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.”
Furthermore — and perhaps most telling — are the news reports. And there are lots of them. Newspaper stories from Missouri, Oregon, New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Britain, Australia, Canada, Taiwan, and New Zealand indicate that the wind-turbine-noise problem is global and that the frustration among rural landowners is growing.
The wind-energy lobby desperately wants to downplay the problems associated with low-frequency noise and infrasound. That’s not surprising. The industry has no solution for the noise problem, except, of course, to increase the setbacks between wind turbines and residential areas. But doing so would dramatically reduce the industry’s ability to site turbines (and collect fat taxpayer subsidies).
In 2009, the American Wind Energy Association and the Canadian Wind Energy Association commissioned a group of doctors to review the available literature on wind turbines and noise. The two lobby groups published a paper that concluded, “There is no evidence that the audible or sub-audible sounds emitted by wind turbines have any direct adverse physiological effects.” It also said that the vibrations from the turbines are “too weak to be detected by, or to affect, humans.” However, that same study also said that extended exposure to unwanted noise can cause a number of symptoms, including “dizziness, eye strain, fatigue, feeling vibration, headache, insomnia, muscle spasm, nausea, nose bleeds, palpitations, pressure in the ears or head, skin burns, stress, and tension.”
To bolster its claims that turbine noise is not harmful, the wind-energy lobby is touting a study released in mid-January by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection that largely dismissed complaints about wind-turbine noise. But the authors of the Massachusetts report did not interview any of the homeowners who’ve left their houses because of turbine noise. Instead, they did a cursory review of the published literature.
Shortly after the Massachusetts report came out, Jim Cummings of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, a non-profit organization that tracks noise issues, wrote that the authors of the Massachusetts report “dropped a crucial ball” because they did not “provide any sort of acknowledgement or analysis of the ways that annoyance, anxiety, sleep disruption, and stress could be intermediary pathways that help us to understand some of the reports coming from Massachusetts residents who say their health has been affected by nearby turbines.”
Over the past few months, a spate of reports have been released that provide credence to the complaints being made by the Enzes and people like Janet Warren, who raised sheep on her property near Makara, New Zealand, until a wind project was built near her home. Noise from the turbines caused “loss of concentration, irritability, and short-term memory effects” that forced her and her husband, Mike, to leave their property in early 2010.
Among the most important of the recent reports is a decision issued last July by Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal regarding a wind-energy facility known as the Kent Breeze Project. Although the Canadian officials allowed the facility to be built, they said that
this case has successfully shown that the debate should not be simplified to one about whether wind turbines can cause harm to humans. The evidence presented to the Tribunal demonstrates that they can, if facilities are placed too close to residents. The debate has now evolved to one of degree.
In other words, Canadian regulators have stated, on the record, that wind-turbine noise can harm human beings if turbines are built too close to homes. That finding was corroborated, again, in August, in a peer-reviewed article published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society. Carl V. Phillips, a Harvard-trained Ph.D. who now works as a researcher and consultant on epidemiology, concluded that there is “overwhelming evidence that wind turbines cause serious health problems in nearby residents, usually stress-disorder type diseases, at a nontrivial rate.” That same issue of the journal carried eight other articles that addressed the issue of health and wind-turbine noise.
In October, a peer-reviewed study of wind-turbine-related noise in New Zealand found that residents living within two kilometers of large wind projects reported
lower overall quality of life, physical quality of life, and environmental quality of life. Those exposed to turbine noise also reported significantly lower sleep quality, and rated their environment as less restful. Our data suggest that wind farm noise can negatively impact facets of health-related quality of life.
Alec Salt, a research scientist at the Cochlear Fluids Research Laboratory at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has written extensively about the health effects of wind-energy projects. He flatly concludes that wind turbines “can be hazardous to human health.”
Dr. Robert McMurtry, a Canadian orthopedic surgeon, is also pushing for more study; he is among the leaders of a large anti-wind contingent in Ontario. Try as they might, McMurtry’s opponents cannot dismiss him or his credentials. He is a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of Canada and was recently named a member of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Ontario has become ground zero in the fight against the wind-energy sector. In September, a Canadian family filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against the owners of a wind project in southwestern Ontario. That same month, CBC News reported that Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment has logged “hundreds of health complaints” about the wind projects there. According to the Society for Wind Vigilance, a group of doctors, acousticians, academics, and health professionals that is focused on the adverse health effects of wind turbines, about 40 families in Ontario have moved out of their homes because of turbine noise. Last month, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, the province’s biggest farm organization, said that the push for wind energy had “become untenable” and that “rural residents’ health and nuisance complaints must be immediately and fairly addressed.”
