This past Saturday I took myself on a turbine tour. The first stop was Gardner where turbines are located at the local prison and on the grounds of Mt. Wachusett Community College. The first thing I noticed at the North Central Correction Facility was that the turbines were not spinning. The second thing I noticed was how close the turbines are to the prison yard and the parking lot. The turbines dominated the parking lot, but it wasn’t until I took a photo of someone standing at the base of the turbine, that I really understood how big they are.
When change of shift started, I had the chance to ask why they weren’t operating. I was told that they had originally intended that the energy from the turbines would power the prison itself but due to the aging electrical infrastructure of the prison, it was determined that if they hooked them up “the prison would burn to the ground.”
A new $1.7 million transfer station was going to have to be built in order for the two turbines to become operational. I asked whether they were worried about ice fling into the prison yard. They told me that the turbines had to be 500 feet apart to prevent ice fling from one turbine to the other, but that there was no concern about ice fling in the parking lot or in the yard. One guard commented that “they don’t care about our safety.”
The two turbines at Mt. Wachusett Community College were spinning in light winds. As I approached the two turbines, the noise was fairly quiet, but the strobing “flicker” shadows were very intense. I had to turn my head away from the effect. The turning blades made the sound often described as a swooshing noise.
There are signs around the base of the turbine warning of ice and snow danger but being a Saturday, there was very little traffic either at the college or the courthouse, which is the nearest building to the turbines.
I stayed for about 15 minutes and realized that if you visit a turbine in light winds, they don’t sound very loud. I also noticed that the sound really changes as you walk around. Some places the sound almost disappears and in other places it seems much more noticeable. Directly under the turbines is actually quieter than standing in a spot about 25 feet away from the base. As I left, I noticed I had a slight headache that disappeared in about 10 minutes.
The 1.5 megawatt turbine on the school grounds at Templeton was spinning. Here is a link to photos of its construction. http://www.ceccapecod.com/PhotoGalleryDetails.asp?cid=4&pg=1040. This turbine seemed noisier to me. It produced a high tone, more grinding gear noises, the swooshing noises of the turning blades, and another sound I couldn’t quite describe. This turbine was placed on the athletic fields behind the school. It was Saturday, and there was no one on the school grounds to talk to.
I knocked on the door of one of the homes in a neighborhood nearby. I introduced myself as being from a town that was about to erect two similar turbines and asked what it was like living so close to the turbine. The homeowner was very willing to share that they were “not big fans” of the turbine. They were told by the town and their consultants that they wouldn’t be bothered by the turbine, but they were experiencing noise, flicker, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and concern about the loss of the value of their home.
Some of their neighbors had also expressed similar concerns. While we talked in the driveway, the wind came up, and for the first time I heard the noise that is described as a jet engine that never takes off. It was really, really loud and I began to get some sense of what it might be like to live there. The homeowner shared that they felt pretty isolated and that they did not know what to do or who to turn to.
The last stop of the night was an informational forum in Shelburne Falls. Annie Hart Cool from Falmouth shared her experiences living in close proximity to turbines with a powerpoint presentation and Neil Anderson, also from Falmouth, made himself available for questions.
The main presentation came from Dr. Nina Pierpont, author of the book Wind Turbine Syndrome, who presented her work and answered questions via Skype. I had read her book, but this was the first time I had heard her speak. She spent some time addressing her concerns with the recent Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection/Department of Public Health report and then made herself available for questions.
Shelburne Falls, like many towns in Massachusetts, is struggling with the questions of adverse health effects and environmental concerns that are swirling around industrial wind turbines. Truly open forums such as these are one way for citizens to hear information that helps them to make appropriate decisions as a community.
I took this tour because I wanted to see and hear turbines in operation. And I wanted to ask someone who lives within 1,000 feet from a turbine what they were experiencing. I learned that if you visit a turbine on a day with light winds you might come away with the impression that they are not that loud. If I had stopped my tour at Mt. Wachusett Community College, I myself might have felt that the noise was tolerable. But a 15-minute visit is very different from living near turbines 24/7. The audible noise changes dramatically with wind speed and direction, as well as the size of the turbines and the noise of the surroundings. The flicker effect was instantly oppressive and even 10 minutes of it was difficult to tolerate. But it was the conversation I had with the young homeowner in Templeton that convinced me that we should continue to be concerned about residences and town workers being in such close proximity to the imminent Little Bay wind turbines in Fairhaven.
I’ll admit I have a bias. I tend to believe the experiences of people actually living near wind turbines rather than the “model” projections of the wind developers wishing to construct them. I give more weight to Dr. Pierpont’s testimony because she has interviewed and studied families who have experienced a troubling constellation of symptoms that appeared after turbines went up near their homes. I admit to being troubled by the opinion of Dr. McCunney, who, by his own admission at the Fairhaven forum, has never interviewed or examined anyone who suffers these adverse health effects, preferring to draw all of his conclusions through the review of literature. And I admit to being impressed by a town like Shelburne Falls, which is proactively trying to hear all sides of the wind turbine story, instead of trying to limit the information that its citizens hear.
Recently I heard the Little Bay project described as a project for the public good. But the more homework I do, the more I question who this project is benefiting beside the developers. There are difficult and legitimate questions being asked all over the world about the true costs of wind energy. These questions are powerfully stated in an interview posted with Dave Umling, currently the city planner for Cumberland, MD, and author of the book Lifestyle Lost, in which he describes how his own research into wind power has left him with more questions than answers.
He asks, as we all should be asking, “Is this form of wind energy cost-effective? Do we fully understand the environmental impacts of wind, including reduced forest cover on sensitive ridgelines, rare earth mineral mining, and migratory bird and bat kills?”
The full interview with Mr. Umling is available at: http://alleghenytreasures.com/ in the entries for Jan. 30, 2012.
I don’t claim to know the answers to all of his questions, but I am committed to discovering the whole story, not just the one Fairhaven Wind LLC wants me to hear.
Louise Barteau is an occasional writer, artist, and papermaker who lives in Fairhaven. Her studio is located at the Fairhaven Business Bays at Arsene Street. which, along with the Fairhaven Department of Public Works, is located about 500 feet from the closest turbine site in Little Bay.
Editor’s note: Louise Barteau is a gardening correspondent for the Advocate, specializing in native plants. This column reflects her views and is not meant to represent the opinion of the Advocate.