It’s a gray, rainy August morning in the South Shore town of Kingston, and I’m standing in a gravel pit, looking up at a windmill that, at some 400 feet to the tip of its blades, is more than half the height of the Prudential Tower. I’d seen the giant turbine, and three other large ones, from several miles out as I approached from Route 3, but only now, standing right under it, can I appreciate the sheer size. As gusts of wind rustle the long grass at my feet, the turbine whirs steadily, the rotation of its 144-foot fiberglass blades, each weighing 6 tons, accompanied by a faint whoosh and whistle. A low electric hum emanates from the nacelle, a school-bus-size structure behind the blades that houses a generator capable of producing up to 2 megawatts of clean electricity. Operating at 35 percent capacity, as is typical for onshore windmills, that’s enough to power as many as 700 homes while producing 2,300 fewer tons of carbon dioxide each year than would conventional power sources.
The turbine, and the two others nearby, belong to No Fossil Fuel, a small company founded by a local businesswoman, who has converted some of the land below them into an organic farm. They cost about $2.5 million apiece and have together generated nearly $2.3 million in revenue since they went up at the end of 2011. Kingston, with a population of about 12,000, is also home to a 400-foot turbine that the town authorized a private developer to plant on a capped landfill in exchange for rent payments and a deal on electricity. Then there’s the comparatively miniature windmill—just 120 feet tall—that the MBTA operates next to Kingston’s commuter-rail station.
The turbines in Kingston are part of a fast-developing effort to build up wind power in Massachusetts. Last year there were 43 onshore wind projects in the state supplying enough energy for about 32,000 homes, and more than half of that capacity had come online since 2012. Another five times that capacity was in the planning or permitting stages last year. Governor Deval Patrick has set a goal of wind supplying Massachusetts with 10 percent of its electricity—enough to power 800,000 homes—by 2020. That would mean as many as 1,000 turbines on land and offshore. And that has a lot of people concerned, because even though polling shows that most Massachusetts residents support the turbine effort, windmills, as I’ve begun to learn during my time in Kingston, produce a lot more than just clean energy.
To the east of the gravel pit where I’m standing is Route 3, known along this stretch as the Pilgrims Highway, and on the far side of the busy roadway is a cul-de-sac of modest gambrel and split-level houses built around 1980. In one of these lives the Reilly family—Doreen, her husband, Sean, and their three teenage children. The turbine on the landfill is 960 feet from their back door.
“It makes you sick—you have to leave your home,” says Doreen as we sit around the Reillys’ kitchen table after work one evening. A 49-year-old hospital registrar who usually works a swing shift, she tears up from time to time as she talks about the turbine.
Sean, a fit 49-year-old with a blond buzz cut, describes how for several weeks each year the setting sun behind the turbine casts the house in a moving shadow. “The flicker illuminates the whole room,” he says. “It takes over the whole house.”
“And the noise from a turbine is something else entirely,” Doreen says.
“It’s just a pulsating noise that goes to different pitches,” Sean explains. “It gets in your house—there’s a pressure to it. There’ve been nights when it’s woken me up every hour, on the hour.”
Sean would like to move away, and the couple has made a halfhearted effort to sell their home of 20 years. But Doreen and a handful of other Kingston residents have also taken up a battle to get the town’s windmills turned off. They’ve amassed reams of documents, attended meetings of various town boards, and spoken against the turbines to neighbors and local media. “I have put in maybe 200 hours at least on this turbine,” Doreen says. “I’ve read more about turbines than I ever wanted to know.”
For help, Doreen and her neighbors also did what scores of homeowners across Massachusetts have done when faced with a windmill in their backyard: They looked to the grassroots organization that has emerged as the face of the state’s anti-turbine movement, Wind Wise Massachusetts. Relying on volunteers and individual donations, the group has worked to defeat wind projects from Nantucket to Lenox. (Its list of “dead” projects now numbers 48, most of which were killed by opposition from nearby homeowners.) Wind Wise and its allies believe wind turbines are noisy and ugly, and that their ability to reduce greenhouse gases has been vastly overstated. The group also believes windmills are responsible for wind turbine syndrome, a controversial diagnosis involving dizziness, nausea, headaches, ear pain, and an array of other frightening symptoms in people who live too close to large turbines.
