Wind Farm Noise Debate

A problem cannot be addressed until it is realized for what it is. People must be educated as to the existence of a problem, then to the severity of it. Until recently, I assumed the major complaint against wind farms to be the aesthetic – a new “eyesore” in the form of wind turbines lining a ridge previously untouched by the hand of man. Complaints appear to have more complex psychological elements.

Frankly, I didn’t know that wind farms generated noise sufficient to warrant discussion of noise policies by local and national officials. According to last week’s Renewable Energy World story by Jim Cummings of Acoustic Ecology Institute (AEI), most wind advocates are in a state of disbelief that neighborhoods even notice noise generated by wind turbines, let alone are disturbed by it.

According to the story, few wind energy supporters acknowledge that turbine noise is much beyond 10 dB to 20 dB above other background sounds. Data collected from acousticians show that even a 5 dB increase can trigger complaints, and that 10 dB is the threshold for widespread reports of problems.

The acoustic disturbances are leading to health-related complaints, which are admittedly difficult to prove or quantify. AEI’s new report, Wind Farm Noise 2011, aims to find common ground between protecting rural residents from a new 24/7 noise source and encouraging wind energy development.

In Australia, a farmer’s complaints to an environmental tribunal halted plans for a new wind farm (AEI link to story). The tribunal rejected the farmer’s claims of affected health to his family and livestock, but supported his claims that the wind farm would adversely impact the “rural amenity” of the area, which is an accepted regulatory consideration in Australia and New Zealand.

Similar rulings took place in Minnesota, USA, Ontario, Canada, and the UK. In the UK case, a high court regulated an amplitude modulation (AM) sound level of 3 dB for wind farms in areas where sound levels already measure above 28 dB. In other words, spinning turbines from new UK wind farms must be barely audible, even at a distance.

Many of us long for a quiet peaceful lifestyle, and choose to live in areas where this lifestyle is possible. Is it progress when that lifestyle is affected by a series of wind turbines that provide renewable energy for an entire community? Must we adapt the new normal of a less peaceful lifestyle? How do we balance our lifestyle with that of our neighbors who may support wind energy development by installing personal wind turbines near their homes?

The article linked at the start of this post suggests a balance for all. The renewable energy industry must acknowledge that problems exist, and should address improvements as renewable technology matures. The industry must also work with communities to adopt acceptable standards applicable to the specific building locations, and perhaps consider compensating those where property values drop because of the existence of wind farms.

The industrial revolution brought us many great things, but along the way we trampled the environment and called it progress. We now know better. Renewable industry cannot do the psychological equivalent of clear cutting a community to establish a new clean energy source.

Local citizens must also change their mindset, and perhaps admit that a greater set of problems exist with fossil fuel energy sources than with renewable energy. That doesn’t mean that problems introduced by wind farms should be accepted without question, but that a balance should be sought.

Maybe renewable industry cannot always build in the most effective and efficient locations. And maybe we cannot always live beyond a wind farm’s effects, positive or negative.