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“The Miserable Hum of Clean Energy” (Noise is an emission too, AWEA and D.C. environmentalists)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- October 11, 2010

“The people who build wind farms are not environmentalists. . . . Business is a delicate balancing act, and chief executives are always walking a tightrope between the needs of the community, their employees, and the marketplace.”

– Paul Gipe, Wind Energy Comes of Age (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1995), p. 454.

The front page exposé in the New York Times of another problem of industrial wind—coming on top of Robert Bryce’s eye-opening Wall Street Journal piece on air emissions relating to firming wind energy—presents another problem for Big Wind and Big Environmentalism.

Windpower’s noise problem is nothing new–it has just been swept under the rug by the industrial wind complex. The oft photoshoped pictures of wind turbines skip the sound–that would ruin the idyllic facade of the energy source that is radically uneconomic and an inferior energy source compared to conventional electricity generation.

Small wind has a noise problem too. Big wind? Suffice it to say you don’t want to live or work near an industrial wind park, or even a solitary wind turbine, unless you have to.

Property values will work to internalize the externality over time, which is bad for existing owners and good for new owners. And some existing land owners will receive land royalties to put up with their discomfort. But what about victimized neighbors? And in a free society, wind turbines would not exist for the noise problem to be an issue. (Funny how government intervention has unintended consequences.) Electricity would be generated in much greater quantities indoors in power plants.

Tom Zeller’s “For Those Near, the Miserable Hum of Clean Energy(New York Times, October 5, 2010, p. 1)  brings wind’s noise problem to the attention of the environmental Left, in particular. Wind has not solved this problem, one that Paul Gipe spent 20 pages (pp. 371–91) discussing in his 1995 book, Wind Energy Comes of Age (New York: John Wiley & Sons).

Gipe confronts the noise issue squarely (p. 371):

“Next to aesthetic impact, no aspect of wind energy creates more alarm or more debate than noise…. Wind turbines are not silent. They are audible. All wind turbines create unwanted sound, that is, noise. Some do so to a greater degree than others. And the sounds they produce—the swish of blades through the air, the whir of gears inside the transmission, and the hum of the generator—are typically foreign to rural settings where wind turbines are the most often used.”

“The people who choose to live in [rural, wild] locations do so primarily because the land is unsuitable for other urban uses,” Gipe explains in his book (described as “the most complete reference ever published on generating electricity from wind”). “They reasonably expect that the area will remain rural and undeveloped” (p. 324).

Zeller’s NYT piece is reprinted in its entirety due to its historical importance.

For Those Near, the Miserable Hum of Clean Energy

VINALHAVEN, Me. — Like nearly all of the residents on this island in Penobscot Bay, Art Lindgren and his wife, Cheryl, celebrated the arrival of three giant wind turbines late last year. That was before they were turned on.

Residents living less than a mile from the $15 million wind facility in Vinalhaven, Me., say the industrial whoosh-and-whoop of the 123-foot blades is making life unbearable.

“In the first 10 minutes, our jaws dropped to the ground,” Mr. Lindgren said. “Nobody in the area could believe it. They were so loud.”

Now, the Lindgrens, along with a dozen or so neighbors living less than a mile from the $15 million wind facility here, say the industrial whoosh-and-whoop of the 123-foot blades is making life in this otherwise tranquil corner of the island unbearable.

They are among a small but growing number of families and homeowners across the country who say they have learned the hard way that wind power — a clean alternative to electricity from fossil fuels — is not without emissions of its own.

Lawsuits and complaints about turbine noise, vibrations and subsequent lost property value have cropped up in Illinois, Texas, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, among other states.

In one case in DeKalb County, Ill., at least 38 families have sued to have 100 turbines removed from a wind farm there. A judge rejected a motion to dismiss the case in June.

Like the Lindgrens, many of the people complaining the loudest are reluctant converts to the antiwind movement.

“The quality of life that we came here for was quiet,” Mrs. Lindgren said. “You don’t live in a place where you have to take an hour-and-15-minute ferry ride to live next to an industrial park. And that’s where we are right now.”

The wind industry has long been dogged by a vocal minority bearing all manner of complaints about turbines, from routine claims that they ruin the look of pastoral landscapes to more elaborate allegations that they have direct physiological impacts like rapid heart beat, nausea and blurred vision caused by the ultra-low-frequency sound and vibrations from the machines.

For the most extreme claims, there is little independent backing.

Last year, the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group, along with its Canadian counterpart, assembled a panel of doctors and acoustical professionals to examine the potential health impacts of wind turbine noise. In a paper published in December, the panel concluded that “there is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.”

A separate study financed by the Energy Department concluded late last year that, in aggregate, property values were unaffected by nearby wind turbines.

Numerous studies also suggest that not everyone will be bothered by turbine noise, and that much depends on the context into which the noise is introduced. A previously quiet setting like Vinalhaven is more likely to produce irritated neighbors than, say, a mixed-use suburban setting where ambient noise is already the norm.