In addition to the turbines Wind Wise has managed to scuttle, it has been able, so far at least, to block a proposed state law that would relax regulations and make it easier to build new windmills. “We have no money, really,” says Virginia Irvine, a Brimfield resident and the president of Wind Wise. “We try to bring information to people, and it’s really difficult when you are a grassroots organization.” The cause is helped by the fact that Wind Wise now has volunteers in 200 towns and about 20 affiliated local groups. It also maintains an active Web presence, mobilizes speakers to testify on Beacon Hill, and employs an energetic PR man.
Wind Wise, as you might imagine, is not without its critics. Professor James Manwell, a mechanical engineer and director of the Wind Energy Center at UMass Amherst, says Massachusetts is windy enough to eventually generate all of the energy it needs from turbines, but he worries that the growing backlash from groups like Wind Wise could set that goal back indefinitely. “I consider the opponents a real hindrance,” Manwell says. People who live near turbines have some legitimate concerns, he adds, but “it’s hard to separate fact from hysteria.”
Environmentalists and state officials who believe that wind is a crucial weapon against climate change have been squaring off against Wind Wise and its allies in towns like Kingston all across the state, and the battles have created strange bedfellows. People who might otherwise support clean energy suddenly find themselves joining forces with climate-change skeptics in a fight to keep giant turbines out of their communities. Looming above the struggle are important questions about how the state regulates wind, and about the role of the fossil-fuel industry in an ostensibly grassroots movement.
On the ground, however, the concerns are more immediate. “We don’t hate wind turbines,” Sean Reilly says. “We just want our quality of life back.”
In Kingston, the fight to have the windmills taken offline has ignited a battle that’s turned neighbor against neighbor. Those who support the turbines say Wind Wise volunteers are interlopers spreading misinformation. Arguments over turbine noise and the alleged health impacts have erupted on Facebook and spilled over into town meetings. Meanwhile, a group of 10 homeowners has sued the town’s zoning board of appeals and No Fossil Fuel, the owner of three of the windmills in town, alleging that the building permits for the project were illegal. While officials express sympathy for families like the Reillys, some say all the discord threatens to drown out legitimate concerns about noise and shadow flicker. “There are divisions in town that weren’t there before,” says Elaine Fiore, the chair of Kingston’s board of selectmen.
Though the turbines face fierce opposition in some corners of Kingston, overall they remain quite popular. A survey by Tufts University in 2012 found that 78 percent of residents approved of them, and just 26 percent said the sound was disturbing. Beyond the allure of generating clean energy, people in town also like the financial benefits provided by the windmills. The turbine on the landfill produces $124,630 in annual lease and tax payments for the town, a figure that will rise during the 20-year lease, plus some $70,000 a year in energy savings. The privately owned turbines, meanwhile, bring Kingston as much as $200,000 a year in property taxes and about $1,000 a month in energy savings. And in part because it eased the permitting process for alternative-energy projects, Kingston is now designated as a Massachusetts Green Community, resulting in more than $450,000 in state grants so far. Kingston town planner Tom Bott says the town has used the grants to upgrade its fire station, elementary school, and library.
Supporters of the town’s turbines cast Wind Wise as a pack of reactionaries thwarting the promise of green energy. “We all realize that global warming is not a joke,” says Mark Beaton, who spent the better part of a decade trying to bring wind to Kingston, and who is chair of the town’s Green Energy Committee. Beaton and I are having lunch at the bar and grill he owns in town, the Charlie Horse. He’s installed solar panels on the restaurant’s roof, and he runs his truck on biodiesel made from the kitchen’s leftover grease. His face turns red when he talks about Wind Wise, which he says is holding back progress on climate change—and playing into the hands of the fossil-fuel industry. “Kingston is just a little microcosm of what’s going on,” he says. “It’s not really grassroots that creates this kind of misinformation, and it’s certainly not in the interest of the fossil-fuel people to have clean energy.”
