers found that snowmobiles or snowcoaches were audible over half the day in many popular areas, including at Old Faithful 68% of the time, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction.  Still, the new plan does include some absolute dB limits for snowmobiles (67dB) and snowcoaches (75dB), and requires best-available technology on all vehicles by five years from now. The plan opens the door a crack to unguided groups (allowing one per day from each Park entrance), and continues the expensive practice of using explosives to keep a rarely-used pass open to snowmobiles (at the behest of the businesses in nearby Cody, Wyoming).  While the plan slightly increases the average number of snowmobiles to be allowed (from 318 to 342), the actual daily average over the past several winters has been under 200 per day.

Given that previous plans have triggered lawsuits from both environmental groups seeking stricter rules and local business interests wanting fewer restrictions, it’s probably a good sign that both the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the snowmobile group Blue Ribbon Coalition responded with generally positive comments, while unlike 2009, no instant legal challenge came from the State of Wyoming, either. Fatigue has finally settled in, it appears, as the BRC’s spokesman suggested: “I think for my organization it would be important to resolve this and come up with a long-range plan that doesn’t get challenged in the courts.”

For detailed coverage of the new plan, see this article from National Parks Traveller.  The local Billings Gazette is always a good source for those wanting to track how this all unfolds.