Is there Trouble with Wind Power?
PSC’s wind turbine study provides no negative evidence
The proof, Jacque said, was provided by the state Public Service Commission’s (PSC) study on low-level noise from the Duke Energy-owned Shirley Wind Farm in Brown County, as well as complaints made by residents near the turbines about nausea, headaches, dizziness and ear pressure.
Days later, state Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), jumped into the fray, calling on the PSC to “immediately establish new set-back requirements that protect the health and wellness of Wisconsin residents who are forced to live too close to these 500-foot-tall [turbines].”
Jacque and Lasee’s opposition to new wind farm permits would have an immediate impact on the proposed Highlands wind farm in St. Croix County, which is currently seeking a permit from the PSC, as well as other potential wind projects across the state.
But how solid is the PSC study that could halt the development of Wisconsin’s wind industry?
Health Claims Tied To Wind Turbines Are Disputed
Tyson Cook, staff scientist for Clean Wisconsin, and David Hessler, one of the consultants selected by Clean Wisconsin to participate in the Shirley Wind Farm study for the PSC, say the test results didn’t prove any connection between Brown County residents’ reported health problems and noise from the wind turbines.
“Wind turbines are safe,” Clean Wisconsin’s Cook said. “They have been shown time and time again to be safe. The study didn’t find anything unusual or unexpected.”
In a statement released by Clean Wisconsin, researcher Hessler wrote, “The story and press release from Rep. Jacque seriously mis-characterize the findings from our recent sound study at the Shirley wind project.”
So what, exactly, is happening in Brown County?
According to documents filed with the PSC in the Highlands Project wind farm case, as well as those submitted to the Brown County Health Department, some residents near the Shirley wind turbines had complained of health problems, including disrupted sleep, headaches and dizziness. Some went so far as to abandon their homes so that they could get relief from their symptoms.
According to documents provided by the Brown County Health Department, public health inspectors responded to residents’ complaints, but found that the noise produced by the wind turbines was within limits allowed by local ordinances. What’s more, the inspectors did not experience health problems while visiting homes near the turbines.
But, because of Brown County residents’ complaints, when the Highlands Project was proposed in St. Croix County, the parties—including the anti-wind farm group Forest Voice and the pro-Highlands Clean Wisconsin—agreed to have acoustics experts test the noise in three homes that had been abandoned due to health concerns. Forest Voice chose acoustics expert Robert Rand of Maine, who has experienced adverse health reactions when in the vicinity of wind turbines and has opposed the expansion of wind power in New England. Clean Wisconsin chose Hessler’s consulting group, which has earned income from wind development projects. A total of five consultants participated in the December 2012 study.
Not surprisingly, the researcher selected by the anti-wind farm group, Robert Rand, detected wind turbine noise in one of the homes studied, located 1,100 feet from the nearest turbine. While there, Rand experienced health problems that lasted throughout the study and for three days after testing was concluded.
Rand—who wrote in the study that he is prone to seasickness—complained of ear pain and pressure, dizziness and nausea, symptoms that he’s experienced when he’s been in the vicinity of wind turbines in other locations. Rand wrote extensively about his symptoms—and the symptoms of residents—in his report to the PSC, claiming that his self-reporting would serve as a kind of “peer review” of the residents’ own health woes.
However, the noise found by Rand was only detectable with highly sensitive instruments, meaning that the noise is at very low frequencies that cannot be heard by the human ear. And none of the other researchers detected noise within the three homes in the study.
Rand linked this non-audible, low-frequency noise to the residents’ health problems and suggested that it’s akin to motion sickness caused by the movement of the wind turbine blades.
Wind Turbine Siting Rules Thrown Into Doubt
Rep. Jacque said the study results should compel the PSC to halt new wind projects, saying that the rules developed by the Wind Siting Council in 2010 failed to incorporate new evidence about health problems created by wind turbine noise. Fellow Republican Gov. Scott Walker had attempted to change the rules, but after public and industry pressure, eventually declined to do so.
“I’ve certainly had a number of concerns about wind siting in general,” Jacque said. “This is an area that I certainly encourage the PSC to provide funding for an investigation.”
But Clean Wisconsin’s Cook said that while he feels sympathy for Brown County residents who complain of health problems, the PSC study found no evidence to link them to the low-frequency noise from the turbines. He said peer reviewed studies have shown that when residents are annoyed by audible noise from a nearby wind farm, their annoyance can cause stress or disrupted sleep. But Cook said he wasn’t convinced that inaudible noise could cause health problems, saying that we’re surrounded by noise in our environment, from the furnace cycling on and off to traffic noise, that doesn’t cause ear pressure, headaches or nausea.
“There wasn’t anything [in the study] that explained their complaints,” Cook said. “It’s really sad that these people are having these health problems, but we don’t know what’s causing them. This study certainly didn’t provide any evidence of the cause.”
Cook didn’t think that the PSC needed to revisit the wind siting rules, either, saying that wind power foes are misrepresenting the PSC study results to bolster their opposition to the Highlands Project.
“It’s a little disheartening to be revisiting this issue and going back almost to where we were years ago, before this big process that we went through to come up with the rules,” Cook said. “The current wind siting rules were the result of a consensus-based collaborative group and they’re definitely protective of people’s health and safety.”