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Noise, flicker, health and safety  

Author:  | Health, Noise, Regulations, Safety

[section 7.6.3.3 (pp. 575-576), “Wind Energy,” IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation, 2011]

A variety of proximal ‘nuisance’ effects are also sometimes raised with respect to wind energy development, the most prominent of which is noise. Noise from wind turbines can be a problem, especially for those living within close range. Possible impacts can be characterized as both audible and sub-audible (i.e., infrasound). There are claims that sub-audible sound, that is, below the nominal audible frequency range, may cause health effects (Alves-Pereira and Branco, 2007), but a variety of studies (Jakobsen, 2005; Leventhall, 2006) and government reports (e.g., FANM, 2005; MDOH, 2009; CMOH, 2010; NHMRC, 2010) have not found sufficient evidence to support those claims to this point. Regarding audible noise from turbines, environmental noise guidelines (EPA, 1974, 1978; WHO, 1999, 2009) are generally believed to be sufficient to ensure that direct physiological health effects (e.g., hearing loss) are avoided (McCunney and Meyer, 2007). Some nearby residents, however, do experience annoyance from wind turbine sound (Pedersen and Waye, 2007, 2008; Pedersen et al., 2010), which can impact sleep patterns and well-being. This annoyance is correlated with acoustic factors (e.g., sound levels and characteristics) and also with non-acoustic factors (e.g., visibility of, or attitudes towards, the turbines) (Pedersen and Waye, 2007, 2008; Pedersen et al., 2010). Concerns about noise emissions may be especially great when hub-height wind speeds are high, but ground-level speeds are low (i.e., conditions of high wind shear). Under such conditions, the lack of wind-induced background noise at ground level coupled with higher sound levels from the turbines has been linked to increased audibility and in some cases annoyance (van den Berg, 2004, 2005, 2008; Prospathopoulos and Voutsinas, 2005).

Significant efforts have been made to reduce the sound levels emitted by wind turbines. As a result, mechanical sounds from modern turbines (e.g., gearboxes and generators) have been substantially reduced. Aeroacoustic noise is now the dominant concern (Wagner et al., 1996), and some of the specific aeroacoustic characteristics of wind turbines (e.g., van den Berg, 2005) have been found to be particularly detectable (Fastl and Zwicker, 2007) and annoying (Bradley, 1994; Bengtsson et al., 2009). Reducing aeroacoustic noise can be most easily accomplished by reducing blade speed, but different tip shapes and airfoil designs have also been explored (Migliore and Oerlemans, 2004; Lutz et al., 2007). In addition, the predictive models and environmental regulations used to manage these impacts have improved to some degree. Specifically, in some jurisdictions, both the wind shear and maximum sound power levels under all operating conditions are taken into account when establishing regulations (Bastasch et al., 2006). Absolute maximum sound levels during the day (e.g., 55 A-weighted decibels, dBA) and night (e.g., 45 dBA) can also be coupled with maximum levels that are set relative to pre-existing background sound levels (Bastasch et al., 2006). In other jurisdictions, simpler and cruder setbacks mandate a minimum distance between turbines and other structures (MOE, 2009). Despite these efforts, concerns about noise impacts remain a barrier to wind energy deployment in some areas.

In addition to sound impacts, rotating turbine blades can also cast moving shadows (i.e., shadow flicker), which may be annoying to residents living close to wind turbines. Turbines can be sited to minimize these concerns, or the operation of wind turbines can be stopped during acute periods (Hohmeyer et al., 2005). Finally, wind turbines can shed parts of or whole blades as a result of an accident or icing (or more broadly, blades can shed built-up ice, or turbines could collapse entirely). Wind energy technology certification standards are aimed at reducing such accidents (see Section 7.3.2), and setback requirements further reduce the remaining risks. In practice, fatalities and injuries have been rare (see Chapter 9 for a comparison of accident risks among energy generation technologies).

This article is the work of the author(s) indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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