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'Tilting at windmills': new documentary on wind development in upstate NY lacks broader perspective

Pierre Bull

Posted February 11, 2012

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Documentaries present stories and dilemmas that use a variety of available media and first-hand interviews from real-life events. The recently released documentary, "Windfall," gives "us a firsthand look at rural Meredith, in upstate New York [more specifically the 'Southern Tier' region] when wind turbines came to town, the film depicts the perils of a booming industry and the bitter rancor it sowed among a citizenry" (Andy Webster, New York Times).  

Before diving into the finer points of the story and information presented in "Windfall," I think it's important to take a step back to not lose sight of the bigger picture regarding energy extraction activities that have taken place in the broader Appalachian region where "Windfall" takes place. Starting with perhaps the most insidious activities still taking place today, there's mountain-top removal (watch: "The Last Mountain"), coal mining and combustion for electricity (watch: "Coal Country"), and hydro-fracturing and drilling for natural gas (watch: "Gasland").  We also did a lot of dam building in the last century.

TVA Norris Dam   small strip mine near Buffalo Mtn, TN

With this perspective on the bigger picture of energy development and extraction in Appalachia, let's now go a little deeper into "Windfall".  The biggest shortcoming of the documentary may be the fact that the film's director, Laura Israel, provided us with no wind industry representation (or serious attempt to contact them).  New York Times film reviewer Andy Webster makes the point:

Government officials are seen only in glimpses of television talk shows. Conspicuously absent are representatives of corporations like Airtricity , Enxco or Horizon Wind Energy (though the financier and wind advocate T. Boone Pickens comes off as a wolf in good-old-boy clothing). 

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart at least provided representation from all sides of the matter in a creatively titled piece (it's pretty darn funny, too), "Fowl Wind," for a wind energy development dilemma in Florida last summer.

If you're curious what the inside of a wind tower looks like

checking the anabat ultrasonic bat detector at the top of the wind turbineYours truly on the top of the nacelle of the wind turbineI have first-hand experience working at a major 'utility-scale' wind turbine site -- the first one ever constructed in the Southeast U.S. -- at Buffalo Mountain, Tennessee (just north of Oak Ridge, TN).  It was a summer internship I had with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 2003.

I worked with a small team of scientists studying bird and bat populations at the wind site.  I would spend upwards of 20-hours/week directly below the wind towers, searching for bird and bats that might have collided with the towers or blades, conducting bird & bat counts in specific spots near the tower footings, and changing out batteries (35-lb marine batteries to be exact) to run the bird & bat-detecting equipment.

There is no denying that utility-scale wind turbines are tall and unique features in any given landscape.  They do produce sound when wind hits them.  They create a faint shadow when it's sunny (but like any shadow, it falls behind the sun, which moves across the sky each day and variates position seasonally, so it's never in one spot for more than a few minutes).  And yes, there are occasional bird and bat collisions that occur.

Stepping through the human health and environmental impacts more systematically:

(If you prefer listening to these matters over reading, I spoke about wind energy and environmental impacts, and the state of renewable energy development more generally, on Florida Public Radio's Radio Green Earth this past November.)

Sound: Typically, two people can carry on a conversation at normal voice levels even while standing directly below a turbine. Often the loudest sound heard is the whooshing sound of the wind hitting the blades—similar to the sound of a flag in the wind. Basic guidelines have been developed for locating wind farms as well as local agreements keep turbines at safe distances from homes and businesses.  

Shadows:  Shadows from moving wind blades typically lasts just a few minutes near sunrise and sunset in bright sun conditions, and can be addressed through the location of turbines and plantings. German researchers found that flicker would affect residents for 100 minutes per year under the worst conditions and 20 minutes per year under normal circumstances. The rate at which wind turbine shadows flicker is far below the frequency that, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, normally is associated with seizures. A 2007 report by an expert panel for the National Academy of Sciences found it to be "harmless to humans."  

Overall Health Impact:  An independent expert panel established by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Public Health in January 2012 gave wind a clean bill of health, based on analyzing all available scientific studies. The agencies reported that,          

There is no evidence for a set of health effects, from exposure to wind turbines that could be characterized as a 'Wind Turbine Syndrome.'…we conclude the weight of the evidence suggests no association between noise from wind turbines and measures of psychological distress or mental health problems.”  

