A Stormont committee has called for an urgent review of limits on noise levels from wind turbines.
Many emotive submissions detailed the allegedly adverse impact of the renewable energy technology on day-to-day lives, a report from the environment committee said.
Residents’ concerns about the health impact or effect on house prices were often not given due regard, while community groups trying to object to planning applications found the process opaque, according to a review by lawmakers.
The wind industry believes current guidelines are adequate to regulate noise limits, but others “overwhelmingly” cited this as their most pressing area of concern as the size of farms has grown dramatically, the report said.
“After considering the evidence from its specialist adviser, the committee agreed that the use of the ETSU-97 guidelines should be reviewed on an urgent basis by the Department and that more appropriate guidance should be put in place.”
Noise disturbance emerged as one of the key issues in the environment committee inquiry and, in particular, the relationship between turbine noise and separation distance from homes.
Regulations which set out acceptable levels of day- and night-time noise were deemed to be in need of revision by many of those who made submissions, including a number of local councils, so that the noise output from more modern and more powerful turbines can be appropriately regulated.
The report said: “The current guidelines have been deemed outdated b y many stakeholders and described as ‘vague, open to interpretation and unenforceable’, immeasurable, and inadequate to deal with modern and emerging technology.”
Representatives of the industry, however, believe that the existing regulations are still sufficiently robust to deal with the latest technology; environment m inister Mark H Durkan also endorsed the use of this guidance in his submission to the committee.
An expert adviser to the committee said the amount of evidence available had expanded since 1997, when the guidelines were introduced, and there was much greater understanding of the acoustics of large wind farms and the annoyance or health effects of noise.
Chris Jordan, from the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, told the committee that the guidance was drafted in 1996 when wind turbines were around a 40-metre hub height and, typically, half a megawatt in power.
“The wind farm turbines that are currently coming through the planning process are, typically, in the order of 80-metres hub height and three megawatts in power, individually.
“Given those increases in turbine heights and power outputs, and the consequential changes in the character of the noise from those larger wind turbines, the protection to amenity originally assumed by ETSU-R-97 may no longer be valid.
“The environmental health service in Northern Ireland considers that a robust and transparent review of ETSU-R-97 is long overdue and should be prioritised with other United Kingdom a dministrations.
“It is hoped that such a review would regain residents’ confidence in the protection afforded to their amenity by planning policy and noise standards covering wind energy developments.”
Environment committee chair Anna Lo called for more engagement with communities.
“The committee recognises the efforts made by the industry to engage with local residents, but it was evident throughout the Inquiry that people living near to current or proposed wind developments do not believe that they have been adequately informed or listened to,” she said.
“The committee therefore hopes that the recommendations in this report will lead to a more meaningful form of engagement between the wind industry and the communities whose concerns gave rise to this inquiry.”