Indeed, some conservative activists with ties to the fossil-fuel industry have recognized the benefits of allying themselves with groups like Wind Wise. In 2010, a self-described “backwoods scientist” and prominent climate-change skeptic from North Carolina named John Droz Jr. spoke at a lecture series in West Barnstable organized by Wind Wise’s Cape Cod affiliate. He also gave a talk in Falmouth in 2012 at the invitation of Wind Wise volunteers there. Droz, as it happened, was then a senior fellow at the American Tradition Institute (now called the Energy & Environment Legal Institute), a think tank funded in part by the oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, where he argued tirelessly that turbines are inefficient and a waste of money. In February 2012, Droz hosted a group of “wind warriors” at a two-day meeting in Washington to plan a national public relations campaign against wind energy. In attendance were officials from right-wing groups with such upbeat names as “the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow” and “the Competitive Enterprise Institute,” along with representatives from 20 to 30 state and local groups, including Wind Wise Massachusetts and the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, a group organized to oppose the Cape Wind project. The goal of the meeting, according to a memo later leaked to the U.K. newspaper The Guardian, was to “create a grass-roots ground swell from which the clamor for change will reach the elected officials and policy-makers.” The memo stressed the importance of “inputs from local groups and others who have an interest in spreading the message.”
Wind Wise leaders are adamant that the group has no ties to fossil fuel, but it has been successful at getting the anti-wind message out. Mark Beaton recalls a panel discussion the group held at the Kingston Intermediate School shortly after the town’s turbines were turned on in the spring of 2012. The panelists, most of them representatives of Wind Wise, raised a number of concerns about windmills, among them that they lower nearby property values (in truth, the few surveys that exist have shown little actual effect); that they loom over landscapes, dwarfing human-scale buildings; and that they produce sounds and shadows that drive some neighbors, like the Reillys, to distraction. But what really moved the crowd in attendance, Beaton tells me, were the frightening stories about wind turbine syndrome. “They scared the living bejesus out of the residents of Kingston,” he says.
Wind turbine syndrome has recently begun to receive more and more attention. Its vaguely defined but disturbing constellation of physical symptoms range from anxiety and migraines to heart palpitations and high blood pressure. The symptoms are said to be attributable to low-frequency sound. “We think of noise as just being felt with the ears,” explains Lilli-Ann Green, a healthcare consultant and former art teacher who sits on the Wind Wise board and is the group’s top adviser on the science behind wind turbine syndrome. “But sound is pressure waves—it’s hitting your body over and over again. Many people have ear pressure and ear pain and headaches. A lot of people have nausea and dizziness, the same symptoms you would see if you were seasick.” Green’s concern over the syndrome helped motivate her to form a local group that defeated a proposed turbine near her home in Wellfleet in 2010. After that, she and her husband began spreading the message in towns like Kingston and Falmouth, as well as in other communities where public opposition wound up sinking wind proposals.
For his part, Mark Beaton believes that wind turbine syndrome is so much hooey. “They come in, get people riled up, give them misinformation,” he says. “We have countered all their claims at public meetings, said, ‘This is not happening.’”
Still, in community after community where windmill projects are being considered, the specter of wind turbine syndrome has roused opposition. “Typically what happens is people hear that a wind power plant is going to be built in their town, and they get online and start doing research,” says Eleanor Tillinghast, who lives in the Berkshires and helped found Wind Wise Massachusetts in 2010. “And then they reach out to us.”
On a blustery day in September, I travel to Falmouth to visit Sue Hobart, a woman who has received her share of coverage in the local press because she believes she is suffering from a serious case of wind turbine syndrome. Though Hobart has no official affiliation with Wind Wise, the group’s publicist, Barry Wanger, has urged me to meet with her so I can see for myself the effects of living near a windmill.
