What the Hell is Wind Turbine Syndrome?

By Keith Kloor | October 23, 2012 1:57 pm

Every energy source comes with its own set of problems that give rise to a passionate opposition. In the United States today, we see it with shale gas and the anti-fracking movement.  In Britain, Australia and other countries where wind farms have proliferated across rural landscapes, we see fierce anti-wind campaigns gaining strength.

Like gas fracking, there are numerous vexing issues (of a different nature) associated with wind turbines. But campaigners against fracking and wind power have something in common: They both exploit and distort science to advance their agendas. Of course, someone like James Delingpole, being the buffoonish demagogue he is, would be the last to recognize this. So it’s amusing that what he criticizes enviros for is exactly what he’s guilty of himself. The energy writer Robert Bryce is not a court jester like Delingpole, but he is guilty of selective citation in this recent one-sided column that suggests there are serious health effects from wind turbine noise.

Still, the assortment of maladies that have been attributed to wind farms is pretty fascinating. I explore the phenomena of “wind turbine syndrome” over at Discover. Is it real or just a lot of hot air? Have a read and let me know what you think at Discover or here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Energy, wind power
  • Ed Forbes

    Calif tried windmills years ago……..The Greens forced the state to close them down due to the large numbers of bird deaths……….strange……….the Greens seem to be pretty closed mouth about bird deaths these days……..I have friends who lost LARGE amounts of money when their investments were destroyed and laugh at the thought of being burned on investing in bird killers a second time.  

  • Mr. M

    Can’t speak for the US but in my opinion much of the UK opposition  to wind technology (and claims of ill-health related to it) can be explained in large part by the policies used to encourage it. Whereas
    Denmark launched an early feed in tariff (alongside other policies) in
    the 70s(?), which ensured that local communities could easily own and/or
    benefit from small turbines which then grew and expanded gradually, the
    UK only began to subsidise projects able to produce very high levels of
    power in the 1990s. Thus, with only a few
    exceptions, most of the proposed or existing on-shore wind projects in the
    UK have involved massive, more noisy corporate-owned turbines in isolated, serene
    and often beautiful upwind landscapes; the end result being that
    turbines are seen by communities near them as alien behemoths that suck
    away value from their properties and ruin their quality of life,
    primarily for the benefit of corporations and people living in far away
    cities. You can see this resentment at absentee big businesses and land owners running throughout Delingpole’s article.The
    belated introduction of a poorly thought out UK FiT a few years ago
    hasn’t changed this in the
    slightest as far as I can tell and has little prospect of doing so.I’d be interested to see how prominent such health complaints are in Denmark or somewhere else where it’s easier for local and/or small scale investors to benefit from turbines.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “So it’s amusing that what he criticizes enviros for is exactly what he’s guilty of himself.”

    Just what I was thinking…

  • Mary

    Huh. That’s the nubbin of a fascinating public health thesis project for someone. What collected complaints arise from deployment of new/different technology? And has it changed since the internet.

    I’ll bet the complaints are the same–but the speed at which they spread has altered.

  • Tom Gray

    You are confusing environment science with science as an ideal. Environmental science is science as reality. That is it is politics under another name. You are asking for rigour in the ideal. What rigour is is in reality is cloak to make  political advocacy sound legitimate.As Tom Wolfe wrote in “The RIght Stuff, it is not aerodynamics that makes eh airplane fly, it is funding. No Bucks, No Buck Rogers. and therefore successfully funded (i.e. real) scientific projects align with political objectives  and preferably they provide a common point for which multiple interests groups find a common benefit and so form a temporary coalition to fund it.

  • Vinny Burgoo

    Is ‘nocebo’ the right word? Wind turbines have easily detectable effects on their immediate surroundings, some subjective (like ugliness), some not (like noise).

  • Matt Skaggs

    You calling someone a “buffoonish demagogue,” now that is rich.  For months now you have published nothing but taunts.  Has it worked?  Did your blog rating go up now that you have substituted bloviating for content?

  • Keith Kloor

    Matt,

    If I was concerned about my blog ratings, I can assure you I would doing something quite different.

    So how would you characterize Delingpole? Is pond scum more accurate?

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    There’s actually a lot of journalists like Delingpole over there in the UK. They’re just having a fine old time. They don’t really work very hard, but I guess being young and in London is its own reward.

  • http://omnologos.com Maurizio Morabito

    Why go through all the trouble when AGW has already been to us long enough. Here’s the procedure:1. Find some energy generation system you truly hate2. Get the Numberwatch page about AGW3. Claim the energy generation system you truly hate causes everything that’s listed at that Numberwatch page4. Wait a few years, recycle the claims. Now that’s veritable GREEN thinking!

