Wind power: less noise, happier neighbors
by Antonio Pasolini — Wind power is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to renewable energy. It currently accounts for 41.1 percent of all energy produced in Denmark (2015 data) while in the UK in the same period wind power generation accounted for 11 percent of the total. In other northern European countries such as Germany wind is also making steady progress.
Granted, wind power is far from being perfect and impact-free, despite being a renewable energy type that is preferable to fossil fuel, which by nature is finite and it needs to be replaced. Wind power can kill birds that risk being chopped up by the turbine blades (mind you, one billion birds die every year from collision with window glass panes , according to the American Bird Conservancy ); as an intermittent energy source it needs to be stored and storage needs improving.
Many people also consider wind turbines an eyesore, with the potential to devalue property and holiday spots in their vicinity. Some people blame turbines nearby for health problems, especially sleep disturbances and headaches . The suspicion is that the noise and vibrations that emanate from them cause the trouble .
Green Builder Media has a thought-provoking article asking whether this type of antagonism to wind turbines is based on evidence or an “example of the nocebo effect”. The article does mention a study carried out at the University of Oxford 's Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, which looked into possible health consequences of living close to wind turbines. The study included 2,433 participants and did find some evidence of health disturbance, which was proportional to the level of exposure (the higher the exposure, the more likely to get sleep disturbance).
However, the author of the study, Igho Onakpoya, highlights the studies were not designed to make a clear cause and effect link and were of moderate reporting quality. Besides, most of the outcomes measured were subjective, making it impossible to assert scientifically that the exposure is causing the symptoms.
Granted , wind turbines can be improved to become smaller and even blade-free. In northern Europe some of the biggest farms are off-shore, far away from the backyard of those with a distaste for it. Massive offshore farms are in the pipeline right now.
Noise depends on the size and speed at which the blade cuts through the air. Much of the research carried out to find out the sonic impact of turbines has been with large models.
The good news is that there are researchers working on new models that should make wind power design even more environmentally friendly and less risky to humans. The Green Media article also mentions that Henry Rice, a professor of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Trinity College Dublin (Ireland), along with his team, is working on three prototype turbines whose design was mainly informed by the research team’s computer modelling of noise.
The turbines will be built and tested next year with support from the SWIP project in Europe. The project aims at creating a new generation of wind turbines with less noise, turbulence and vibration. In other words, wind turbines that could be even suitable for urban areas, although more research on noise needs to be done and legal hurdles overcome.
There's no doubt that wind energy is here to stay and has an important contribution to make to help us transition to a green economy. It is happening and it will happen more safely, efficiently and aesthetically. In regards to the aforementioned Oxford research on possible links between wind turbines and human health, one interesting fact the study revealed is that people who benefit financially from the presence of wind turbines were less likely to report annoyance. Now, that may be an interesting angle to explore in discussions about window farm planning and permission.
Image credit: Green Builder Media