Hobart has asked me to meet her at her abandoned home, a custom-built ranch at the end of a long gravel driveway, surrounded by scrub oak and wilting hydrangeas. When I arrive, she and her husband, Ed, take me on a tour of the house, which has been sitting empty since 2012, when they fled to a fixer-upper in Bourne. On the back deck, we pause to peer through the trees at a 400-foot turbine that sits next to a sand pit about 1,600 feet away. When I can hear it, the turbine sounds like a far-off jet plane.
“You hear that thing that’s like a roar?” Ed asks.
“Nobody thinks it’s going to hurt them, a little sound like that,” Sue says. “You think you can get used to it, but it gets worse and worse.” We listen to the turbine for another minute or two, and then Sue suggests we retreat to the front porch, where we won’t get “whomped.”
Sue, who is 58, says she first began feeling symptoms of wind turbine syndrome shortly after the town’s third windmill went up, in the summer of 2011. It started with a little dizziness and a persistent headache, which she attributed to the busy season at her job as a wedding florist, and to the stress of having Ed, a research engineer at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, away at sea. She felt nauseous and tired, and she couldn’t sleep. In time, she came to realize that she felt better when she was away from the house, and slowly it dawned on her that the turbine was making her ill. She began to research wind turbines online, eventually coming across the work of Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician in upstate New York.
The idea that windmills can make you sick was popularized by Pierpont in her book, Wind Turbine Syndrome, which she self-published in 2009. After windmill developers came to her town in 2004 seeking land leases, Pierpont conducted phone interviews with 10 families in North America and Europe who reported disturbed sleep, ear problems, headaches, irritability, and loss of cognitive function after wind turbines were built nearby. She concluded that infrasound—noise at frequencies below the level of human hearing—could be interfering with the balance organs of the inner ear and causing people’s internal organs to vibrate. The book’s methodology and conclusions remain highly controversial. Pierpont declined to be interviewed for this article.
Steven Rauch, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at Harvard Medical School who examined Sue Hobart, says Pierpont’s hypothesis is plausible, although until further research is done, he considers himself “agnostic.” “There is no direct evidence yet to support this diagnosis,” Rauch says, “but there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence that says it’s probably real.” The inner ear’s sensitivity to infrasound has been documented previously, he explains, and “it deserves to be studied.”
A few surveys by doctors and psychologists in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and Europe have similarly found that some people who live near wind turbines report symptoms consistent with the syndrome, but so far no rigorous research has directly supported Pierpont’s claims. In 2012 a literature review commissioned by the Massachusetts departments of Environmental Protection and Public Health found no evidence that the syndrome exists—though that conclusion has been vigorously disputed by Wind Wise. And last year a team of researchers at the University of Sydney, in Australia, concluded the syndrome is a “communicated disease,” likely to be caused by the nocebo effect. I asked the study’s lead author, the public health professor Simon Chapman, what that means, exactly. “The nocebo effect,” he told me, “is the ugly stepsister of the placebo effect.” People can experience real, physical symptoms simply because they expect an otherwise harmless substance or stimulus to hurt them, Chapman explained. “The old expression ‘to worry yourself sick’ is very relevant here.”
Chapman and his colleagues searched records to compile a history of complaints against wind farms in Australia, and found that nearly two-thirds had never received complaints about health or noise from people who lived nearby. The majority of complaints, he says, came from people who lived near six wind farms that had been targeted by opposition groups, and 79 percent occurred after 2009, when Pierpont’s book was published and groups opposing wind power began spreading the word.
Chapman’s conclusion was bolstered by a recent New Zealand study from the University of Auckland, which showed that people who are told that infrasound can make them ill later report feeling unpleasant symptoms when told they’re being exposed to infrasound in the lab—even when they are not. People who weren’t told to expect adverse effects were far less likely to report problems, even when exposed to actual infrasound.