Of the 250 new wind farms that have come online in the United States over the last two years, about dozen or so have generated significant noise complaints, according to Jim Cummings, the founder of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, an online clearinghouse for information on sound-related environmental issues.

In the Vinalhaven case, an audio consultant hired by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection determined last month that the 4.5-megawatt facility was, at least on one evening in mid-July when Mr. Lindgren collected sound data, in excess of the state’s nighttime sound limits. The developer of the project, Fox Island Wind, has contested that finding, and negotiations with state regulators are continuing.

In the moonlit woods behind a neighbor’s property on a recent evening, Mr. Lindgren, a retired software engineer, clenched a small flashlight between his teeth and wrestled with a tangle of cables and audio recording equipment he uses to collect sound samples for filing complaints.

At times, the rustle of leaves was all that could be heard. But when the surface wind settled, a throbbing, vaguely jetlike sound cut through the nighttime air. “Right there,” Mr. Lindgren declared. “That would probably be out of compliance.”

Maine, along with many other states, puts a general limit on nighttime noise at 45 decibels — roughly equivalent to the sound of a humming refrigerator. A normal conversation is in the range of 50 to 60 decibels.

In almost all cases, it is not mechanical noise arising from the central gear box or nacelle of a turbine that residents react to, but rather the sound of the blades, which in modern turbines are mammoth appendages well over 100 feet long, as they slice through the air.

Turbine noise can be controlled by reducing the rotational speed of the blades. But the turbines on Vinalhaven already operate that way after 7 p.m., and George Baker, the chief executive of Fox Island Wind — a for-profit arm of the island’s electricity co-operative — said that turning the turbines down came at an economic cost.

“The more we do that, the higher goes the price of electricity on the island,” he said.

A common refrain among homeowners grappling with sound issues, however, is that they were not accurately informed about the noise ahead of time. “They told us we wouldn’t hear it, or that it would be masked by the sound of the wind blowing through the trees,” said Sally Wylie, a former schoolteacher down the road from the Lindgrens. “I feel duped.”

Similar conflicts are arising in Canada, Britain and other countries. An appeals court in Rennes, France, recently ordered an eight-turbine wind farm to shut down between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. so residents could get some sleep.

Richard R. James, an acoustic expert hired by residents of Vinalhaven to help them quantify the noise problem, said there was a simpler solution: do not put the turbines so close to where people live.

“It would seem to be time for the wind utility developers to rethink their plans for duplicating these errors and to focus on locating wind turbines in areas where there is a large buffer zone of about a mile and one-quarter between the turbines and people’s homes,” said Mr. James, the principal consultant with E-Coustic Solutions, based in Michigan.

Vinalhaven’s wind farm enjoys support among most residents, from ardent supporters of all clean energy to those who simply say the turbines have reduced their power bills. Deckhands running the ferry sport turbine pins on their hats, and bumper stickers seen on the island declare “Spin, Baby, Spin.”

“The majority of us like them,” said Jeannie Conway, who works at the island’s ferry office.

But that is cold comfort for Mrs. Lindgren and her neighbors, who say their corner of the island will never be the same.

“I remember the sound of silence so palpable, so merciless in its depths, that you could almost feel your heart stop in sympathy,” she said. “Now we are prisoners of sonic effluence. I grieve for the past.”


  1. Jon Boone  

    The Times article wind and its effects on community–its noise and influence on property values–hardly deserves praise. Rather, it presented these issues in a he said/she said fashion without much investigation beyond reporting on the strife. This is the same reportorial tack taken by National Public Radio and presented in the best British cozy tradition.

    As one of the first in this country to document the noise produced in my film, Life Under a Windplant http://www.stopillwind.org/lowerlevel.php?content=Downloads_Video), the noise is palpable to most. However, the real problem, the one causing the most violent symptoms, stems from low frequency noise that is difficult for present equipment to measure, although it’s nonetheless real. See:http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/news/2010/scientists-challenge-big-winds-claim-that-what-you-can’t-hear-wont-hurt-you-nat-institutes-of-health-usa/.

    Wind turbine noise is experienced differentially–by different people, by location, and by time of day, season, or year–for miles downrange. It is often masked just below a huge turbine, which is why wind developers encourage visits to a wind site. Rick James and others, however, have long shown the problem of the mechanical WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH sound at nighttime in traditionally quiet country, areas. Volumes are available on sound propagation, frequency masking, sympathetic resonance and decay rates. The fact that wind energy developers attempt to draw “not to exceed” dB bands around turbine sites – AT ALL – is ridiculous. So many factors affect which frequencies occur and/or are nodal at various locations is impossibly complicated. There are many times when frequencies well above 60 Hz travel long distances or are heard more prominently further from the source than the lower frequencies.

    The Times reporter did not have to travel to Maine for this story. He could have gone to many sites in New York, such as the infamous Tug Hill wind plant, or, indeed, sites in Pennsylvania like the one I documented. He might have asked to see a wind lease, for example, which typical exculpates the wind developer from making the very nuisances, such as noise, that the industry claims don’t exist.