Environmental Impacts: Authorized through the landmark National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees all federal environmental review procedures, more generally known as the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) and review, for all proposed wind energy development.  

Birds and Bats: Acknowledging that bird and bat collisions do occur with wind turbines, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC) has developed "Bird-smart" review guidelines for wind energy development.  (NRDC is leading the way in Smart-from-the-Start siting.)  For broader perspective it's important not to lose sight of the fact(s) that direct bird and bat kills caused by wind energy pale in comparison to other infrastructure and human-created activity:

Updated bird death comparison chart

           Table source: How Stuff works and updated figure from ABC

Although "Windfall" has its shortcomings in providing a fair and comprehensive view from all sides of the dilemma,it does, however, tell a story that fits within the broader, age-old narrative that energy development is a messy and complex problem.  Abundant, free and carbon-less renewable energy from the wind and sun require that we build infrastructure in the form of wind turbines and solar arrays to capture it.  NRDC is facing this challenge head on by laying the policy groundwork that will guide us to make good and fair decisions through 'smart-from-the-start' siting principles, maps and tools.  In closing I leave you with this quote from my colleague, Johanna Wald, who I believe best articulates the nature of this tough new dilemma we face: 

" ... our changing climate is changing everything, including conservation goals. We no longer have the luxury of picking between the obvious good and unmitigated evil. We are faced with hard choices, and those choices entail trade-offs.  Our challenge today is to make the choices that provide the greatest environmental benefit and result in the least possible environmental impact. ... We face many difficult decisions, but we will have to pick among them as wisely as we can. There is no reasonable alternative.  As the planet changes, we must change with it.  The traditional conventions – and those include some traditional conventions of the conservation community – must yield to the new realities."

  Wind turbines and daisies

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Jim CummingsFeb 14 2012 01:24 AM

While I share your general sentiment in favor of supporting the expansion of renewables, including wind, as someone who's been engaging with the full spectrum of players in this controversy for several years (citizen groups, researchers, industry), I must urge you to beware of looking at the wind farm siting issue through a black and white framework. While some who raise concerns about wind farm noise are, indeed, anti-wind and anti-renewables, the concerns of nearby neighbors deserves more empathy than you show here. Yes, it's true, at homes wind turbine noise is not all that loud; yet, especially at night, having a new, unpredictable source of noise that is often louder than other sounds in the rural soundscape can be more disruptive than you may have experienced while working around turbines.

Wind historian Robert Righter recently published a book (that unfortunately bears the same title as this documentary) in which he, as an avid supporter of continued expansion of industrial-scale wind, urges the industry to back off and take concerns about noise seriously. See a recent summary of his views on my Acoustic Ecology Institute website (scroll down to Jan 2); it should be linked in my name, above.

The health effects question is a trickier one, since most (but probably not all) of the health responses are likely stress-mediated, and both sides in the debate insist on framing their arguments on the simpler picture of turbines noise causing direct health impacts. Unfortunately, the rigidity of both sides' approaches appears likely to increase the stress and anxiety in wind farm communities which may, ironically, be the key factor in whether people have physiological responses to the turbines. Again, it's not as black and white as either side may wish to believe.

Jim CummingsFeb 14 2012 01:35 AM

I should hasten to add that the response to noise concerns is also not black and white (build freely or ban wind farms)--a more measured response to community concerns about noise and sense of place/landscape would be for new wind development to take place with more sensitivity to the differences between rural communities. Ranching communities seem to tolerate closer siting than places where many people live primarily for the peace and quiet; that's no surprise. Acknowledging that noise is indeed an "externality" of wind energy generation is a step toward taking some responsibility; fortunately, wind's externalities are extremely localized and not that hard to avoid.

In some places, it may be appropriate to require setbacks large enough to insure that turbines are rarely audible; this would take about a mile or so. In others, closer siting could continue to work fine. Larger setbacks, along with negotiable easements to allow closer siting to willing neighbors, would allow the industry to continue its rapid expansion, while protecting the quality of life or rural residents.

