In his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama touted renewable energy and declared that he would “not walk away from workers” such as Bryan Ritterby, who is employed by a wind-turbine manufacturer in Michigan.
But in their rush to embrace the wind-energy business, Obama and numerous other politicians are walking away from rural residents such as David Enz and his wife, Rose. A year ago, the couple abandoned their home near Denmark, Wis., because of the unbearable low-frequency noise produced by a half-dozen 495-foot-high wind turbines that were built near the home they’ve owned since 1978. The closest was installed about 3,200 feet from their house.
Shortly after the Shirley Windproject’s turbines began operating, the couple began experiencing numerous symptoms, including “headaches, ear pain, nausea, blurred vision, anxiety, memory loss, and an overall unsettledness,” says Mr. Enz, 68. Today, the Enzes are living in their RV or staying with friends. “We didn’t expect any of this stuff,” says Enz, who spent more than 30 years working as a millwright at a paper mill in Green Bay.
Policymakers and health experts are casting a hard eye on wind energy at the same time that the wind industry is desperately trying to convince Congress to pass a multi-year extension of a tax credit that supports it. Without the subsidy, the domestic wind business, which is already being hammered by falling natural-gas prices, will be forced to downsize even further. In December, the American Wind Energy Association issued a report predicting that some 37,000 wind-related jobs in the U.S. could be lost by 2013 if the tax credit is not extended.
That possibility doesn’t faze Wisconsin Republican state senator Frank Lasee, whose district includes the Enzes’ 41-acre property. Last October, Lasee filed legislation that would require the state to investigate the health effects of the noise produced by industrial wind turbines. If passed, the bill– the first of its kind in the U.S. — will impose a moratorium on new wind projects until the study is completed. “I’ve heard and seen enough from people I represent to know that we need a factual study,” Lasee told me recently. In addition to the Enzes, Lasee says he knows another family among his constituents who have abandoned their home because of wind-turbine noise. “We shouldn’t be embracing an agenda that hurts people’s property values and their health,” he said. In mid-January, Lasee filed another bill that could allow cities and counties to establish minimum setback distances between wind projects and residences.
It’s tempting to dismiss the complaints about wind-turbine noise as little more than NIMBYism. And to be clear, not every wind project is causing problems. Further, the most problematic noise generated by the turbines — low-frequency sound (20 to 100 hertz) and infrasound (0 to 20 Hz) — has varying effects. Some individuals feel the effects of the noise quickly and compare it to motion sickness. Others may not feel it at all. That said, the harmful effects of infrasound are well known. A 2001 report published by the National Institutes of Health said that exposure to infrasound can cause vertigo as well as “fatigue, apathy, and depression, pressure in the ears, loss of concentration, drowsiness.”