Wind power often appears in environmental images as one of the iconic clean sources of electricity that will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, as for example, in the Federal government’s advertising program on the carbon tax. In Lester Brown’s 2011 book World on the Edge, he tracks the rapid development of wind power on a global scale as part of the shift to renewable electricity generation. Between 2000 and 2010 according to the Global Wind Energy Council, world wind electric generating capacity increased at a frenetic pace from 17,000 megawatts to nearly 200,000 megawatts.
Wind power also seems to have an ability to generate considerable conflict. On both energy grounds and with respect to threats to countryside, James Lovelock (2009, p. 81) states that “Europe’s massive use of wind as a supplement to base load electricity will probably be remembered as one of the great follies of the twenty-first century – an example of impressive engineering misused by ideology and as inappropriate as passenger transport by hydrogen-filled airships”. Likewise Prince Charles is given as one of a number of exemplary environmental sustainability leaders in a recent book on this topic (Parkin, 2010). Yet on the question of wind farms, his position has consistently been that they are “a horrendous blot on the landscape” and if they have to be built at all, it should be well out at sea.
Rising concerns about the adverse health effects of wind farms were aired in an ABC Four Corners program (“Against the wind”, 25 July 2011), and also explored by a Senate committee, with its final report in June 2011. The committee report states that it “received many accounts of adverse health effects in submissions and during its hearings. A significant number of submissions gave actual accounts of serious symptoms of ill health that witnesses said occurred after wind turbines began operating in close proximity to their residences” (Senate Community Affairs References Committee, 2011, p. 7).
Ruth Corrigan lives near the Capital Wind Farm near Bungendore, energy from which is being used for Sydney Water’s new desalination plant. Her account (submission no. 622) to the Senate committee is typical of the commonly reported diminished quality of life after wind farms begin operation: “To the northwest of our home there are 17 turbines ranging from about 2 to 4 kms from us, to the south there are another 10 or so … When the wind blows from the NE the noise from the turbines can be heard inside and outside the house, constant and relentless, over the sound of wind in the trees. It is particularly loud at night when the constant sound is often accompanied by a whoomp or pulse, which can be felt as well as heard. We are often startled awake sometimes as many as 4-5 times a night with the noise sounding as though a truck is coming in, sleep loss of up to 3 hours a night is not uncommon.
Since the existing turbines began operating in mid 2009 I have suffered frequent nosebleeds, sometimes on a daily basis, and headaches as well as a feeling of fuzziness in the head and almost constant tiredness”.
Another example comes from a resident of the “West Wind” wind farm in Makara, New Zealand (Thorne, 2011, p. 282): “We … get the low-frequency thump/whump inside the house, is very similar to a truck driving past or boy racers sub woofer 100 meters away … we have no line of sight turbines and the closest one in 1.35 km away. There are however 27 turbines within 2.5 km. The sound is extremely “penetrating” and while we have a new house with insulation and double glazing, the low frequency modulation is still very evident in the dead of night”.
The contrasting position from the wind industry and its advocates (including many people supporting renewable energy) is that there isn’t an issue concerning noise and vibration. The parallel with a sound akin to that of a refrigerator is made, for example. Consider the comments to the Senate committee (submission no. 204) from Dr Mark Diesendorf, Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of New South Wales: “Noise is rarely a problem beyond a distance of 500m and very few dwellings in Australia are within 400m of a large wind turbine. Licence conditions for wind farms should, and mostly do, set objective, measurable noise limits”. Similarly, a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Rapid Review of the evidence in July 2010 acknowledged that while a range of effects such as annoyance, anxiety, hearing loss, and interference with sleep, speech and learning have been reported anecdotally, there is no published scientific evidence to support adverse effects of wind turbines on health.
However, there are good grounds for questioning the above. An NHMRC Scientific Forum on Wind Farms and Human Health held in June 2011 (a year after its Rapid Review) had four presentations from those regarded as experts in the area. Of significance is the wide divergence in the assessments presented. Those challenging the wind industry position included Dr Bob Thorne, whose expertise is in noise assessment and monitoring. In contrast to the wind industry position that there are no adverse impacts on people from wind farms, Dr Thorne stated that there is already peer-reviewed research on the deleterious effects of wind farm noise on people. Complaint histories to regulatory authorities are another form of evidence. For example, in the period April 2009 to March 2010, 906 complaints were made to Wellington City Council, New Zealand concerning the noise from the wind farm at Makara. The Te Rere Hau wind farm in New Zealand recorded 378 complaints over an 11-month period, and is the subject of a legal review of its compliance (Thorne, 2011).
Another presentation was from Professor Mariana Alves-Pereira from Lisbon, Portugal. Her team has been systematically studying the effects of infrasound and low frequency noise (<500 Hz) in both human and animal models since 1980, and more recently in relation to wind turbines. She makes the point that the dBA scale commonly used to measure audible noise de-emphasizes all acoustical phenomena below 500 Hz, and ignores infrasound. Her research work to date suggests that in-home infrasound and low frequency noise generated by wind turbines can lead to severe health problems.
The peer-reviewed journal the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society of August 2011 is devoted to the issue of wind turbines and health, with papers from medical and other professionals such as those in the noise measurement and assessment field. Robert McMurtry (2011), a former Dean of Medicine at the University of Western Ontario, puts forward a scheme for the diagnosis of adverse health effects in the environs of industrial wind turbines, in order to facilitate future research efforts. He reports that there was multidisciplinary confirmation of the key characteristics of the adverse health effects in the environs of industrial wind turbines at the first international symposium on this issue held in Ontario in October 2010.
