by Tiff Thompson, Windtech International

The Maturation of Wind Energy Opposition

An international movement against wind energy is maturing – across the globe today there exist over 1,000 anti-wind groups. The origin of the opposition is, in some instances, fossil fuel and nuclear backed interest groups and, at other times, local community members with genuine concern. Regardless of the source, this burgeoning trend must be dealt with effectively, transparently and compassionately. The alternative: once-trusted company names and brands become vilified, inspiring antagonism and encouraging locals to unify against wind energy projects. This article is the introduction to a series of topical columns which will dig into the causes of anti-wind sentiment and the maturing of opposition against wind energy development, including groups, popular arguments and their proposed countermeasures, as well as an introduction to the spectrum of solutions wind energy professionals can tap to quell what may otherwise become an unmanageable storm of hostility.

The concerns of groups opposing wind energy range from outrageous to plausible. To its credit, the wind energy industry has spent time and money examining the health impact of wind energy facilities, to find, predominantly, the common thread of ‘subjectivity’ influencing individual disturbance. Most recently, the Public Health Division of Oregon’s Health Authority released a finding of no conclusively significant hazards in wind energy facilities, Ontario’s provincial government found that low frequency noise and infrasound from wind turbines are not causally related to adverse health effects, and a Massachusetts-commissioned Department of Environmental Protection report found no negative health ffects to individual living near turbines. Regardless, a community up in arms about a local development bodes ill for all involved.

The Origin of Opposition

Despite an overwhelming scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and growing at a rapid rate, much anti-wind energy sentiment is backed by arguments of climate scepticism, arguments often planted in public interest groups by competing, non-renewable energy lobbies threatened by the presence of Renewable Portfolio Standards, proposed cap and trade legislation, and looming climate treaties. Other arguments frequently cited against wind energy include visual intrusion, noise, ‘wind turbine syndrome’, electromagnetic interference, harm to birds and other wildlife, diminishing property values and distrust of wind energy developers. While the driving force behind anti-wind groups is often funded by the deep pockets of non-renewables, at the local level the driving force is often plain citizen concern. For those waging arguments out of genuine fear, the prospect of an industrial-scale wind turbine within visible distance from their homes appears more important than seemingly distant implications of climate change.

Extreme Setbacks Proposed as Solutions

Many opposing groups call for compromises in turbine siting, the most popular being extreme setbacks of turbines from homes and other buildings. Early in 2011, in Waterloo, South Australia, residents gathered at the Parliament, arguing for a 5-kilometre setback from all homes. On the web, a number of petitions call for 1 to 5 mile (about 1.5 to 8 kilometre) setbacks from property lines, residences, schools, places of business, health care facilities, public roads, paths and recreation areas. Dr Nina Pierpont, author of Wind Turbine Syndrome and authority to many anti-wind groups, argues that ‘2 kilometers, or 1.24 miles’ is the shortest setback from residences that communities should consider. Most developers know, however, that finding landowners these days with multiple, contiguous sections of property greater than 1 x 1 mile is becoming incredibly rare. That is to say, setbacks over 1 mile will effectively kill any wind project, even in the most rural settings.

Technological Advancements

The issues cited against wind are many, but not often valid. The wind farms typically referenced in oppositional arguments are, indeed, poorly sited and often the first the industry erected. Fortunately, we have seen numerous advancements in quieting turbines, detecting birds, and even curtailing or de-rating the operation of the machines to avoid flicker. To date, mechanical noise prevention is being made possible via vibration isolation, vibration suppression and techniques for fault detection. Furthermore, developments in reducing aerodynamic noise are emerging. Varying the rotation speed of blades and increasing the pitch angle has been useful in reducing noise. Strategies such as these, while successful at reducing noise, unfortunately also cause significant power loss. Alternative solutions are in development: one example of many is blade modification – adding serrations to reduce noise without any power loss.

The Subjectivity, Science and Psychology of Wind Energy Impacts

In peer-reviewed studies, wind energy annoyance has been statistically associated with wind turbine noise, but found to be more strongly related to more subjective measures, such as visual impact, attitude to wind turbines and sensitivity to noise (Knopper and Ollson: ‘Health effects of wind turbines: A review of the literature’, Environmental Health, 2011). Much of the scientific review of wind energy disturbance has made a strong connection between subjective measures, such as trust, community engagement, goodwill and fairness, and the acceptance and support of a local wind farm. And recent Dutch research presented in a New South Wales hearing by Dr Stephen Palmer, Medical Officer of Health, Regional Public Health Office, noted that landowners who receive financial benefit from wind turbines on their properties seem to sleep better than those without any monetary compensation. The notion that subjectivity is largely in play in individuals’ perception of wind energy is incredibly useful for developers in the planning process, as it encourages active community engagement during early development stages.

