The World's #1 Renewable Energy Network for News, Information, and Companies.
Untitled Document

Cure for Wind Farm Noise Policy Gridlock: Back Off, But Allow Easements

Most wind advocates, including both industry players and regional renewable energy organizations, continue to be in a state of disbelief that the noise of turbines could possibly be a significant issue for nearby neighbors.

While it’s increasingly acknowledged that turbines will be audible much of the time, complaints about noise are too often painted as being unworthy of serious consideration, either because turbines are not all that loud, or because of an insistence that noise complaints are bogus surrogates for a broader opposition to wind energy that is “really” based on visual impacts or economic arguments (driven in some cases by climate change denial). Perhaps most crucially, wind advocates rarely acknowledge that turbine noise is often 10 dB louder than background sound levels (sometimes even 20 dB or more); acousticians have long known that any increase over 5 dB begins to trigger complaints, with 10dB the threshold for widespread problems.

Meanwhile, many community groups are over-reaching in their approach to reducing noise impacts, by focusing too much of their argument on possible health impacts of wind turbine noise exposure. While there are many reliable anecdotal examples of people having physical reactions to nearby turbines, even the accumulating number of reports of health reactions to new turbines represents a small minority of people who live within a mile or even half-mile of turbines. 

The health claims are hard – and perhaps impossible – to prove, though some insist that any health impact is unacceptable.  Much more telling are community response rates that affirm – in some types of rural communities – that 25-50 percent of people hearing turbines near the regulatory sound limits feel that their quality of life is severely impacted.

AEI’s new report, Wind Farm Noise 2011, aims to frame the current state of research and policy in a way that can help those trying to find a constructive middle ground that protects rural residents from an intrusive new 24/7 noise source while also encouraging wind development as part of our renewable energy future. 

A series of court and environmental tribunal rulings in recent months shed an especially illuminating light on the ambiguous state of our current understanding of wind farm noise impacts.  In each case, the ruling rejected some elements of the challenge while affirming the validity of other claimed impacts or stressing the need for continued investigation. 

In Australia, a planned wind farm was derailed by an environmental tribunal responding to an appeal from a local farmer who had focused on the possible noise impacts on his family and his livestock.  The tribunal rejected evidence related to health effects from noise, but held that the planned layout would impact the “visual amenity” of the area to an unacceptable degree (in Australia and New Zealand, “rural amenity” is a commonly-accepted planning and regulatory consideration).  In this case, the tribunal ruled that siting turbines 1km (0.6 miles) from homes, with some homes surrounded by several turbines within 2km (a mile and a quarter), was too close.

In Minnesota, the Public Utilities Commission rejected a half-mile county setback, but required the developer to offer financial compensation to 200 residents within a half-mile, though outside the regulatory limit of 1630 feet.

In Ontario, a major challenge to the Province’s new Green Energy Act was denied, and the 223-page ruling offers a great primer on current research from all sides.  The challenge was based on the health impacts argument, and failed on that count, but the tribunal stressed that “risks and uncertainties” remain.  While the evidence to date was determined to be “exploratory” rather than “confirmatory,” continued study was urged. The report noted: “The Tribunal accepts that indirect effects are a complex matter and that there is no reason to ignore serious effects that have a psychological component.”

Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, in the UK an appeal of a planned wind farm (based on the claim that the regulations were insufficient) was denied, but the High Court affirmed the validity of an amplitude modulation (AM) condition in the regulations, which is very stringent: whenever sound levels are over 28 dB, AM cannot exceed 3 dB. After years of denying that AM is an issue in UK wind farms, the industry there faces a starkly restrictive standard that would, in effect, preclude wind farm operations when any blade swish is audible, even in distant, barely audible turbines.  Renewable UK (formerly BWEA) is scrambling to fund research that can be used to better quantify AM so that new rules providing a reliable dB penalty for AM can be devised.

My experiences around wind farms in Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming has been very consistent: I have always been able to clearly hear any turbines that were within a half mile (faintly, but clearly there); at a quarter to third of a mile, the sound stood out, and as I approached three-quarters of a mile, the sound faded into the background sounds of distant roads or ground breeze.  These have been brief experiences, always in daytime with moderate wind.

Adding to these personal observations, the widespread reports of neighbors affected by unexpectedly intrusive levels of noise from turbines up to a half mile or so away as well as ranch-country experience that suggests noise levels of 45-50 dB are often easily accepted, lead to my current perspective that the most constructive and widely beneficial path forward would be a shift toward larger setback requirements (in effect, lowering the maximum noise levels at homes nearly to quiet night time ambient noise levels), combined with easily crafted easement provisions that allow turbines to be built closer to landowners who agree to allow it. 

This approach, currently used in Oregon, would protect communities and individuals who have invested their life savings in a quiet rural lifestyle, while acknowledging that there are many people in rural areas who are ready and willing to support wind energy development, even near their homes.