  • http://omnologos.com Maurizio Morabito

    Oops…”always been WITH us”…

  • Michael Larkin

    However long the list, it’s not as long as the list of alleged effects of Global Warming. If one can be mass hysteria, why not the other? Keith, would you welcome a bloody great windmill outside your home? Could you honestly say that you wouldn’t have some concerns about the effects on the health, even if only psychological, of you and your family?

  • Greg Schiller

    Now that autumn has stripped the leaves from the trees, our entire horizon winks with red lights.  Light pollution used to be limited to the glow in the night sky from Austin, Albert Lea and Owatoona, windmills have changed that and people do not like it.The environmentalists applauded Lady Bird Johnson when she launched her Beautify America campaign by limiting billboards on the interstate highway system.  A half a century later, these people and their children are applauding the destruction of the rural landscape.It is easy to feel morally smug about something when you don’t have to live with the consequences.

  • http://robertbryce.com Robert Bryce

    Keith, since you’ve mentioned my name here and suggest my recent piece in the NY Post is one sided, I’ll be happy to provide you with the contact info for some of the people who’ve abandoned their homes after wind turbines have been built too close to their residences. Perhaps if you talk to real people about this issue, you’ll change you mind.

    It’s remarkable to me how the mainstream environmental groups are so eager to dismiss the real harm that wind energy projects can have to the environment. On that list, are, of course bird kills. But right behind that is the energy sprawl that necessarily comes with large-scale wind developments. And that energy sprawl usually means putting wind turbines close to residences. If you want to read real stories from real people, instead of dismissing these objectors as cranks who are taking “nocebos,” go to my website and read the statement by Dave Enz, from Denmark, Wisconsin. When I interviewed him, he’d never heard the term “wind turbine syndrome.” And yet he and his wife are now living in an RV. The wind-turbine-noise has made their home uninhabitable. Finally, if you hated my piece in the NY Post, you’ll really dislike this one: noise. http://www.nationalreview.com/blogs/print/289920

  • Keith Kloor

    Robert (14)

    Thanks for stopping by. I’m not one to dismiss anecdotal references out of hand, since in the 2000s I’ve visited with lots of people out West who were impacted by oil and gas infrastructure built near their homes. (I wrote numerous feature stories on related oil & gas issues for Audubon magazine and other publications. ) The noise and pollution from all the drilling and heavy machinery no doubt impacted them negatively.

    So do I think that wind turbines have similar quality of life problems for people living too close to them? Absolutely.

    But to then make the leap to the all the medical problems that have been linked to “wind turbine syndrome” is something else entirely and that’s what my Discover piece is on.

    As for the bird kill/wind turbine issue, yes, that remains a legitimate and real problem–something I commissioned stories on when I was an editor at Audubon. It is also not accurate to suggest that mainstream env groups ignore this issue. They are very concerned about it and have been working with the wind industry and federal land managers to ameliorate it.

  • Matt Skaggs

    Keith wrote:”Is pond scum more accurate?”Delingpole generates almost no content, and neither do you.  You filled your Discover article with “he said/she said.”  A reader immediately notices that the first two commenters seem to have spent far more time examining the issue than you did.  Same for your GMO taunts.  I used to read your essays, now I just skim them and look for Tom Fuller’s comments.  To answer your question, I do not consider you or Delingpole to be pond scum, but you both  are equally guilty of pushing journalism away from actual investigation of the topic. 

  • http://robertbryce.com Robert Bryce

    Keith, Fair enough. But neither my NY Post piece, nor my NRO piece uses the term “wind turbine syndrome.” I’ll return to the point of NY Post article: if Gov Cuomo thinks that a public health analysis of oil and gas development is warranted, then the same standard should be applied to wind energy. That’s my exact same stance when it comes to enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Eagle Protection Act. And yet there’s a pernicious double standard at work. The FWS, DOI, and DOJ, have given the wind industry a de facto exemption from prosecution under those laws — and are now even considering providing the industry with a 30-year exemption for some projects. These exemptions are occurring despite widespread reports of large-scale bird (and eagle) (and bat) kills by wind turbines. Meanwhile, the oil and gas, as well as the electric utility sector, is routinely prosecuted for killing a handful of birds.Either we have one set of laws — and public health standards — for everyone or we don’t. And if we don’t, then our self-congratulatory ideas about justice and fairness are nothing more than delusions. 

  • http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com bigcitylib

    The bird kill thing is only really a problem if your turbines are smack in the habitat of an endangered species.  Otherwise the orthnithologists I’ve read (and talked to) feel the numbers are trivial compared to, for example, house cats that are allowed to roam.  Also, I don’t what the necessary “setbacks” are in the U.S.  but in Ont., Canada they are 550 meters (about 1,800 ft) from a neighboring dwelling, and most are in fact set further away. 

