On paper, and largely in practice, wind turbines are one of the cleanest, most sustainable sources of green energy ever created. A single turbine, which stands roughly 328 feet tall and has 116-foot long blades, releases zero emissions and produces more than six million kilowatt hours per year. This, per the European Wind Energy Association, is enough to supply 1,500 modest homes with electricity.
Wind farms are often established in rural areas, and typically consist of between five and 150 turbines. There are exceptions — one farm in Altamont Pass, California, contains 4,800. Excess energy can be exported, too: In July, thanks to extremely high winds, a single wind farm powered the entire country of Denmark and had enough juice to spare for Norway, Germany and Sweden.
As with any major source of power, turbines are big targets. Some objections: many say the bladed towers are a pox on our fair pastures, that they kill birds by day and bats by night, that they divert tourism from communities depending on them. Many of these comments, however, are superficial and generally trivial beside the sheer potential of wind energy.
But one side effect of wind farms is not so easily dispelled: They sort of, oh, maybe make people go a little bit crazy.
In 2013 New York magazine reported on a New England couple who built a quaint New England home in the quaint New England town of Falmouth, Massachusetts. They lived a happy seaside life for three years until a wind turbine was built about 1,500 feet away. Within two years, they were gone.
Their problem was not the view, but the noise. If Sue Hobart, her husband and many of their neighbors are to be believed, the whirring blades gave them a condition known as wind turbine syndrome.
According to a 2014 report by GE Global Research and the National Institute of Health, wind turbines are seldom built closer than 300 meters from a private residence; at this distance, they generateroughly 30 decibels of noise. To put that in context, refrigerators reach about 40 decibels; air conditioners run at around 50. At 500 meters, the decibels emitted from a turbine drops to about 38. This is more or less indistinguishable beneath the average background noise, which, on average is 40 to 45 decibels.
This video from Environmental Health Perspectives offers a reasonable sampling of the turbines’ song.
If that doesn’t sound too bad, well, that’s probably because it isn’t. Wind turbines are quieter than traffic, than your neighbor’s dog, than a summer rainstorm.
But for the victims of wind turbine syndrome, the problem goes deeper than mere swooshing of blades. Unlike traffic, turbines generate infrasound, or noise at frequencies below 20 Hz. The human ear cannot detect infrasound, but we nonetheless suffer its effects, including fatigue, nausea, sleep deprivation and dizziness. For a brief taste, stand in front of a subwoofer blasting your favorite bass line. The Hobarts and other Falmouth residents reported tinnitus, heart palpitations and panic attacks after the turbines went up. When air traffic controller Mark Cool nearly caused a collision of two planes in 2012, he attributed his error to turbine-induced insomnia.
Seems like a serious condition, right? But, here’s the thing — it’s probably not real.
Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician based in upstate New York, first described wind turbine syndrome in 2009. As Popular Science noted with some acidity, Pierpont is married to an “anti-wind activist” and identified wind turbine syndrome based on “a small sample size of phone interviews with no control group or proper peer review.” The study isn’t recognized by any major medical body, and even those conducting serious research into turbines’ adverse health effects are skeptical of Pierpont’s work.
Dr. Simon Chapman, a professor at the University of Sydney, told New York magazine that most of Australia’s turbine-related health complaints originate from just a few of its 51 wind farms. “The six wind farms where people have been getting sick are the ones where the anti-wind folks have been most active, with high-profile media attention amplifying the word-of-mouth stuff,” he said.
Wind turbine syndrome is likely psychogenic, a term used to denote illnesses characterized by vague symptoms that can be induced psychologically. Nausea and itching, for example, or headaches, dizziness and the like. Psychogenic illnesses can spring from the nocebo effect, in which patients expect bad things to happen to them.
Dr. Daniel J. Shepherd, of the University of Auckland, suggests that communities like Falmouth may be naturally more sensitive to noise in neighborhoods they expect to be quiet. “People live in these areas and create their own little patches of paradise, and part of that is the soundscape,” he said. “When an industrial noise source comes in, they get very stressed because they’re losing something that is very dear to them.”
Stress leads to psychogenic symptoms like insomnia; this, in turn, leads to more stress, leading to further insomnia. And so forth, until planes nearly collide and nice enough people flee their homes.
Just because a condition is psychogenic doesn't mean it should be dismissed, however, especially if victims are losing sleep. “Sleep is absolutely vital for an organism,” said Dr. Shepherd. “When we lose a night’s sleep, we become dysfunctional. The brain is an important organ, and if noise is disturbing its functioning, then that is a direct health effect.”
Energy giants owe it to their host communities to minimize those effects, whether by building more remotely or using quieter turbines. Wind power needn’t be so noisy. In fact, several new technologies offer promising alternatives both for noise-sensitive people and blade-sensitive birds. With wind power looking like our best alternative energy source, these companies would do well to invest what’s needed for communities to embrace it.