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Wind Farm Noise 2011: Science and policy overview  

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… Too often, noise complaints are discounted altogether as merely an easy excuse for those who are simply anti-wind, or who don’t like wind turbines in their view. There’s no doubt that some people who are more broadly resisting wind development latch onto the noise issue as one part of their argument, but it’s clearly false to imply that all those with noise concerns are anti-wind. Over and over again, the most compelling testimonies from wind farm neighbors who are struggling with noise issues come from those who were actually in favor of their local wind farm and excited about renewable energy in their communities. For most of these folks, the impact of 40-45db turbine noise comes as a total surprise, and it is this shock, as well as the ways the noise intrudes on their sense of place and rural quiet, that they most want to share, so that others can make decisions with this awareness about the perceptual intrusion of moderate noise that they lacked.

There is some research that shows correlations between noise annoyance and dislike of the wind farm itself. However, most such research took place after wind farms were in place, so it’s hard to know whether the negative attitude toward the wind farm is because of the noise issues, or contributes to the noise issues. It’s entirely plausible that the experience of struggling with noise would lead to a negative attitude toward the wind farm. In addition, none of these studies show anything close to a one-to-one correlation; there are always neighbors for whom the noise is the primary problem, or the aspect of the wind farm that they find hardest to get used to.

In small rural communities, many people report that tensions run high between those hosting or supporting wind development and others who are having problems with the noise or their health. It can be hard to know exactly how many people are struggling with noise issues, since some people shy away from making waves. It’s commonly reported by those in communities with noise issues that there are others either struggling with noise or trying to adjust to it who are not speaking out. These folks tend to question AEI’s generalization, based on the few formal surveys that have been published, that annoyance rises only to around half of those hearing turbines; they often suggest that most people hearing the noise are bothered, unless they’ve got some hearing loss. This may well be, though I am content with the idea that a strongly negative impact on a quarter to half of those exposed to turbine noise is enough to justify considering changes in current setback standards.

Both the discounting of noise issues, and the belief that they must be nearly universal, are natural consequences of differences in noise sensitivity (see Appendix A). Those who are sensitive to noise have a hard time imagining how anyone could tolerate the intrusion, while those who are tolerant of noise can’t see why it would bother anyone.

Finally, the objection is often voiced that community groups raising noise concerns are creating excessive fear about proposed wind developments, and that this fear itself may amplify or even create the negative reactions that are reported. This is a hard one to talk through, because it’s likely that some of the risks raised by community groups are presented as more definite or widespread than they actually are around active wind farms, while other concerns raised are clearly based on solid evidence. Suffice to say that just because some people highlight relatively rare cases of serious health impacts or people driven from their homes by lack of sleep, that doesn’t mean that either these examples are irrelevant, or that they will occur everywhere. And most centrally, even if these most dire experiences are rare and unlikely to happen to most wind farm neighbors, that doesn’t change the fact that high proportions of nearby neighbors in many communities say that the turbine noise has been an unpleasant and disruptive intrusion into their lives. It is this simpler yet perhaps more fundamental and universal value that I think is the most important thing to keep in mind.

But then, I’m someone who by vocational and personal experience is especially interested in, and connected to, the quality of the natural and human soundscape and the ways that new sounds change our experience of place. The arrival of spring migrant songbirds, the gradual fading away of night insects in the fall, the subtle play of breezes on trees nearby and hills in the distance, and the seasonal coming and going of the hum of the highway a mile away—these sounds all inform my sense of place. While I may be more focused on this than many people thanks to my line of work, such experiences are very common among a large segment of the rural population. This is the reason that AEI feels it’s important and worthwhile to keep emphasizing the extent of audible wind farm noise, and to encourage communities to make decisions based on some clear appreciation for how this may play out for their friends and neighbors. …

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