Wind Turbine Noise: Reflections On A Vexing Issue

I live on a street here in Portland near a light-rail station that has no parking, and very close to a large housing complex that was built with very little onsite parking. So cars are always coming and going in front of my house, which is set back only about ten yards from the street. When a car pulls up and idles for an extended period, the low rumbling of the motor draws my attention and begins to make me antsy. If a driver turns off the ignition but sits listening to music, bass thumping even at a barely audible level, it can drive me crazy. My son? He sits nearby, buried in a book, oblivious.

This personal revelation seems apropos after reading Kristen French’s fascinating article in the Sept. 23 issue of New York, “Never Stops, Never Stops. Headache. Help.” The headline is from notes kept by a woman in Falmouth, Mass., where four wind turbines produce energy, although not at night anymore; under pressure from some residents complaining of sleep disruptions and other ill health effects, town leaders ordered the partial shut-down.

I’ve written a little bit about Falmouth, from afar, as well as other wind energy noise controversies, and have generally hewed to the line that science does not support the claim that big wind turbines are dangerously noisy. But perhaps because of my own sensitivity to the sounds that pop up around my home, or maybe because I have a tendency to believe that truths tend to reside in the murky middle ground rather than at one extreme or the other, there’s always been a part of me that felt uncomfortable about the way many wind energy supporters – including renewable energy writers – mock those who say wind turbines cause them suffering.

French’s article doesn’t do this – it grants a respectful hearing to the people who tell woeful stories of life near wind turbines. And yet at the same time it doesn’t shy away from the evidence that makes the origin of these complaints not so easy to pin down. Indeed, one’s reaction to wind turbines nearby seems to be strongly linked to what you’ve heard or read about wind turbine noise – or it could come down to the possibility that you are among a small percentage of people who are sensitive to turbines, even if they are not particularly loud.

French also doesn’t shy away from suggesting there is just a little bit of crazy in some of the anti-wind power movement. She notes the testimony, before a Massachusetts legislative panel, of one David Moriarity, who says, “Now, please stop the suffering in Falmouth, Massachusetts. They knew. It’s no accident. It was intentional.”

French characterizes Moriarity as “uncharacteristically extreme,” and I don’t question that assessment, but I have found hints and accusations that wind power is a giant conspiracy or a fraudulent producer of energy to be the weakest element of the arguments made by those who claim turbine noise can harm people. You can see this in the comments to French’s article; for wind opponents, it’s not enough to say the turbines might be disrupting some lives. Instead, you get stuff like this:

  • “It is a total waste of our taxes and only benefits these corporations, which by the way are mostly foreign owned.”
  • “Wealthy corporate and political elitists are getting richer off the backs of taxpayers and ratepayers, while all the rest of us are getting poorer paying for this ‘green’ energy boondoggle.”
  • “This scam will make an industry and a few farmers rich and leave the rest of rural America to suffer!”
  • “We as Citizens have been made into Guinea Pigs by a for Profit Industry that has never been made to prove that thier product is safe.”
  • “The wind industry is doing tremendous harm to the environment, wildlife, and the people who are expected to live around these enormous machines.”

The irony is, it’s exactly this kind of rhetoric that makes it easy for journalists wading into the wind-noise issue to simply point to the science that does not support wind turbine syndrome, instead of acknowledging that the issue could be slightly more complicated than that.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • savvyone

    I DO live near turbines and DO see the bodies of eagle, owls, other raptors and bats that litter the ground at the bases of the turbines. Not all are within the small circumference the wind power company monitors once or twice a week. There are many bodies outside that circumference and many that are taken away by scavengers before the periodic visits. The turbines also DO make noise. I can generally sleep through the noise, my husband cannot.

    I was a wind energy supporter until first-hand evidence, includingnoise, dead birds and skyrocketing electric bills, has made me feel things need great improvement in this sector before more dot our landscapes. The more there are, the more wildlife are killed, the higher our bills will go (for the generous subsidies to wind power companies) and the more “sensitive” people will be affected.

  • Andreas Marciniak

    The fact is ! There is no safe distance for wind Turbines, NOT GREEN, NOT CHEAP, NOT RELIABLE, and come with a very BAD side EFFECT on people and the ENVIRONMENT. there is Nothing GREEN about TURBINES. SAY NO TO WIND TURBINES.

  • disqus_tObYqppPWg

    Whether or not journalists believe it or not…..those things are all true, and one day it will be plain for all to see.

