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Grand Valley State University studies suggest wind turbine ‘flicker’ and noise is minimal

MUSKEGON – There would be fewer premature deaths and illnesses among West Michigan residents if wind turbines replaced coal-fired power plants, according to a Grand Valley State University study.

If 10 percent of West Michigan’s electrical production was shifted from coal power plants to commercial wind farms, 29 premature deaths, 270 cases of serious illness and 15,000 cases of minor illness could be avoided each year, according to a study conducted by the West Michigan Wind Assessment Project research team.

Led by GVSU assistant professor of biology Erik Nordman, the research team looked at the health effects of wind turbine “light flicker” and noise. “Flicker” is the pulsating shadowing of close-by homes and businesses by the movement of wind turbine blades when the sun is shining.

“Flicker is a very manageable and local issue,” Nordman said. “The modern wind turbine is very quiet. Turbine managers need to know what the local noise regulations are, but it is a very manageable concern.”

Nordman and the GVSU research team will present their findings at a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16 at Louit District Library, 407 Columbus, Grand Haven. Nordman also will present the team’s findings at the Great Lakes Wind Collaborative at Case Western University Sept. 19 through Sept. 21 in Cleveland.

The regional wind study is slated to issue a final report in May. In the meantime, other issue papers will be released on offshore wind, environmental challenges, electrical transmission and the visibility of turbines.

A survey of experts and those interested in the offshore wind issue will determine a consensus on what type of offshore wind project would be acceptable to communities. Those “delphi inquiry” results will be released this fall, Nordman said.

Wind turbine development has been one of the hottest public topics in West Michigan over the past year. A development company suggested two wind farms on Lake Michigan, while Consumers Energy is developing a 53-turbine, land-based wind farm in southern Mason County.

As for health effects of turbines, light flicker is an issue. In most cases, however, the shadows only pass over a specific location a few minutes on any sunny day, the GVSU team concluded. Some people are sensitive to such changing light patterns, but distance from the turbine tower and landscape buffers can nearly eliminate the effect.

As for noise, a modern wind turbine from 100 feet away is somewhere in between the noise from a normal human conversation to an operating lawn mower at 30 feet.

When the distance is stretched to 1,000 feet, a utility-size wind turbine makes noise on par with typical suburban background noise.

Beyond a half mile away, noise is not a concern in almost all cases, the GVSU researchers found. Nordman said future reports on offshore wind will say that an environmental-impact study on the East Coast Cape Wind project that is five miles offshore shows the wind farm will produce no noise on the shoreline.

Researcher Nina Pierpont has written about a “wind turbine syndrome” where multiple health problems are associated with living near a commercial wind farm, including concerns of “infrasound” – inaudible, low-frequency sound.

The Pierpont report is based on the experiences of 10 families who volunteered for the study because of health issues. A scientific medical study of the issues raised by Pierpont needs to be conducted, he said.

The health advantages to “clean energy” sources such as wind are unmistakable, the GVSU team concludes. The health consequences of continuing to burn coal in West Michigan power plants are tied to emissions of nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, ozone and mercury. Wind turbines are emission-free.

The premature death and illness issues are based upon studies in the scientific journal The Lancet. Air pollution from coal plants specifically harms those with existing health conditions, the researchers said.

The health concerns of wind and coal power as outlined by the GVSU researchers ring true with Muskegon County Public Health Director Ken Kraus.

“From a human health perspective, wind power is a large improvement over coal and other fossil fuels,” Kraus said after reading the GVSU report. “I personally think that moving to wind power is a good idea, if the finances work. I do not have concerns about the impact (of wind power) on human health.”

The assessment is funded by the Michigan Sea Grant program, and includes GVSU’s Annis Water Resources Institute in Muskegon and the Seidman College of Business.