02/08/10 Wind turbine noise? It's no louder than a refrigerator.... attached a to a jet engine. AND 'the nocebo effect' or the only reason the turbine noise bothers you is because you have a bad attitude.
More complications as local residents react to excessive and unexpected noise.
Andy Stone, January 29, 2010
In Vinalhaven, a small island community off the coast of central Maine, the recent installation of three massive wind towers was hailed by residents and developers as the answer to the island’s energy woes, but as soon as the turbines started turning this past November, some local residents began to regret what they now feel was a “devil’s bargain.”
In the first days of operation, many of the surrounding property owners – there are 15 within a half mile of the towers – were shocked to find that the sound of the giant propellers’ turning was far more audible and intrusive than developers led them to believe it would be.
They reported hearing a noise described variably as “whooshing,” “roaring,” “thumping” and “grinding” at all hours, even from inside their homes with the windows closed. Some compared it to living in the vicinity of a highway or airport, and one resident described how the sound intensifies as wind speed rises, building to “an in-your-face noise, like jet engines roaring combined with a grinding and pulsating sound that echoes in your head, keeps you awake at night, and beats on your house like a drum.”
The reality of the noise levels, say the islanders, is in stark contrast with what proponents told them about the project – namely that the sound of the propellers would be largely masked by ambient background noise, and that at times when the propellers were louder, ambient noise would be correspondingly louder as well.
To its credit, the Fox Island Electric Cooperative, which owns and operates the towers, has been responsive to residents’ complaints, but no quick or easy solution has presented itself. The Cooperative is currently making physical modifications to the turbines, but the changes are likely to have only a marginal impact.
Simply slowing the turbines down is also an imperfect solution since it would mean reduced power production and lower economic benefits to island residents.
In the bigger picture, the situation is another in a series of complications and challenges for advocates of wind power development in Maine.
The industry has grown rapidly in the state; in the past four years alone, developers have completed or are currently building projects worth over $500 million, with a collective production capacity of over 200 megawatts.
These installations range from single small towers erected by municipalities to massive industrial sites like the 40-turbine, 60-megawatt Rollins Mountain Wind Farm. In addition, Maine has received an $8 million grant from the U.S. Dept. of Energy to create three ocean-based wind energy research stations, and Governor John Baldacci has made wind and other renewable power a central focus of his administration’s energy policy.
In the midst of this rapid proliferation, more and more cautionary tales like that of Vinalhaven continue to emerge.
A similar situation arose recently in the town of Mars Hill, where a group of residents filed a civil suit against the operators of a local wind power facility, claiming they were sorely misled when promised that noise “would not be an issue.”
Since the large 28-turbine facility began operating, those residents have suffered physical symptoms including headaches and “frayed nerves” from the constant and inescapable noise, and have complained of a decrease in overall quality of life and an unforeseen reduction in property values.
Other towns in Maine have taken notice of the difficulties in places like Vinalhaven and Mars Hill and have begun to preemptively draft noise ordinances and other guidelines geared specifically toward potential local wind power installations.
Part of the underlying problem is that state noise laws are outdated and designed for traditional industrial noise, which is typically in the higher frequencies of the spectrum. Wind turbines emit low frequency noise, which is less easily absorbed, causing it to travel farther and to penetrate more easily through walls and other obstacles.
Some Mainers have called for legislative action, asking the State legislature to consider bills reducing maximum noise limits. They point out that lowering the limit by only three decibels – from 45 to 42 – would cut the overall noise volume in half (sound measurement is based on a logarithmic formula).
It remains to be seen what action the legislature will take, and what solutions will be found for places like Vinalhaven and Mars Hill, where residents feel betrayed and fear the permanent loss of their once-quiet and peaceful existence.
It is clear that, as tales of such situations circulate, wind power advocates and developers are faced with an ever-tougher challenge in winning over public opinion and bringing local populations on board for prospective future projects.
Wind power is an undeniably important technology that has already proven its value as a clean, sustainable and profitable energy source, but it must continue to be developed in wise and thoughtful ways.
In the midst of the current rapid expansion and growth of the industry, individuals, groups and communities involved in all levels of the effort should remain cognizant of the risks and challenges that arise when, as in Vinalhaven, the promise of wind power technology collides head-on with the reality of its implementation.
Monique Aniel and Steve Thurston, Noise Regulations Needed as Wind Power Industry Expands, KENNEBEC JOURNAL, Jan. 17, 2010, available at http://kennebecjournal.mainetoday.com/view/columns/7337109.html
Christopher Cousins, Three Offshore Wind Power Test Sites Unveiled for Maine, BANGOR DAILY NEWS, Dec. 16, 2009, available at http://www.maineville.com/detail/132851.html
Dora Anne Mills, Wind Turbines Neuro-Acoustical Issues, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2009, http://www.maine.gov/dhhs/boh/wind-turbines-neuro-acoustical.shtml
Julia Bayly, Residents Air Concerns at Wind Power Hearing, BANGOR DAILY NEWS, Jan. 21, 2010, available at http://www.bangordailynews.com/detail/135230.html
NOTE FROM THE BPWI RESEARCH NERD:
The Nocebo Effect
There has been a marked uptick in the wind industry's use of the term 'the nocebo effect' to explain the complaints about wind turbine noise from those who live near them.
The nocebo effect is the opposite of the placebo effect. A nocebo response occurs when the expectation of a negative effect leads to an actual negative outcome.
In other words, if you expect problems from wind turbines built within half mile of your home, you will have them. If you expect them to keep you awake, it's this expectation -not the actual wind turbine noise- that is causing the problem.
The Placebo Effect
In the case of the residents of the island of Vinalhaven, there were no negative expectations of the three GE 1.5mw turbines that went on line just a few months ago in September of 2009. The residents closest to the towers were among the strongest supporters and publicly expressed excitement and joy about the project and attended a gathering to celebrate the day they became operational [as reported in this story]
They hardly fit the criteria for the 'nocebo effect' If anything, the Vinalhaven story illustrates how even the placebo effect isn't strong enough to counter the very real impact of industrial turbine noise, particularly at night.
The 50dbA noise limit proposed for Wisconsin's newly approved Glacier Hills project and for the proposed Ledge Wind project is too high. It has no scientific or medical data to support it as being a safe noise limit for a rural community, especially at night. The public service commission has acknowledged that people will have to make sacrifices, but one wonders how much the commissioners really understand the problem and the extent of the sacrifices they are asking Wisconsin families to bear.