  • http://www.facebook.com/keith.argh.jones Keith Jones

    Wow… really? I suggest that there will never be a form of energy that will be acceptable to most of these people unless it comes from somewhere else (NIMBY). Wind is too noisy (heaven forbid a tree creak in the wind), Solar is energy intensive to manufacture and just looks unsightly (on my neighbors roof), Coal… Ugh… it comes from the ground and is just “dirty”, Natural gas… Fracking… Oil… again… ground, dirty… Nuclear… Oh yeah… an aversion to math and things I can’t see or understand. Dam’s well, the watershed will suffer. I suggest that these people unplug and just simply tune out. In fact, raise your own sheep, spin your own wool. grow your own vegetables, Live without heat or air conditioning. Fan yourself with a home made paper, paper fan.
    There are no viable ways of generating power without some type of consequence. Minerals come from mines. lumber from trees, of yeah… just the process of living causes disruption and trauma to the environment around us. Either face it and make your peace with it, or go away.

    • Pete Danko

      I don’t disagree with that, Keith. That said, just because “there are no viable ways of generating power without some type of consequence” doesn’t mean we should accept every consequence of generating power, particularly when those consequences are avoidable. There are good places to site wind and there are bad places. The industry needs to be pushed to develop as responsibly as possible.

    • Alec Sevins

      That’s a mindless slippery slope argument. I think you’d find religion if you were stuck living next to these huge towers.

    • Larry_Lorusso

      Keith, besides being the neighbors from Hell, the mountain was wrecked from all the trees cut and blasting to level the ridge to place the turbines at Hoosac Wind. The watershed is a mess now and when it rains the streams flash only to be down to a trickle a few days later. Some of the neighbors wells don’t work the same which started with blasting on the mountain. All this for a fraction of power promised that needs to be backed up by fossil fueled plants. There goes the neighborhood so people like you can go on living wastefully and not feel guilty while making fun or my neighbors, some of which had to leave their homes from health issues that went away when they moved somewhere else.

  • Alec Sevins

    It’s good to see that green-techie denial of the turbine noise issue is finally being exposed for what it is. These people have been just as obtuse as global warming deniers.

    But more important is the massive visual blight of these landscape-wrecking machines. Wind turbines are a sledgehammer approach to something that could better be done with rooftop solar panels and serious conservation.

  • Larry_Lorusso

    I live 1 mile from Hoosac Wind and I do wake up at times from the noise of the project. After several nights of not sleeping well from noise from the turbines does take it’s toll. Before the project went online I didn’t have a problem sleeping because of noise as we live in a rural place and it’s very quiet. To bad as if it was any other neighbors waking me up I could call the police and the noise would stop, but not with Hoosac Wind.

  • sten

    So we can’t use fossil fuels for obvious reasons, we can’t use nuclear because of the danger, we can’t use hydro due to disturbance in the aquatic world, now we can’t use wind. What next, we can’t use solar because we will zap all the energy from the atmosphere and cool the planet?
    We either give up on using electricity, or pick the least of the evils people.

  • rucio

    It could as well be the intransigent and dismissive stand of wind companies and their supporters toward complaints that leads to the anger and “extreme” negative opinions concerning wind in their victims. And the fact is, wind developers do make a lot of money, most of thanks to taxpayers. It can start to rankle.

  • NortheasternEE

    Your dismissal of the “extremists” just might be premature.

    Here is a crowd with scientific credentials that says about the same thing:

    “Integrating more renewables into the US grid will be costly and have unintended consequences, including potential for increased carbon emissions, that policymakers need to plan for, warns a new Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative study.

    The study, unveiled Monday, looked at what needs to be done to accommodate increasing percentages of renewables on electricity grids, said MITEI head Ernest Moniz.”

    http://breakingenergy.com/2012/03/13/renewable-energy-will-cost-grid-more-mit/

    The annoyance and sleep disruption is for nothing in return!

    • Pete D

      I recommend you read the actual documents from the MIT symposium that is the subject of the news article you link to. Nowhere do they even remotely suggest that wind power “is for nothing in return.” Instead, they discus the policy and technology adaptations that need to be undertaken in order to continue to make renewables a larger, beneficial proportion of our energy sourcing. Here’s the link to the documents: http://mitei.mit.edu/publications/reports-studies/managing-large-scale-penetration-intermittent-renewables

      • NortheasternEE

        You are right they do not explicitly say that wind power is for nothing in return. That is my conclusion after reading the documents. The documents do say, that in the absence of inexpensive grid scale energy storage, the integration of wind power on the grid will increase cost, damage existing thermal power plants, and fail to avoid carbon.
        I fail to see what is gained in return!

        • Pete D

          With all due respect, there is much, much more to the symposium report than energy storage. Really, read the report. Then, when you’ve actually done that, spend some quality time with the wind integration research that came out two years after the symposium.
          http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy13osti/55588.pdf

          • NortheasternEE

            I don’t think so! Without affordable energy storage none of the benefits are achievable.
            You should not have dismissed all the critics so quickly. Their assessment of wind power is not that extreme!

  • Holly Gates

    I actually find the noise of wind turbines to be soothing, and their appearance in the landscape to be beautiful and inspiring.