Development In and Among Communities

Extreme resistance movements often occur when projects are not first vetted in the community, leading to locals’ surprise, as well as feelings of belittlement, subordination and indignation. When a community draws battle lines, they are not usually based on the project, but rather on the community’s collective, reactive emotions.

At this stage, the developer has already lost credibility. Logical appeal alone will not calm this level of distress, foremost because the source of concern is emotional – fear and distrust – backed by misinformation. Developers must enter communities being conscious of the brokering of a public–private partnership founded upon trust, accountability, mutual benefit and feelings of ownership. One successful means of this type of partnership is via a cooperative ownership approach – a model that may prove attractive to smaller developers, but less palatable to large balance sheet financed firms.

A Toolkit of Solutions

Fortunately, the spectrum of solutions for developers facing opposition is vast. The range of options corresponds directly with the level of opposition being faced. In its early stages, distrust of wind energy developers and misinformation can be handled with a soft approach and through many routes. While budgets, schedules and return on investment are indispensably important to a project, the main issue for a community will be a project’s imposition upon their treasured views, way of life and community. If handled improperly, opposition digs in and community division arises. With opposition entrenched, a tougher and more narrowed approach to issue resolution is often necessary, though less appealing to all involved, as well as more costly, resource intensive and lengthy.

The Community-Conscious Approach

Starting the greenfield development process off correctly can save developers time, energy and money that might otherwise be invested in defending their project. Although seemingly counterintuitive, imperative for successful development is the citizens’ increased influence over, participation in, and control of what happens in their specific geographic environments. To understand the power of the individual (and consequently, the collective) evaluation process of wind energy facilities will greatly behoove all developers. Via understanding the value of local and individual subjectivity, the developer who addresses community concerns explicitly and aggressively up front will ‘reduce the health impact from noise produced by wind turbines’, as noted by the Oregon Health Authority in their recent Health Impact Assessment of Oregon wind developments.

Boots on the Ground

The ‘face’ of the company, those individuals in the fields shaking the landowners’ hands, must be educated, mature and emotionally intelligent. Those trained in the appropriate means of presenting a project, explaining leases, listening to concerns and fielding questions will be successful. Landowners and community members must feel they have a trustworthy ‘go-to’ who will provide them with enough sound information to make their decision comfortably. Since a project is something that both the community and the wind farm owner must deal with for 30 plus years, a firm foundation based upon trust, goodwill and active involvement in the public process is indispensable.

In Summary

Although it is possible for a developer to win the war with a community in dissent, it is easier and more pleasurable to start off on the right foot, working closely with the locals, engendering trust and bringing their involvement into the siting process. The typical top-down approach to development, where the community is the last component taken into consideration, may kill a number of future projects, though it ought not to be yours. The danger in the maturation of wind energy opposition is its contagiousness. Its spread will lead to the shrinking of a developer’s lead-time to make an earnest introduction. By asking for a community’s partnership in advance of development, both parties might peaceably live with and benefit from the project for some time to come.

Nimbyism and Wind Turbine Noise

Perhaps the most controversial of all arguments against wind energy is that of noise. Some of the most rancorous opinions surround the health effects caused by the noise turbines make – side effects postulated by some including sleep disturbance, headaches, dizziness, memory loss, concentration deficits, irritability, anger, fatigue and loss of motivation. While community perception plays a part in the experience of wind turbine noise, it is often suggested by opposing stakeholders that projects are poorly sited and/or malfunctioning – ultimately vilifying the technology and industry. The heart of the matter is, in the end, what level of noise is reasonable when balanced against residential amenity. This article addresses the proper noise assessment of a project, and is the second in a column of NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) based issues, their merit and their misinformation.

Noise Regulations and Standards

Wind turbines emit sound – they are not silent. That being said, significant noise regulations put forward by federal entities exist. In 1999, international noise standards were created by the World Health Organization’s Community Health Guidelines – set at roughly 40dB(A) averaged over night in one year. And in 1972, the US Environmental Protection Agency established its Office of Noise Abatement and Control, only to be later phased out in 1982, when individual states and local governments were given authority to create noise regulations. Today, in the USA, umbrella legislation – the EPA’s Noise Control Act of 1972 and Quiet Communities Act of 1978 – remains enforced, holding guidelines of permissible indoor and outdoor noise levels at 55dB(A) and 45 dB(A) respectively.