  • http://3000quads.com/ Tom Fuller

    There is another quality of life issue that isn’t being addressed regarding land-based wind turbines, and that is end-of-life and decommissioning costs. There are reportedly (drive-by internet source, so no link) 14,000 turbines out of service in various states of disrepair. The pictures I have seen of them look distinctly more Mad Max than modern art.Who makes the landscape whole again?

  • http://bigcitylib.blogspot.com bigcitylib

    The bird kill thing is only really a problem if your turbines are smack in the
    habitat of an endangered species.  Otherwise the ornithologists I’ve read (and
    talked to) feel the numbers are trivial compared to, for example, house cats
    that are allowed to roam.  Also, I don’t what the necessary “setbacks” are in
    the U.S.  but in Ont., Canada they are 550 meters (about 1,800 ft) from a
    neighboring dwelling, and most are in fact set further away. 

  • GregS

    Wind turbine set backs protect neighboring structures from ice toss for the turbine blades.

  • http://robertbryce.com Robert Bryce

    Sorry, but I can’t leave this “nocebo” claim alone. Here’s a letter, published yesterday in South Coast Today, from a resident in Falmouth, MA about his experience of living near a wind turbine. Sleeplessness, headaches, etc. from the noise generated by the turbine. Again, why are so many environmentalists so eager to dismiss the claims of people living near these turbines?It strains credulity to believe that so many people in so many different parts of the world would all come down with the same set of psychosomatic ailments. http://www.southcoasttoday.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20121026/OPINION/210260303/-1/NEWSMAP 

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Hell there are people who go nuts from the flicker of fluorescents (there are special expensive lamps they can use)  Eli would not be surprised if there were small numbers who were sensitive to wind turbine noise.  The question is what do you do to help them?  Stopping the world is not on.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Barnard/604449062 Mike Barnard

    17 reviews of wind energy and health world wide looked at hundreds of peer-reviewed articles and the anecdotal health claims. They all agreed that there are no health impacts from wind turbines and no mechanisms for wind turbines to cause health impacts. They also all agreed that a small percentage of people close to wind farms find the noise annoying. The historical and current literature on noise annoyance is clear that annoyance has much more to do with the person annoyed than with the noise itself.

    For the full health picture, see this:http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/2013/02/17/wind-farms-dont-make-people-sick-so-why-the-complaints/

    As for wind turbine syndrome, the name comes from one of the most poorly structured and biased studies imaginable, which the author, Nina Pierpont, then self-published. She interviewed 23 self-selected sufferers of symptoms which they blamed on wind farms, then wrote a 294 page book with 60+ pages of tables, graphs and statistics. No control group, no randomized selection, no independent assessment of health claims, no medical histories. It’s a completely bogus study. Ms. Pierpont and her husband were long-time anti-wind campaigners before the study and now they make a living off of peddling their BS to credulous people world-wide. For the full debunking, please see this:

    http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/wind-turbine-syndrome-is-more-wind-than-syndrome/

    • myview1872

      Isn’t one of those 17 ‘literature reviews’ the one by Dr Arlene King, Ontario’s Medical Officer of Health? Recent documents released under Freedom of Information reveals that there were a large number of documented health issues reported prior to this report but were suppressed by the provincial government. In addition, Dr King is attempting to get out of testifying in court regarding how she reached her conclusions.

      Not one of those 17 reviews you mention entails actual field research. It’s time to do a lot more than a literature review. People are actually suffering.

  • myview1872

    You fail to mention that there is a lot of opposition to wind turbines in Ontario. Not only are people getting sick from being forced to live too close to IWT but our electricity bills have skyrocketed due to the mismanagement of the entire electricity system by out provincial government.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Barnard/604449062 Mike Barnard

    The 14,000 was made up by an anti-wind activist in Hawaii named Andrew Walden. He made the claim in an article without any supporting evidence or showing his math. In reality, there are a lot fewer that are awaiting repowering or decommissioning. For the full story on this myth, please see this:http://barnardonwind.wordpress.com/2013/03/03/anti-wind-lobbyists-claim-more-than-1-in-20-wind-turbines-permanently-inactive-theyre-wrong-as-usual/

    Regarding end-of-life, what typically happens is that they get replaced before 20 years with bigger, more modern wind turbines because it makes economic sense. Where they don’t get replaced, most will be decommissioned for a profit due to the scrap value and secondary market for wind turbine components. Full story here: http://www.quora.com/What-happens-to-a-wind-farm-once-the-turbines-exceed-their-useful-life/answer/Mike-Barnard

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Barnard/604449062 Mike Barnard

    That’s only because your arguments are unsound, you cherry pick data and appear to be ideologically as opposed to factually driven in your writing on wind turbines.

    If your work was any more one-dimensional on wind energy you’d be writing for Fox News.

    You demonize wind energy to an absurd degree, and then have the temerity to complain when someone suggests that you might not be entirely fair? You have a choice: grow thicker skin or stop slanting and distorting reality so much.

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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