Still, Chapman acknowledges, telling people it’s all in their head will not make wind turbine syndrome go away. “When an individual says to you, ‘I am really sick,’ and they look emotional, they look drawn, and they have people around them corroborating this,” he says, “it really takes a lot of interpersonal courage to say, ‘Here is some counterfactual information.’”
Whatever Chapman’s research may have found, Sue Hobart is certain that she’s suffering from wind turbine syndrome. The suggestion that her symptoms could be caused by anything else gets her shaking with anger. “I got to the point of near suicide, and I was hospitalized,” she tells me at her house. Eventually she moved into the cellar to get as far from the noise as possible. “I was sleeping in the basement with mice running around the insulation above my head, getting crazier and crazier. It was the worst time in my life.” At the invitation of Wind Wise members, she and Ed have spoken to groups in towns that are considering hosting wind turbines. “This will be exposed,” she avows. “It’s like secondhand smoke, and asbestos, and everything else. The green-energy team is suppressing it.”
Indeed, things in Falmouth have lately begun to go the Hobarts’ way. In November, responding to a lawsuit filed by neighbors, a judge ordered the town to turn off the two 400-foot-tall turbines at its water-treatment plant from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and all day Sunday, along with Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, and New Year’s. And in December, the town’s zoning board of appeals declared the turbines a nuisance in response to complaints from Vietnam veteran Barry Funfar, who said they were causing him “mental confusion and anxiety.” Funfar’s case had been championed online by Wind Wise and Nina Pierpont.
Unlike wind turbine syndrome, the science behind climate change is well established, and the need for sources of energy that do not contribute to it is something most Americans agree on—a recent Gallup poll showed 71 percent support more wind power. Right now, wind supplies 4 percent of U.S. energy needs, and the Department of Energy says it could generate a fifth of our power by 2030. But while most people want more windmills, it seems that few want windmills in their backyard. As people like the Hobarts and the Reillys demonstrate, more thought may need to go into how America develops its wind power network.
Despite state leaders’ enthusiasm for wind, Massachusetts has so far left the details in the hands of cities and towns, offering tempting incentives to build turbines with little guidance about where they should go. The state does have a model bylaw that, if municipalities choose to adopt it, requires that turbines be set back from the nearest home by a distance of at least three times the height of the turbine—usually about 1,200 feet—but that limit has not been widely implemented. The legislature has before it the proposed Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, which would require the state to form an advisory group that would set statewide standards for noise and flicker. However, because the act would also expedite the approval process for turbines and limit appeals from opponents, it has attracted strong opposition from groups like Wind Wise and has so far failed to reach Governor Patrick’s desk.
In the absence of guidelines, fights like the one in Kingston threaten to erupt across the state. But if attempts at regulation seem paralyzed right now, anti-wind activists are heartened by the rulings in Falmouth, which was one of the first towns to erect large wind turbines near homes, and which now is one of the first to take steps toward shutting them down. “It does give me hope that the tide’s starting to turn against these things being in residential areas,” Sean Reilly says. “We do need alternative energy, but you can’t put it near people who are trying to live in their homes.”
In Kingston, the state is conducting an acoustic study of the landfill turbine, and the town is considering a bylaw that would require the turbines to be shut down when shadow flicker is at its worst—a compromise the Reillys say would go a long way toward alleviating their distress. But what is good news to the anti-wind forces in town has only frustrated those who support the turbines. Back at his bar and grill, Mark Beaton says he’d hoped that Kingston’s embrace of alternative energy would serve as a model for other Massachusetts towns. Instead, he now worries that clean energy has lost the public relations battle. “Wind Wise comes in, you’ve got the politicians that are afraid of losing the vote, and the whole thing is threatening to come to a screeching halt because of a vocal minority,” he says. “Kingston is a test case. If they start curtailing it, no bank, no insurance company, no bonding company is going to go into Massachusetts and put up a turbine.”