A big wind energy proposal near Lake Michigan is promising to pump about a hundred million dollars into the economy over the next couple of decades.Supporters see wind as a good alternative to burning more coal. But questions are being raised about possible health effects from such large scale projects.
If Not Coal…
Alan O’Shea has been in the business of selling renewable energy for more than thirty years. He was part of an effort to stop a new coal plant in the town of Manistee several years ago. But since then he’s also seen northern Michigan communities reject wood biomass and offshore wind.
“We have to be open and frank and say: if not coal, if not wood chips, and not wind what the hell are we going to do?” O’Shea is now a consultant for Duke Energy.
The North Carolina energy giant held an open house in a high school gym. The company wants to build more than a hundred 500-foot tall turbines in rural Benzie and Manistee counties. Michigan officials have identified parts of these two counties as having the second-highest potential for producing wind energy in the state.
O’Shea thinks Duke’s project is a good fit for the area: “We don’t have to wait for Michigan to heal. This project can heal northern Michigan. I mean there are people, workers that are here looking for jobs.”
But there also are people opposed to this project, and on the same day that O’Shea was talking up Duke’s plan, opponents drew hundreds of people to a film in a nearby town. The documentary featured voices of people in a small upstate New York whose good feelings about wind power have turned sour.
An Industry Standard Questioned
Opponents are raising questions about all kinds of concerns related to wind turbines. But most people seem to agree a key issue is how far from neighboring homes the turbines will be built.
A typical industry standard is 1,000 feet, but new research suggests maybe a mile or more is necessary to buffer against the noise.
Peter Guldberg says, even in sparsely populated places, it would be difficult to find a square mile where there’s not at least one house. He’s an acoustic consultant for Duke.
“Suggestions that wind turbines need to be set back a mile-and-a-quarter or a mile-and-a-half from any sort of occupied areas are basically a back door ban on wind energy,” he says.
Guldberg says Duke’s project will be designed to produce 45 decibels of sound at the nearest home.
But Jerry Punch says that may still have adverse effects for some people. Punch is an audiologist and professor at Michigan State University. He’s looked at available studies of wind noise from turbines world- wide, and he concludes that once sound gets above 40 decibels, especially at night, about one-in-four or five people gets annoyed by it.
The most documented effect is sleep loss or interruption.
“Those are potential people who could complain and file lawsuits,” Punch says. “And so it becomes pretty important for the wind industry to look at annoyance as real. Even though it may not be directly affecting health I think it indirectly affects health when it interferes with sleep.”
Punch says to protect everyone from the noise, turbines may have to be at least a mile away from a residence.
That’s the kind of conundrum local officials will have to try to solve as they develop rules for locating wind towers.
How can they allow development of wind energy while still protecting public health and safety?
Rochelle Rollenhagen, zoning administrator for Pleasanton Township, says one thing they’re looking at is allowing exceptions in the rules for neighbors who agree among themselves about how far away to place a windmill.
“Our ordinance is definitely going to have a provision in there where you can actually wave, if a neighbor is next to another neighbor, that setback can be waived,” she says.
Research shows those who get paid for having a windmill on their land are much less likely to complain about adverse effects. Duke Energy is offering a share of revenue to all landowners who sign a lease, even if they don’t end up with a turbine on their property.
The company hopes that will reduce the chance for the kind of lawsuit alleging negative health effects. Those are cropping up in several places across the country, including in Michigan’s Thumb area.
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