The ABCs of Noise

A lay perspective of noise from turbines regards noise as a comprehensive sensory experience, though the composition of noise is actually broken into four varying criteria; frequency, source, sound characteristic and tone. The frequency of a sound can be classed into low frequency, mid frequency, high frequency and infrasound. The source of the sounds would indicate where the sounds are coming from (i.e. ‘mechanical’ or ‘aerodynamic’). The sound characteristic can be defined as tonal or broadband (a tone will have the characteristic of a pitch – just as a musical note would, whereas broadband noise is in bands of multiple octaves – for example rushing wind). Lastly, there is modulating (‘whoosh–whoosh’) versus non-modulating noises (steady).

A-Weighted Noise Versus C-Weighted Noise

Much of the controversy around wind energy noise guidelines is concerned with which noise measurement protocol regulations follow – namely, the difference between dB(A) (‘A -weighted’) and dB(C) (‘C-weighted’) sounds. A-weighted sounds are those weighted for typical human response to different frequencies. The C-weighted scale does not discount the lower frequencies, like the human ear does. While a C-weighted scale shows low frequency and ‘infrasound’ (the two frequencies most commonly referred to by wind energy challengers), a more appropriate way to examine low octave bands would be through measuring individual frequency components and low octave bands. Some noise regulations, such as those stipulated in the Illinois Noise Statutes and Regulations, are frequency based.

Sound Emissions

Prior to siting a wind farm, sound modelling takes into account the sound emissions, by frequency, from the individual wind turbines. According to Ken Kaliski, Director of Environment, Energy, and Acoustics at Resource Systems Group, noise specialists will often model assuming a worst-case scenario, including omni-directional winds, 10-metre-high derived (not measured) wind speeds, night-time inversion and poor atmospheric absorption of sound. This worst-case scenario noise standard, put in place by acousticians in the British DTI/BERR Noise Working Group, is followed by much of the industry.

Sound emissions are dependent upon many things, including geometric spreading, atmospheric attenuation, the sound’s frequency content, ground characteristics and terrain profile. Atmospheric attenuation is the absorption and scattering of sound waves as they move through the atmosphere. Noise-affecting criteria include air temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and wind speed. When modelling for noise in a development, acoustics specialists will model at 10°C and 70% humidity, to impose the lowest noise attenuation scenario. Often, during the day, the sun causes the air near the ground to warm, which causes the sound band to bend upward; however, at night, when temperature inversion occurs, the noise bends down because the ground temperatures cool. In addition, wind shear increases at night.

Included in the many siting components that affect the noise a wind energy project emits are the terrain of a landscape, as well as how the composition of the landscape will affect the noise of a wind farm. Soft ground absorbs noise better than rocky or hard ground, and water – such as the ocean or the surface of a lake – has no absorptive qualities and is a particularly poor sink for turbine noise. However, in the case in which this lack of attenuation would most often apply – in offshore projects – wind turbines are too far away from sound receptors to make a difference.

Technological Considerations

In terms of technological advances, calibration models are becoming more exact in their representation of atmosphere and amplitude modulation. According to Kaliski, stall-regulated turbines generate more complaints than pitch-regulated turbines. Because of the motor-automated pitch in stall-regulated turbines, high winds cause stall turbines to have a sound increase. Today, there are four times as many pitch-regulated turbines on the market as there are stall-regulated. In addition, technological advances that have been ushered in to combat noise produced by wind turbines includes serrated blade technology, such as that seen in the Low Noise Trailing Edge serrations in the GE 2.75-103 machine. In severe cases, it is possible to lower the rotational speed of the blade; however, this action curtails power.

Why Are Some Communities Affected By Wind Turbine Noise While Others Are Not?

According to Dick Bowdler (2011), ‘there is no credible evidence to suggest that there is any syndrome or any exceptional infrasound associated with turbine noise and the symptoms described to justify such claims are no different from those exhibited by people annoyed by other types of noise’. Regardless, there are people who are very sensitive to noise, as well as easily annoyed. Any type of new noise source in a neighbourhood will meet some form of intolerance. Additionally, there are cases where communities initially protesting developments come to change their tune. In a recent Leicester, UK, article: ‘We were wrong on turbine noise, admit protesters’, a four-turbine project that was greeted by foreboding turned out to be not so threatening after it was erected and operational.

Although there are certain individuals who are highly susceptible to wind turbine noise, there are a number of factors that play into who is annoyed and who is not. Studies, such as the Oregon Public Health Impacts report, have shown that attitudinal bias is a large indicator of one’s perception of a wind farm. Namely, if people do not like wind energy, do not receive payments, have a turbine within their view, or dislike the developer, they are more likely to be annoyed. Hence, accurate noise assessment – from the beginning – is essential not only for a successfully sited project but also for community goodwill.


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