There has been a lot of controversy about industrial wind turbines (IWTs) lately, and as reported yesterday, a new study suggests that the sound from wind turbines may be causing adverse health effects in those that live close to wind farms.
Wind Turbine Syndrome (WTS) is the term that has been used to describe the blanket of symptoms reported — insomnia, headaches, nausea, stress, poor ability to concentrate and irritability. Numerous studies have been conducted regarding wind turbine noise and its potential effect on people, with the majority of those studies concluding that there are no health effects from the noise. Other studies have stated that the health effects and general mental state of the people that live around wind turbines is determined by 'annoyance' — how the people feel about the wind turbines, whether they see them as an unnecessary or disruptive intrusion, whether they find them aesthetically pleasing or not, and whether they directly benefit from them financially. In some cases, it has been suggested that WTS is psychogenic — that it is spread simply by raising concerns and worry about the subject — which is being called the 'nocebo effect', a negative placebo effect.
Indeed, the symptoms of WTS listed above are very similar to those of sleep deprivation. This is not to dismiss the problem, as sleep deprivation can and does cause serious health problems, however, it has been suggested that any newly-introduced source of noise in a rural area may cause the exact same effects on people. If that is the case, it would not be the wind turbines themselves that cause the problem, but simply the addition of another source of noise.
Now, for most other sources of noise, such as construction yards and highways, the volume of noise would be greatly reduced at night, however wind turbines can operate all day and all night. There is also some indication that a 'white noise' effect exists during the day that partially cancels wind turbine noise, due to wind blowing through vegetation, however with surface wind speeds being generally lower at night, there could be less 'canceling', and thus wind turbine noise might be more noticeable. However, in other studies it was found that the 'swishing' noise made by wind turbines — which as identified as being the most annoying sound — is very similar to the noise made by waves heard along shorelines, which is commonly believed to have a health benefit (and is used as a white noise to block out other sounds).
The jury is still out on this issue, though. There is an increasing number of studies being published in the past two years that point towards adverse health effects of low-frequency sound, or 'infrasound' — sound with a frequency of lower than 20 Hertz, the 'normal' limit of human hearing. There are other studies that have come out over the past two years that also reinforce the role of 'annoyance' in this issue. Sample size and 'statistical power' may be a limiting factor in how valid these studies are, and there also may be a high potential for biased reporting, depending on the source of the study. Health Canada announced in June that it will be conducting its own study to determine what, if any, health effects can be attributed to wind turbines. The results will be released in 2014.
There are other reasons that have been cited against wind farms, some with more validity than others.
Electricity from wind farms is considered 'intermittent', as it is dependent on when the wind is blowing. This electricity is directly tied into existing power grids, so the power is used immediately (rather than stored), and it may not be available at peak periods, when it would be most useful. However, other forms of electricity can be stored and used to supplement wind power when needed at peak periods or during low-wind periods, and having more adaptable power grids could also allow for more efficient transmission of electricity over distance, allowing any wind farms that are getting stronger winds to compensate for those with lighter winds.
There are claims that wind power will devastate bird populations. However, a study on bird mortality reported that 20,000 birds were killed by wind turbines. This is compared to 330,000 by nuclear power plants, 14 million by fossil fuel power plants, between 10-50 million by communication towers, 50-100 million by cars and trucks, 67 million by agriculture, 72 million by pesticides use, at least 97 million (possibly much much more) by building windows, 175 million by transmission lines and over 200 million by cats (domestic and feral combined).
Wind power represented less than 2% of the total electricity generated in the United States in 2009, yet it was responsible for only around one tenth of one per cent of the total number of birds killed by power generation that year. Thus, if you increased the number of wind turbines to take over all electricity generation in the United States, it would be a net benefit to birds to make that switch. Also, the numbers killed by turbines would still be dwarfed by the other causes of bird deaths, as we would still be killing between 50 and 100 times as many simply by driving our cars and trucks (not to mention the apparent devastation caused by farming and the mere presence of buildings).
[ Related: Wind turbine worker threatened with gun ]
Additionally, some claims have been made that wind turbines do not reduce carbon emissions (when replacing fossil fuel power generation), however this has been shown to be a myth.
Whether wind turbines are actually causing people to get sick apparently has yet to be determined. If annoyance is a large factor in this effect, this might be something that can easily be dealt with by showing the benefits of the technology or perhaps finding a way for residents local to wind farms to directly benefit from them. If sound or infrasound truly is an issue that is causing the problems, there are potential technological solutions to this, such as alterations in the design of the turbines, or perhaps even the design of the wind farms and placement of the turbines to better block any noise generated.