A response to “Wind farms – to be or not to be”, Nature and Society Feb-March 2013, pp. 6-7
When I joined the public service in Canberra in 1973 as a Graduate Clerk, I was fortunate to work first with the National Estate Committee of Inquiry, a pioneering environmental inquiry of the Whitlam government that set the scene for later significant environmental policy. Not a boring public service department, but straight into the deep end with the likes of Judith Wright, Len Webb, Milo Dunphy, and David Yencken.
By the late 1980s there was a surge of public and political interest in the urgency and environmental significance of climate change. Other than reference to four, five, or six degrees, a Greenhouse Alert! broadsheet produced for Australian schools for World Environment Day 1989 could have been written yesterday. Environment Ministers set up branches, then divisions, and then whole departments to deal with the issue.
Move forward another two decades and where are we? The ‘growth forever’ model is still well entrenched. Governments have facilitated the expansion of the emissions-heavy aviation industry. Mega coal mines have been opened to export yet more Australian coal. Emissions keep rising. Yet now we have planning and environment departments, even Prime Ministers, pushing a new saviour, most often seen in the classic environmental icon of the industrial wind turbine. Convinced? I’m not. On so many fronts, including adverse health effects, divided communities in conflict, questionable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and disrupted landscapes, industrial wind scores badly.
Alby Schultz MP gave a speech on wind power in the House of Representatives on 13 February 2013 . His electorate of Hume adjacent to the ACT takes in towns such as Goulburn, Yass, and Boorowa, where considerable wind farm activity is underway or planned. He summarises the situation well when he said that “communities are at war with each other, adjacent landholders face serious land value losses and health issues continue to emerge.”
With respect to the widely discussed health issue, Simon Chapman at the University of Sydney continues to promote his psychogenic theory, suggesting that any problems linked to adverse health effects from wind farms are psychologically created. Much was also made of this so-called ‘nocebo’ effect at a Senate hearing in 2012 to discuss a bill to control excessive noise from wind farms. The nocebo effect has been used by wind energy proponents such as Chapman and various wind energy associations as a way of invalidating claims about adverse health effects.
What is dangerous about Chapman’s use of psychogenic theory is that all manner of technology (e.g. industrial wind turbines, mobile phone towers, Wi-Fi) can be declared benign, when more detailed knowledge of the areas in question suggests the opposite.
For example, Chapman casts current concerns about electromagnetic fields as being merely a form of ‘technophobic’ anxiety about modern technology (Chapman, 2012). Although his background training is as a sociologist, he nevertheless gives mobile phones and mobile phone towers a clean bill of health. On the other hand, neurosurgeon Vini Khurana et al. (2010) reviewed epidemiological evidence of health risks, citing studies reporting increased prevalence of adverse neurobehavioural symptoms or cancer in populations living less than 500 metres from mobile base stations.
The shallowness and inaccuracy of Chapman’s assertions are highlighted by a major report – BioInitiative 2012 (www.bioinitiative.org) – which provides a rationale for biologically-based exposure standards for low-intensity electromagnetic radiation. With expertise in the biophysical and medical sciences, the contributing authors discuss the implications of 1,800 new studies since the 2007 BioInitiative report.
There is now reinforced scientific evidence of risk from chronic exposure to low-intensity electromagnetic fields and to wireless technologies. The report argues that the status quo is no longer acceptable in light of the evidence for harm, particularly given the large number of people exposed worldwide.
Chapman’s use of a one size fits all sociogenic theory is thus overworked, shallow, and simplistic. With respect to wind turbines, he ignores and is not interested in the direct biological effects of low frequency noise for example. Using the ‘nocebo’ concept as an explanation for the chronic sleep disorders from nighttime arousals related to noise is simply irresponsible.
There continues to be corporate and institutional denial of adverse health effects, in spite of the fact that there is strong evidence that wind turbines cause serious health problems in nearby residents at a nontrivial rate. The bulk of the evidence takes the form of thousands of adverse event reports. These reports provide compelling evidence of the seriousness of the problems. Nonetheless, proponents of turbines have sought to deny these problems by making contradictory claims such as the evidence does not ‘count’, the outcomes are not ‘real’ diseases and/or are the victims’ own fault, and that acoustical models cannot explain why there are health problems, and so the problems must not exist (Phillips, 2011).
There is some systematic peer reviewed research, such as a study in Maine USA, which demonstrated disturbed sleep, daytime sleepiness, and impaired mental health in residents living within 1.4 km of two wind turbine installations (Nissenbaum, Aramini, & Hanning, 2012). A study in New Zealand likewise found lower overall physical and environmental quality of life measures, including significantly lower sleep quality, in residents living within 2 km of a turbine installation (Shepherd, McBride, Welch, Dirks, & Hill, 2011). There is clearly a need for further systematic research as recommended by an Australian Senate inquiry on wind farms in 2011 (Senate Community Affairs References Committee, 2011). However, institutional inertia has been evident in implementing such recommendations to date, and in Canada, strong reservations have been expressed about the independence of proposed research by Health Canada (“Prominent physician and surgeon Dr. Robert McMurtry calls for wind turbine moratorium,” 2012).
