When Wind Energy And Human Health Collide

With 2,305 megawatts (MW) of installed capacity, wind power plants in eastern Oregon are bringing lots of clean power to the grid. And in Sherman County, where more than 40 percent of that capacity resides, the wind revenues are spinning out significant cash payments to every resident. But some folks in wind country have expressed dismay over noise from the giant turbines – and now a draft state health report is providing at least some validation of those complaints.

The Oregon Public Health Division said in a draft “Wind Energy Health Impact Assessment” released this month that “sound from wind energy facilities in Oregon could potentially impact people’s health and well-being” when it exceeds state standards, and that “the potential impacts from wind turbine sound could range from moderate disturbances to serious annoyance, sleep disturbance and decreased quality of life.”

wind power turbine noise oregon

image via Shutterstock

Residents have also complained about the turbines’ light impacts, and investigators looked at the issue of “shadow flicker,” in which alternating levels of light intensity are produced when the rotating turbine blades cast shadows on stationary objects. The report more or less dismissed that as an issue, saying the shadow flicker rate was low and that adverse health impact were unlikely.

But the verdict on noise promises to keep alive an issue that has been raised around the world, from Minnesota [PDF] to Australia. It’s of particular concern in Oregon because a lot more wind energy is under construction, and if the industry can hold onto government incentives, a lot more is likely to be built.

Right now, plants totaling 845 MW of new capacity are under construction, another 1,586 MW are approved and 2,717 MW beyond that are in the permitting process. The Health Impact Assessment itself can’t set any new rules; it’s described as “a tool to help community members, elected officials and Oregon Department of Energy understand and respond to health-related questions about wind energy developments in Oregon.” But wind opponents in eastern Oregon are hopeful it will give their cause a boost.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.