    As for wind and property values, the recent DOE study showing wind does not reduce property values is methodologically daffy and essentially dishonest. Most appraisers around the country have said that those neighboring a wind facility can expect to have their properties devalued up to 50%–if they could sell at all. Again, see Life Under a Windplant.

    Aside from being the dumbest modern power idea imaginable, wind is perhaps the most uncivil, given its pretentious “saving the world” sloganeering.


  2. Jon Boone  

    Two other recent and notable wind noise reports may interest readers, the first from Audiology Today:http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/img/WindTurbineNoise.pdf–and the second by Dr. Carl Phillips, An Analysis of the Epidemiology and Related Evidence on Health Effects of Wind Turbines on Local Residents, prepared at the request of Brown County citizens in Wisconsin as part of their presentation to the PSC on wind siting rules:http://www.windaction.org/documents/28175.


  3. Breaking Wind – Quick hits from the industry for October 11, 2010 « Allegheny Treasures  

    […] “The Miserable Hum of Clean Energy” (Noise is an emission too, AWEA and D.C. environmentalists) – MasterResource […]


  4. rbradley  

    Thank you Jon for the detail. In this regard, Paul Gipe also states (pp. 372–73):

    “[Wind turbine] sounds carry long distances in the mountains…. Low ambient noise levels in sheltered valleys, and refraction of the turbines’ noise emissions—which bends the sound toward the valley floor, particularly under nighttime temperature inversions—enable residents to ‘hear’ the wind turbines, or any other noise source, for great distances.”


  5. nofreewind  

    Wind power is an environmental NIGHTMARE!
    The most shocking revelation is how many of these monstrosities it takes to replace a traditional power plant.
    It takes 2,000 2MW wind turbines operating at 25% yearly output to create the same amount of energy as a 1,000 MW power plant. Jons brother Dan Boone wrote an authoritative report to document the environmental destruction of a wind farm. 20 wind turbines resulted in the removal of 91 acres of forest and fragmentation of 400 acres of prime ridge forest.
    Extrapolating, those 2,000 turbines would require the clear cut of 9100 acres of forest and fragmentation of 40,000 of ridgetop forest where the turbines need to be placed to get the 25% output. Then consider that electricity powering this computer is supplied by a nuclear plant which outputs 2400MW 24/7 almost 365 days per year. We would need to build at least 5,000 turbines to generate that electricity, and we would continue to need the nuclear plant because of wind intermittentcy and unreliability. Yet, wind is what our Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy and all the others are promoting as the environmental green answer. Of course, those turbines numbers are much higher when we consider many of the slippage factors well documented in previous posts on MasterResource.org.
    The Dan Boone pdf (slow loader)


  6. rbradley  

    Letters to the editor in today’s NYT under the title “The Shore is Alive With the Sound of Turbines are here:


  7. Julie K.  

    Well, to find an alternative energy sources is the priority of many governments and opportunity for entrepreneurs. Wind turbines can cause many troubles not just for humans that live nearby but also for environment. That is not wanted at all. The better idea is to build them on the sea – floor, somewhere where it is not going to harm anybody and anything…


  8. Jon Boone  

    Au contraire, Julie. There is much wildlife that could be harmed in deep waters–from migrating birds to fish and mammals. Even so, offshore wind would be no more functional than onshore wind; it simply would cost more, avoid the health hazards and nuisances for people, and look much like oil rigs floating over the sea–but without producing oil’s modern power or capacity. The problems of integrating wind’s relentless flutter, and its thermal effects, would remain. If the goal is to reduce use of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions, offshore wind is the silliest idea imaginable.


  9. Penny Melko  

    Hi all. I live in the rural outskirts of Tehachapi, CA right in line with Kern County’s wind resource area. As I listen to the hum of over 250 turbines through my home windows and saw the strobing hitting the clouds last night, I’ve finally had it and need some help. I’ve also called Kern County Planning to get the list of other planned projects.

    I’m in an area called Sand Canyon. It is a large canyon in a group of hills about 6-8 miles deep. There are more anemometers on each side of the road below the property near the mouth of the canyon with a hill separating one of them and I can see the other
    with the help of field glasses. There will also be red strobes required by the FAA.

    I’ve spoken with the Partner and the plan is to put up 17 large turbines, under 500 feet. There are other anemometers, additionally over another hill.

    1. Is it legal? If not, is there material available to use as a resource?
    2. Is there sound, noise and light equipment available to capture the noise levels and light pollution?
    3. This area is the home of the federally protected California condors which were brought back from 11 birds to the last count of 186 about 1 year ago. Unofficially the wind farm employees acknowledge that lots of raptors are killed.

    The County Planning department’s official stand is that the turbines are being place for development. Here is a link that validates this statement. They call it a “gold rush”.
    3. How do I force an independent study to be completed on all of the above?
    4. Has anyone been successful at actually stopping turbines from being installed?

    Thanks for any help you can provide.


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