Significantly, a legal hearing in 2011 in Ontario, Canada, heard evidence from teams of experts arguing for and against claims of adverse health effects from wind turbines. The Environmental Review Tribunal (2011) concluded: “This case has successfully shown that the debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence presented to the tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents.”
The current standards for assessing noise from wind farms in Australia are inadequate, particularly as they do not address the low frequency sound and infrasound strongly implicated in adverse health effects. Turbine noise has a character that makes it far more annoying and stressful than other sources of noise at the same sound level. This is in part because of an up and down amplitude modulation from the blade passage past the tower. In addition, a ‘pulsing’ infrasound and low frequency pattern is transmitted for long distances, and can readily penetrate walls and resonate inside rooms.
There is further a critique of the economics of wind power, with large subsidies being required to support wind. In Alby Schultz’s electorate of Hume alone, the subsidy for new wind turbines, excluding existing turbines, is set to reach $500 million to $1,000 million per year, or up to $10 billion over 10 years. Wind turbines are uneconomic unless they receive these very large subsidies. Moreover, wind requires backup when the wind is not blowing. Coal continues to be burnt while it is in standby mode (at least at 90% capacity), and coal consumption at power stations, according to industry figures, has not decreased.
Some argue that the costs of wind generation are coming down, but this is occurring by increasing the size of the turbines, creating more community angst, as the larger turbines are a significant imposition on the landscape and have a greater low frequency noise component. The costs of other renewables, particularly solar, are expected to come down much faster. Dieter Helm (Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University) considers that there has been much ‘hype’ about wind power and its ability to curb carbon emissions (Helm, 2012). It is no good trying to pick winners for the task of reducing carbon emissions successfully. Rather, market reforms that emphasise price are required, in order to get carbon emissions down in the cheapest way first, not the most expensive.
The mainstream ‘green’ position on wind turbines generally assumes that wind power reduces human production of greenhouse gases, and that some people may suffer some discomfort. It argues that wind power, while not perfect is of net benefit, and there is no way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions without human cost. I consider that this summation to be flawed and illogical.
Both the Greens and Doctors for the Environment Australia invoke the precautionary principle in relation to coal seam gas, but ignore it in relation to wind turbines. Ironic indeed when companies like AGL are involved in both wind farms and coal seam gas, the latter mining activity producing low frequency noise emissions too. If the precautionary principle were used, setbacks from houses of at least 10 km would be justified, given the lack of a systematic research base to support the safety of wind turbines. The health problems are often severe, forcing people out of their homes. Who can say what effect it is having on other species. The pernicious nature of the sound is considerably worse than other noise sources at the same decibel level.
Arguing in favour of a flawed approach by comparison with coal is a little like saying that execution by lethal injection is better than by hanging. Ideology has primarily driven the green argument, whereas there is scant access to and awareness of knowledge on the noise and health fronts for example. This underlines the critical importance of a holistic health/social cohesion/technology/economic/climate change assessment, not in silos by people coming at it from different perspectives. When a holistic assessment is undertaken, solar PV and solar thermal are way ahead when compared with industrial wind in my view – to say nothing of energy conservation measures.
Chapman, S. (2012). The sickening truth about wind farm syndrome New Scientist. Retrieved from http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21628850.200-the- sickening-truth-about-wind-farm-syndrome.html
Environmental Review Tribunal. (2011, 18 July). Erickson v. Director, Ministry of the Environment. Retrieved 13 March, 2012, from http://www.ert.gov.on.ca/files/201107/ 00000300-AKT5757C7CO026-BGI54ED19RO026.pdf
Helm, D. (2012, 6 February). Dieter Helm: Forget the Huhne hype about wind power. The Times. Retrieved from http://www.dieterhelm.co.uk/media
House of Representatives proof Federation Chamber Bills Second Reading Speech 13 February. (2013). Speech: Alby Schultz MP (pp. 147-149).
Khurana, V. G., Hardell, L., Everaert, J., Bortkiewicz, A., Carlberg, M., & Ahonen, M. (2010). Epidemiological evidence for a health risk from mobile phone base stations. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 16(3), 263-267.
Nissenbaum, M. A., Aramini, J. J., & Hanning, C. D. (2012). Effects of industrial wind turbine noise on sleep and health. Noise & Health, 14(September-October), 237-243.
Phillips, C. V. (2011). Properly interpreting the epidemiologic evidence about the health effects of industrial wind turbines on nearby residents. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(4), 303-315.
Prominent physician and surgeon Dr. Robert McMurtry calls for wind turbine moratorium. (2012, 19 July). Retrieved 14 March, 2013, from http://www.canadafreepress.com/ index.php/article/48174
Senate Community Affairs References Committee. (2011). The social and economic impact of rural wind farms. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Shepherd, D., McBride, D., Welch, D., Dirks, K. N., & Hill, E. M. (2011). Evaluating the impact of wind turbine noise on health-related quality of life. Noise & Health, 13(September-October), 333-339.
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