Barrie K. Gilbert PhD, Wolfe Is.Feb 14 2012 08:39 AM

As a long-time supporter of NRDC (grizzly bear ecology, Canadian rainforests) I am very disappointed with your piece Pierre. We have an 86 turbine industrial wind factory here on Wolfe Island and hundreds more proposed onshore and offshore around the eastern end of Lake Ontario, a major waterfowl flyway and where the local ornithologist estimate about 10 million birds funnel through in the spring and fall. All our local field naturalists groups are opposed to these inefficient destructive machines. Our provincial and federal environmental "protectors" failed in their mandate. they permitted turbines to be built in well-know International Bird Area and to surround a marsh and unique dune area with endangered species present.
If NRDC can't get the nuances right and retract your position Mr. Bull, then my financial and personal support leaves NRDC.
Barrie Gilbert, Wildlife Ecologist, Ontario

Barrie K. Gilbert PhDFeb 14 2012 08:42 AM

Heere's from a recent review:
"On Saturday, the Natural Resources Defense Council published a critique of Windfall that reads like it was written by an AWEA lobbyist. The critique, written by NRDC staffer Pierre Bull, makes it clear that for NRDC, concerns about carbon dioxide emissions trump nearly every other concern, including, apparently, those of rural residents who don’t want the turbines. Bull’s piece even parrots AWEA’s claim that the low-frequency noise and infrasound created by wind turbines is not a problem by pointing to a report released in mid-January by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. That report largely dismisses complaints about wind-turbine noise. AWEA has repeatedly claimed, wrongly, that the Massachusetts report absolves the wind industry. And Bull claims it gives “wind a clean bill of health.” But the authors of the report did not interview any of the homeowners who’ve left their houses because of turbine noise. Instead, they did a cursory review of the published literature.
Shortly after the Massachusetts report came out, Jim Cummings of the Acoustic Ecology Institute, a non-profit organization that tracks noise issues, wrote that the authors of the Massachusetts report “dropped a crucial ball” because they did not “provide any sort of acknowledgement or analysis of the ways that annoyance, anxiety, sleep disruption, and stress could be intermediary pathways that help us to understand some of the reports coming from Massachusetts residents who say their health has been affected by nearby turbines.”

Pierre BullFeb 16 2012 07:33 PM

Mr. Cummings and Dr. Gilbert--Thank you for posting your comments on these important and sensitive issues. I did not mean to suggest in my piece regarding the environmental impacts from large scale wind turbine projects that these issues have been ‘resolved’ or are ‘too miniscule’.

On the issue of avian impacts in particular, I realize that only doing a comparison-by-numbers of bird and bat kills does not acknowledge the specific types of avian species, such as endangered or imperiled species, that could be more impacted than others. But just as I need to be more careful about simplifying the challenges the industry faces, we have to fight efforts that try to prosecute the whole industry based on the fraction of projects that are poorly sited.

I would put noise in the same category: I’m sorry that my points came off as dismissive, but careful siting going forward will help address these key issues. Using noise as a reason to try to slow down the whole industry only diminishes its importance when projects really are close to homes.

NRDC is very aware of and concerned with the potential impact that wind facilities can have on wildlife, particularly birds and bat populations and we are committed to finding solutions that protect these important resources while combating global warming (and the impact climate change will have on birds and bats) through the responsible siting of these facilities. With exponential growth in the deployment of renewable generation projects, it is also apparent that current governmental regulations and mechanisms need to be redesigned and updated to better ensure that wind and other types of renewable energy projects are responsibly sited. That is why NRDC has been working diligently to ensure that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has the necessary tools to protect key avian species along with bats. It is also why we are aggressively encouraging the Interior Department to develop similar safeguards on federal lands to protect imperiled species – like sage-grouse – from inappropriately sited energy development.

As I said in my post, the biggest ongoing threats to our environment (e.g., global climate change, habitat loss, acid rain, smog) stem from ongoing use of fossil fuels at home and abroad. It is NRDC’s mission on renewables to make sure that our country scales up clean, renewable energy to help resolve these massive, long-term problems, and we safeguard and defend unique and sensitive resources, including endangered and threatened wildlife species. We simply have to get both sides of this mission right – and we will.

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