The adverse effects include issues such as continuing sleep disruption, fatigue, annoyance producing increased levels of stress and/or psychological distress, headaches, tinnitus, earache, difficulties with balance, cognitive impairments, hypertension, palpitations, nausea, and compromised quality of life. In addition, there is a striking similarity internationally in the pattern of complaints, with a predictable pattern of symptoms with exposure to wind turbines, and amelioration when the exposure ceases. Additionally, there is a revealed preference for victims to seek restoration away from their homes.
With respect to the number of people affected, John Harrison (2011) (Emeritus Professor in Physics, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada) states that wind turbines cause annoyance in about 20% of residents living within a distance currently considered acceptable by regulatory authorities, and that for many of this 20%, the annoyance and sleep disturbance leads on to adverse health effects. In addition, anecdotal evidence and field studies suggest that turbine noise has a character that makes it far more annoying and stressful than other sources of noise at the same A-weighted sound level. The characteristics of wind turbine noise are linked in part it is believed to the amplitude modulation associated with the blade passage past the tower. A “pulsing” infrasound and low frequency pattern able to be transmitted for longer distances enhances annoyance, and is readily able to penetrate walls and resonate inside rooms. Because wind farms are unique sound sources, and the sound propagation varies significantly under differing wind and weather conditions, Thorne (2011) suggests that full-time real-time monitoring of wind farms is required to check for compliance. Further, the complex character of wind turbine noise means that compliance measures based on a specified noise number alone (e.g. a dBA level) will fail to address the noise issues.
It is apparent that the wind turbine issue has become very polarized with widely varying positions being adopted. Where noise problems are acknowledged, some academics such as Professors Simon Chapman at the University of Sydney and Keith Petrie at the University of Auckland subscribe to the mass hysteria ideas promoted by controversial British psychiatrist Simon Wessely. Such assessments primarily implicate people’s fears and anxieties about new technologies to explain noise complaints and sleeping difficulties that appear in conjunction with wind farm developments. [I am not persuaded by such arguments, given the seriousness of some of the adverse health effects observed. In addition, some people are obliged for health reasons to move away from their properties]. At the other pole are people such as the US paediatrician Nina Pierpont (2009), whose proposed pathophysiology posits direct disturbance to the body’s balance system, with low frequency noise or vibration stimulating the organs of the inner ear, and visual stimulation from moving shadows also acting in a discordant fashion. On the latter, residents’ complaints sometimes extend beyond the noise and vibration issues, to visual factors such as blade glint and flicker, and the red glow from warning lights on the top of each tower (essentially light pollution).
Many unanswered questions arise, and much research remains to be done. The Senate report (2011) recommends as a matter of priority adequately resourced epidemiological studies on the possible impacts of wind farms on human health. In addition, the committee recommends the development of separation criteria between residences and wind farms. Various health authorities have recommended setback distances in the range of 1.5 to 2 kilometres. McMurtry’s (2011) schema for adverse health effects includes domicile within 5 km of industrial wind turbines as a criterion. Until the necessary studies are done, the Waubra Foundation in Australia recommends a precautionary approach of 10 km. Thorne (2011) suggests that further detailed research is needed to establish setback distances.
Offshore wind farms are potentially one way of avoiding the noise issues linked to onshore wind turbines, but even here noise can be a problem, as sound propagates readily over water. Using an example with 64 offshore wind turbines, Harrison (2011) finds that for the “worst case scenario” the setback of the wind farm needs to be 20 km offshore. Denmark is looking to push the wind share of its electricity to 50% by 2025, with most of the additional power coming from offshore.
Over a thousand submissions were made to the Australian Senate inquiry (Senate Community Affairs References Committee, 2011, p. 67), with 535 being pro–wind farm, 468 being anti–wind farm, and 14 being neutral. It should be noted that those who are initially pro-wind farm can later switch to being anti–wind farm, after the wind farm is installed. According to the Acoustic Ecology Institute in the USA, many people living near wind farms report that noise from large wind turbines is much more disruptive than they had been led to believe by project planners.
The need for a pragmatic approach to conflict management is perhaps best summarised in the following comment from the same institute: “If the thousands of wind farms likely to be built in the coming decade are placed too close to homes, the industry will be faced with an echoing chorus of complaints and resistance for years to come, even if it manages to invent much quieter machines. Better to be conservative, accepting the fact that even occasional atmospheric effects should be factored in to siting decisions today, so as to build a reservoir of good will, rather than a rising tide of complaints”.
Nature and Society, October-November 2011, pp. 10-13
Harrison, J. P. (2011). Wind turbine noise. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(4), 256-261.
Lovelock, J. (2009). The vanishing face of Gaia: A final warning. Melbourne: Allen Lane.
McMurtry, R. Y. (2011). Toward a case definition of adverse health effects in the environs of industrial wind turbines: Facilitating a clinical diagnosis. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(4), 316-320.
Parkin, S. (2010). The positive deviant: Sustainability leadership in a perverse world. London: Earthscan.
Pierpont, N. (2009). Wind turbine syndrome. Santa Fe, NM: K-Selected Books.
Senate Community Affairs References Committee. (2011). The social and economic impact of rural wind farms. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.
Thorne, B. (2011). The problems with “noise numbers” for wind farm noise assessment. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 31(4), 262-290.
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