Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Life Under a Turbine (Wind)

            Much has been said recently in my town about the miseries of living a thousand feet or more south-southwest of a large municipal wind turbine which is accused of producing through intolerable sounds, pulsating pressures and subtle unmeasured factors, a variety of serious illnesses among its neighbors. The complaints are numerous enough and the complainants persistent enough that there can be no denial that there is a problem for some, despite the distance between them and the turbine. The solution, according to these critics, is to shut down the turbines (the second has not yet been operated) or move them somewhere far away.  The cost to the town of either would be significant, perhaps as much as ten to twenty million dollars, assuming a place that is sufficiently remote is available somewhere within the town. (It is not.) For the moment they are both shut down. 

            I , too, live near a large turbine and have, with several colleagues experience over three years with all the vagaries of such a machine.  To be sure, the Woods Hole Research Center’s 100 kw turbine is substantially smaller than the 1.6  megawatt machine of the Town of Falmouth, but it is still a large turbine, much closer to dwellings than the Town’s. The  municipal turbine was quite reasonably placed on town-owned land  at what was thought then to be a comfortable distance from any residence.

            While I think it fair to say that my experience reflects that of colleagues, I report only my own.  I live very comfortably under the wind turbine, often quite literally under it, for we have held major public gatherings on the grass in front of our main building,  without even a hint of difficulty with sound from the turbine directly overhead. Even in a high wind when the turbine is turning at its maximum speed (held deliberately at about 60 rpm ) and making the most power,  the dominant sounds are the wind in the trees and the traffic on the highway, two hundred feet or more beyond the turbine below our building. On the SEA Campus 500 feet away the sound of the turbine can be distinguished from other sounds but it never dominates or intrudes. The general attitude there, amply reported to me from diverse sources, some very enthusiastic,  is to take encouragement from the churning turbine, recognizing that each watt it produces displaces a watt from the coal-fired plant on Brayton Point  near  Fall River  that showers  us all with mercury and soot brought on the south-westerly winds directly from the plant.  The mercury is measurable in soils by intricare techniques, but the soot appears as a black film to be scrubbed off the white decks and cabin of my boat weekly and power-washed off twice annually. It comes perpetually in the rain. If it were not for the boat I would have hard time proving its presence unless I were hanging out wash regularly and watching it gray over time. Meanwhile, that soot accumulates in our lungs with every breath.  The rustle of wind in the trees has always been reassuring and refreshing; now there is a reason to look at the turbine and take courage that the air is that much cleaner and….with more such innovations, will be cleaner yet. Except that…..

To be sure, the shadow of the blades produces a potentially troublesome flicker when the sun is just right. No one enjoys the flicker and my office and our two buildings are the major recipients. The flicker is greater, of  course when the sun is low in  the morning and throughout the winter. But in any particular place the flicker, however distracting, is short-lived, for the sun moves rapidly. I find that we either ignore the flicker or shut it out with window shades. It is no longer a problem for anyone in our buildings that I am aware of. And in a short time, the sun has moved. A neighbor with a glass wall in their house finds the flicker troublesome, quite understandably. The turbine has been programmed to shut down for the times the problem exists throughout the year.  Trees growing nearby will ameliorate even that problem in time.

            The sound is enough that when the  turbine is not operating, I notice and wonder and look for a reason. But there is no time when the sound interferes with any function or exceeds the sound of Woods Hole Road  about 200 feet to  the eastward or the wind in the trees. People often gather for lunch on the porch of the main building, substantially under the blades of the turbine, and have no trouble with normal conversation. No one has reported to me any sub-sonic or otherwise subtle effects on health or disposition over the many months of operation, although I know that some far more distant neighbors object, quite possibly to its presence as opposed to its operation. And to be sure, our well insulated institutional buildings exclude substantially all outside sounds, the noise of heavy trucks and the howling winds of storms. Houses, too, can exclude sounds.

            Looking up at the turning blades as the sun settles into the horizon shows them gleaming as the rest of the landscape shrinks into darkness.  All enjoy those moments  and most find the turbine an object of beauty and welcome it into the neighborhood as clear evidence that we are headed into a renewable world  that is cleaner and much healthier and agree that the turbines are objects of beauty,  to be admired and celebrated, not scorned. 

            November 15, 2011
            Woods Hole, Massachusetts

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