Finding people in Canada and elsewhere who are being victimized by turbine noise is easy. Over the past two years, I’ve personally interviewed, by phone or e-mail, homeowners in Wisconsin, Missouri, New York, Nova Scotia, Ontario, and England who’ve had wind turbines built near their homes. Their health complaints are nearly identical to those made by the Enzes. For instance, Darrel Capelle, a 34-year-old farm hand, lives in De Pere, Wis., with his wife and their two young boys. In October 2010, two large wind turbines were built within a quarter mile of their home. “Sleeplessness with the kids started right after the turbines went in,” says Capelle. His wife, Sarah, now suffers from frequent, intense headaches.
Although the federal government has yet to undertake any broad studies of infrasound and wind turbines, other countries are responding to the surging resistance against land-based wind projects. Among those countries: Denmark, which has become the Green Left’s favorite example of the merits of wind energy. Alas, the Danes themselves aren’t so enthusiastic.
In 2010, the Copenhagen Post reported that “state-owned energy firm Dong Energy has given up building more wind turbines on Danish land, following protests from residents complaining about the noise the turbines make.” The newspaper quoted Dong CEO Anders Eldrup as saying, “It is very difficult to get the public’s acceptance if the turbines are built close to residential buildings, and therefore we are now looking at maritime options.”
The controversy over wind-turbine noise has been raging in Australia for more than two years. Much of the fight has focused on the noise generated by the Waubra wind project in the state of Victoria. Residents near the project began complaining of health problems shortly after the 192-megawatt facility began operating in 2009, and several residents near the project abandoned their homes. Australia’s mainstream media have paid serious attention to the turbine-noise issue, including a 2010 TV report by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that focused on the problems at Waubra.
In mid-2011, Victoria’s state government responded to the problems at Waubra by announcing that it would enforce a two-kilometer (1.25-mile) setback between wind turbines and homes. The state’s planning minister said the setback was needed for health reasons. In December, government officials in the state of New South Wales issued guidelines that give residents living within two kilometers of a proposed wind project the right to delay, or even stop, the project’s development. The rules also will impose strict noise limits.
The backlash against the wind-energy sector is particularly fierce in Europe, where the European Platform against Windfarms now lists 518 signatory organizations from 23 countries. In the U.K., where fights are raging against industrial wind projects in Wales, Scotland, and elsewhere, some 285 anti-wind groups have been formed. Last May, according to the BBC, some 1,500 protesters descended on the Welsh assembly, demanding that a massive wind project planned for central Wales be halted. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., about 140 anti-wind groups have been formed.
The growing resistance to large-scale wind projects raises a number of questions that must be addressed before Congress approves any further subsidies.
The most important one is also the most obvious: If the noise generated by wind turbines isn’t a health problem, why are so many people, in so many different countries, complaining about the noise in nearly identical terms? And why are some of them going so far as to abandon their homes?
Another question: Why isn’t wind-turbine noise getting more attention from the Environmental Protection Agency? The EPA has plenty of resources to investigate complaints about the oil-and-gas sector on the issue of hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, the wind industry is getting a free pass, even though tens of thousands of wind turbines could be built in the U.S. over the coming years thanks to the renewable-energy mandates that have been instituted in 29 states and the District of Columbia.
The Green Left is so married to the notion that wind energy might help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions that they are blithely ignoring the “energy sprawl” and noise problems that come with large-scale wind projects. Never mind if dozens, or even hundreds, of rural homeowners are being euchred out of their homes and property. They can be ignored. They can easily be sacrificed in the quest to appear to be doing something — anything — in the push to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions, no matter how small or inconsequential those reductions might actually be.
That same mindset prevails in the White House and at the Department of Energy. Indeed, despite the panoply of evidence that shows wind-turbine noise causes health problems, President Obama has made it clear that he wants lots more renewable energy. In his State of the Union speech, he said that he wants to impose a national standard requiring the use of “clean energy,” and that he wants to “double down” on the “clean-energy industry.”
When Dave Enz heard the president’s proposal, his response was simple: “I don’t think he cares about people like us.”
— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.