Do wind farms annoy the people who live near them?

New research has found that the views of wind farm objectors may be over-represented relative to the views of their communities as a whole.


January 30, 2018

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New research has found that the views of wind farm objectors may be over-represented relative to the views of their communities as a whole.

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During my time at A Word About Wind, I have lost count of how many stories I’ve read describing local people’s outrage at the building of wind farms near their homes. Here’s an example from this week.

However, according to new research, people who live near wind farms and are annoyed by them are in a small minority, suggesting that the kinds of angry voices that crop up in local newspapers are likely to be unrepresentative of communities as a whole. That is according to a study carried out by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, published in January 2018.

The researchers behind this report, ‘National Survey of Attitudes of Wind Power Project Neighbors’, started by looking at a dataset of 1.29million homes within five miles of all US wind projects completed between 2004 and 2014. The projects were made up of turbines taller than 364 feet with a headline capacity of more than 1.5MW each. They then interviewed 1,674 residents who lived near these projects in 24 US states.

Only 8% of people living within five miles of a wind farm were annoyed by it, while 57% were happy and the rest didn’t have a strong opinion. Even for those who lived within half a mile of the project, more than half (52%) were positive and one quarter (25%) were negative. The annoyance level dropped sharply more than half a mile away.

It’s to be expected that those living closest to a project are more likely to be annoyed by it, and developers must take into account those views when planning. But this is a good reminder that while the voices of objectors to these sorts of projects may be loud, they are not necessarily representative of their neighbours.

Moreover, the research found that more than five times as many people supported their local project as objected to it, adding that those in favour of the project were more likely to stay quiet. During the consultation process, the survey’s respondents took twice as many actions in favour of the project as against it. Unsurprisingly, this confirms that developers shouldn’t let objectors drive the process.

And, when it came to speaking at local meetings, the number who spoke in favour of the project were about the same as those against it. This surprised me – but only because I expected passionate objectors to take the stage from those broadly in favour. In total, only about one-third of people who were aware that a planning consultation was happening about a wind farm in their area took any action. Of them, 82% either attended or spoke at a local meeting; 10% contributed to a web page; 5% put up a sign; and 3% wrote to a local ‘paper. Again, the annoyed minority were over-represented.

Finally, the researchers addressed the two main causes of annoyance about wind farms: the way they sound and the way they look.

The study found that 81% of people within half a mile of the wind farm reported hearing any sound from it, and that of those, 62% were either not at all or only slightly annoyed by it. Thirty-one percent of people living within half a mile of a wind farm, and who had heard any sound from it, reported being moderately or very annoyed.

The sound of wind farms, it seems, is more of an annoyance than how they look. For those living within half a mile of a wind farm, 24% reported that they were moderately or very annoyed with the way it looked, while 58% said they were not annoyed at all. This is roughly the same level of annoyance reported in similar studies in Europe. Overall, only 2.3% of all people living within three miles of a wind turbine were very annoyed by it; and landscape change (1.5%), lighting (1.2%), sound (1.1%) and shadow flicker were the main reasons for the annoyance.

This seems to suggest that companies in the wind sector are largely successful in ensuring their projects fit well with local communities, but there is no reason to be complacent: not every project will be well-received. Projects aren’t identical, and so developers will have to deal with new circumstances, and new residents, in every situation.

For example, this week I also saw a study from Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany, which was slightly more negative than the Berkeley Lab study.

This report, published in the journal Energy Policy, said that one in ten people living near a wind farm experienced symptoms of stress from the resultant noise at least once a month. The excerpt we saw did not define how far the researchers here meant by ‘near’. Also, its data was limited to responses to one wind farm in northern Germany.

Though 10% of people said the wind farm was disrupting their sleep when they were first surveyed in 2012, this fell to 6.8% in 2014. The report added that “many residents get used to the noise… or have resigned themselves to it”, and that those who experienced the most sleep disturbance were also those who were most annoyed with the wind farm in the planning phase.

“The way the residents experience the planning or construction phase is a decisive indicator of how strongly or weakly they will be impaired in the long run by the wind farm,” said Johannes Pohl from the psychology department at MLU. He argued that it is important for developers to engage communities through early information campaigns and community meetings, so they can mitigate the stress that people might associate with the scheme.

Broadly, it seems like wind developers are doing a decent job of this. There is probably more that could be done, but we should also be aware – as many wind developers are – that it is impossible to please everyone all the time. At very least, these studies suggest that wind developers are doing a good job of keeping most people happy most of the time.

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