Sleep is a wonderful thing, and it’s necessary for good health. As someone who doesn’t always get enough, I understand people’s concern that wind turbines are disturbing their sleep, or if built, will. Yet the report this week from the state’s expert review on the science did not find sufficient scientific evidence that wind turbine noise impacts are loud enough or have the right characteristics to physically disturb people’s sleep.
The panel did find limited evidence that some people are annoyed by noise from wind turbines, due to a combination of “the sound itself, the sight of the turbine, and attitude toward the wind turbine project.” In other words, if you are annoyed by the presence of wind turbines, you might also be annoyed by the noise from them. Still, the report disavows claims that wind turbines are associated with adverse health effects.
But, if you are one of the 44% of Americans who have trouble sleeping (according to a Consumer Reports 2008 survey) and you are annoyed by nearby wind turbines, it’s not hard to see how you would link the two together and associate sleep problems with the sound from the turbines. The value of a scientific review is to sort out whether there is sufficient evidence to support claims that the cause (i.e., noise from wind turbines) resulted in the effect (sleep disturbance or health problems). The review by the state’s expert panel did not find sufficient evidence to support the causal link between noise from wind turbines and health problems or disease, debunking the claims of “wind turbine syndrome.” “Claims that infrasound from wind turbines directly impacts the vestibular system have not been demonstrated scientifically.”
The story is a bit more complicated for sleep disturbance. The report states, “A very loud wind turbine could cause disrupted sleep, particularly in vulnerable populations, at a certain distance, while a very quiet wind turbine would not likely disrupt even the lightest of sleepers at that same distance.” The question becomes, how loud is loud enough? or what is the threshold at which disturbance occurs?, and that answer doesn’t definitively exist.The science tells us some of what we need to know, but still leaves uncertainty about how to ensure that wind turbines don’t disturb poor sleepers. For example, if the disturbance is a function of one’s attitude about wind turbines, it might not be possible to avoid disturbance for some people.
The key question is, what do we do with this information? How does the science help us make sound decisions about siting wind energy? The data do not suggest we stop all development of wind energy facilities because they pose unacceptable health risks. The evidence does not support that. Regardless of how uncomfortable we may be about making decisions under uncertainty, the reality is that we always operate under uncertainty – and there is no avoiding that. We can never be certain about the future. An appropriate path forward for wind energy decision-making is to use the best available information to make siting decisions that address abutters’ concerns, such as incorporating good design principles to minimize any annoying effects. In fact, that is what the expert panel recommends.
The good news is that having a wind turbine in your back yard will not make you sick. The bad news is you might be disturbed by it, and that is an important consideration for decision makers. Those directly impacted by wind siting decisions should have the opportunity to participate in them, to minimize the potential for disturbance. CLF Ventures’ Wind Siting Guide offers guidance on how to engage stakeholders in such decision processes.
Renewable wind energy offers many benefits, including energy independence, reliable pricing, and no ongoing emissions. As we strive to achieve a cleaner energy future, which necessarily includes wind turbines, we will need to take measures to minimize the annoyance impacts of living near them, since they will always be in somebody’s back yard. Robust community processes will help us make better design decisions and minimize the impacts.