Yes, some locations – in fact many locations with relatively small lot sizes – may be hard or impossible to build in, but these are exactly the locations where the social tradeoffs, and the resulting balancing of costs and benefits, are least clearly favorable to wind development anyway.  If the industry can accept that it doesn’t have the right to build anywhere the noise can be kept to 50 dB, and that its future development will be taking place within the fabric of a diverse society, then there is a clear business opportunity emerging for those companies that take the lead by crafting truly responsive community relations programs.  

These companies will commit to working with the standards set by local tolerance for new noise sources, rather than pushing local or state authorities to adopt siting standards used elsewhere.  These leading edge wind companies may also put their money where their mouth is on property values by establishing programs that compensate landowners for moderate changes in property value (which are likely to be less common than feared), and helping create programs that buy and sell homes, so residents who wish move can do so quickly at fair market value.

These companies will develop reputations as developers that are ready to be good local citizens, and will find that the increases in some costs and a willingness to forsake some locations altogether leads to dramatic benefits in terms of long-term stability and acceptance in the communities where they work – and especially in communities where they propose new projects.

Noise concerns are not obstacles to wind development, if the industry and local and state regulators can move beyond simplistic denial of the problem. Indeed, the continued growth of the wind industry in the U.S. and Canada may depend upon a fundamental shift of attitude, centered on respecting communities that choose lower noise limits, and providing assurances that negative impacts will be addressed if they occur.

Untitled Document

Get All the Renewable Energy World News Delivered to Your Inbox - FREE!

Subscribe to Renewable Energy World Magazine and our award-winning e-Newsletter to stay up to date on current news and industry trends.

 Subscribe Now


US Senate Democrats Unveil Energy Bill That Restores PTC and Extends ITC

Brian Eckhouse, Bloomberg Senate Democrats unveiled a bill that would provide more tax credits for renewable energy while killing some tax ince...

Sage Grouse Removed as Threat to Biggest Wind Farm in U.S.

Christopher Martin, Bloomberg Billionaire Phil Anschutz’s plans to build a $5 billion wind farm in southeast Wyoming will no longer be stymied by t...

CEO Gilles: Challenge in Geothermal is to 'Level Playing Field' with Wind, Solar

Jennifer Delony The current challenge for the geothermal energy industry is what U.S. Geothermal CEO Dennis Gilles calls “leveling th...

NRG Energy to Form Renewable Unit, Sell Wind Assets to Yieldco

Mark Chediak and Matthew Monks, Bloomberg NRG Energy Inc., the worst-performing member of the S&P 500 Utilities Index this year, said it will form a renewa...


US Solar Hosts Sierra Club Solar Meeting

This past Monday, US Solar welcomed a new group to its solar training classroom – The S...

US Solar Invited to Speak at Intersolar North America

Intersolar, the largest solar conference and expo in North America is right around the ...

US Solar - Green Planet Festival Highlights Solar Energy and Solar Training This Weekend

US Solar Institute (USSI) is excited to announce that they are the educational sponsor ...

Yaskawa – Solectria Solar Provides Inverters for One of the Largest Professional Sport Stadium PV Systems in North America

Yaskawa - Solectria Solar, a leading U.S. PV inverter manufacturer, announced today tha...


Solar Decathlon 2015 Opens to the Public in California

Today, Oct. 8, the biennial Solar Decathlon opened up to the public at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, ...

ENER-G CHP technology selected for major London housing scheme

ENER-G has been selected to supply combined heat and power (CHP) technology for phase two of the Leopold Estate housi...


Necessity is the mother of innovation. Our planet is going through major changes in climate. This of course will affe...

Georgia Legislature Approves PPA’s, Florida Hoping to Follow

Ah, the sunny south, the land of peaches, oranges and solar potential. I’m talking about Georgia and Florida he...


I am an editor and writer with a longtime focus on science and the environment. AEI is a resource/info center, not an advocacy organization. It is, in essence, a large editorial project focused on sound-related environmental issues. Our Special...


Volume 18, Issue 4


To register for our free
e-Newsletters, subscribe today:


Tweet the Editors! @jennrunyon



Doing Business in Europe – in partnership with GWEC, the Global Win...

There is now 128.8 GW of installed wind energy capacity in the EU (appro...

JuiceBox Energy Certified Installer Class

JuiceBox Energy is rapidly building out its national certified installer...

Wind Operator Congress Europe

The UK’s only business-focused O&M event for the European wind...


Clean Energy Patents Maintain High Levels in First Quarter, Solar L...

U.S. patents for Clean Energy technologies from the first quarter of 201...

Koch Professor drops his Koch title, still makes same errors plus s...

The Koch Professor’s title isn’t the only thing that’s...

Fact Check: AWEA represents American wind power

The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) is proud of its members for ...


Renewable Energy: Subscribe Now

Solar Energy: Subscribe Now

Wind Energy: Subscribe Now

Geothermal Energy: Subscribe Now

Bioenergy: Subscribe Now