Wind Turbine Noise: Reflections On A Vexing Issue

September 20, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

I live on a street here in Portland near a light-rail station that has no parking, and very close to a large housing complex that was built with very little onsite parking. So cars are always coming and going in front of my house, which is set back only about ten yards from the street. When a car pulls up and idles for an extended period, the low rumbling of the motor draws my attention and begins to make me antsy. If a driver turns off the ignition but sits listening to music, bass thumping even at a barely audible level, it can drive me crazy. My son? He sits nearby, buried in a book, oblivious.

This personal revelation seems apropos after reading Kristen French’s fascinating article in the Sept. 23 issue of New York, “Never Stops, Never Stops. Headache. Help.” The headline is from notes kept by a woman in Falmouth, Mass., where four wind turbines produce energy, although not at night anymore; under pressure from some residents complaining of sleep disruptions and other ill health effects, town leaders ordered the partial shut-down.

wind turbine syndrome

image via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written a little bit about Falmouth, from afar, as well as other wind energy noise controversies, and have generally hewed to the line that science does not support the claim that big wind turbines are dangerously noisy. But perhaps because of my own sensitivity to the sounds that pop up around my home, or maybe because I have a tendency to believe that truths tend to reside in the murky middle ground rather than at one extreme or the other, there’s always been a part of me that felt uncomfortable about the way many wind energy supporters – including renewable energy writers – mock those who say wine turbines cause them suffering.

French’s article doesn’t do this – it grants a respectful hearing to the people who tell woeful stories of life near wind turbines. And yet at the same time it doesn’t shy away from the evidence that makes the origin of these complaints not so easy to pin down. Indeed, one’s reaction to wind turbines nearby seems to be strongly linked to what you’ve heard or read about wind turbine noise – or it could come down to the possibility that you are among a small percentage of people are sensitive to turbines, even if they are not particularly loud.

French also doesn’t shy away from suggesting there is just a little bit of crazy in some of the anti-wind power movement. She notes the testimony, before a Massachusetts legislative panel, of one David Moriarity, who says, “Now, please stop the suffering in Falmouth, Massachusetts. They knew. It’s no accident. It was intentional.”

French characterizes Moriarity as “uncharacteristically extreme,” and I don’t question that assessment, but I have found hints and accusations that wind power is a giant conspiracy or a fraudulent producer of energy to be the weakest element of the arguments made by those who claim turbine noise can harm people. You can see this in the comments to French’s article; for wind opponents, it’s not enough to say the turbines might be disrupting some lives. Instead, you get stuff like this:

  • “It is a total waste of our taxes and only benefits these corporations, which by the way are mostly foreign owned.”
  • “Wealthy corporate and political elitists are getting richer off the backs of taxpayers and ratepayers, while all the rest of us are getting poorer paying for this ‘green’ energy boondoggle.”
  • “This scam will make an industry and a few farmers rich and leave the rest of rural America to suffer!”
  • “We as Citizens have been made into Guinea Pigs by a for Profit Industry that has never been made to prove that thier product is safe.”
  • “The wind industry is doing tremendous harm to the environment, wildlife, and the people who are expected to live around these enormous machines.”

The irony is, it’s exactly this kind of rhetoric that makes it easy for journalists wading into the wind-noise issue to simply point to the science that does not support wind turbine syndrome, instead of acknowledging that the issue could be slightly more complicated than that.

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