Sneakers in a dryer, grinding teeth, a pack of barking poodles. It’s all sort of relative, isn’t it? After a summer of research into wind turbine noise and how it affects people, that is my best conclusion.
How about an illuminating story? Maine’s Board of Environmental Protection is considering new rules for siting turbines, rules that would set limits on noise levels in order to protect human health. This follows years of complaints from residents in Maine, primarily in two locations: Vinalhaven Island and an area in northern Maine surrounding the Mars Hill Wind Farm.
I attended a public hearing on July 7 in Augusta, Maine at which the BEP spent about ten hours listening to the public. Friends of the Maine Mountains presented expert testimony suggesting there is a direct link between turbine noise, loss of sleep, and human health. First Wind also assembled a panel of experts who testified there is no scientific link between turbine noise and human health.
This was followed by public comment, which was also diametrically opposed. One after another, residents of Vinalhaven and Houlton (near Mars Hill) gave impassioned speeches tinged with rage and tears, testifying that more must be done to protect their health. On the other side, reps from Renewable Energy New England, Maine Renewable Energy Association, and other groups made polished statements about how the proposed rule would strangle jobs and allow climate change to advance unabated.
I am not going to get into the technicalities of sound, or regurgitate academic and political discussions about sound limits. Scientists and consultants on both sides say there is evidence that suggest turbine noise does or does not affect human health. There is evidence suggesting both are correct. At the same time, you do not need to be a doctor to know that noise affects sleep, and loss of sleep can lead to health problems. So the question is this: What noise level is going to wake people up?
Unfortunately, there is no answer. Just look at the turbines in Falmouth and Hull, Massachusetts. Both are very close to bedrooms, yet Falmouth is in an uproar while Hull appears to be sleeping soundly. Why? There could be a few reasons, but truly none are conclusive. People in urban settings are more acclimated to noise and may have a higher tolerance for nighttime racket than those who live in the country. Turbine noise will also fluctuate wildly depending on wind speed and wind shear, the difference in wind speed and direction between the top and bottom of the blades.
Then there are different kinds of noise. How humans perceive low-frequency sound is hotly debated, but it will likely soon be regulated along with sound we can hear. Local geography plays a role, too – sound will radiate differently from a source if the landscape is flat or hilly. And then there is this impossible-to-plan-for-but-ever-present factor: All of us are different and, therefore, experience sound differently.
It is the job of elected and appointed officials – the people who will be setting noise limits for communities – to listen to both sides of this argument and make a decision. As a reporter, it is also my job to balance these positions and tell you where the truth lies. Here is the problem: The technical complexities of noise, as well as the proclivities of the human mind, seem to make it impossible to declare a universal limit to what our ears can handle. Lawmakers must make rules that are strict enough to protect human health and lenient enough to be adapted to each unique turbine proposal. And in conveying the truth to you – in a somewhat obfuscated story, I must say – at some point I have to go with my gut.
And my gut always goes back to Wendy Todd. Wendy lives in Holden, Maine with her husband and three children. Here she describes what it is like to watch her children struggle with the turbine noise.
I do not think this is in Wendy’s head. Her voice (not her words) says this is a legitimate problem that is seriously lessening her quality of life.
So how can New England’s lawmakers hit renewable energy goals without throwing some people under the bus? This quickly becomes a philosophical dilemma: What if one person in a town of 1000 is seriously disturbed by turbine noise? If she has lived in that community all her life, is it fair that she move? Is it fair that she be miserable for the benefit of the rest of the community? On the other hand, can we ever have rules that protect all people, all the time?
Yes, turbines are measurably better at preventing climate change than burning coal. Yes, wind turbines are going to be a part of reducing our dependency on fossil fuels. But this does not change the reality that industrial wind turbines are a relatively new technology, or that they are large, industrial structures. If we do not start operating with a precautionary principle aimed at protecting human health – even if we base that principle on anecdotal complaints rather than peer-reviewed science – people will begin to see wind energy as an invasive, industrial process that has no place near their homes. This means accepting that some land might be off the table. But it also means we do not trivialize people’s subjective, legitimate experiences.
Wind companies and environmental groups alike cannot afford to shoot themselves in the foot by pushing against the claims of people like Wendy Todd. These new rules will certainly put limits on where you can plant a turbine, making life more difficult for wind advocates. But galvanizing public support against wind energy could be far more detrimental to the industry – and any attempt to reduce our fossil fuel footprint.
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