NIMBYism, low frequency noise and wind energy development

October 24, 2006

The movement known as NIMBY(Not In My Backyard)-ism is taking its toll on Canadian renewable energy projects, particularly on wind farm developments. The latest of the bogeymen used to stop or slow down these projects is the spectre of serious health effects arising from low frequency noise produced by turbines.

NIMBYism is certainly not a new phenomenon, but rather has been a consistent theme within environmental movements since their inception. To a certain extent, renewable energy projects have been supported by the larger environmental movement, keeping NIMBYism at bay. However, unresolved questions about the potential health effects of low frequency noise (LFN) associated with modern wind turbines have become the latest fodder for the NIMBY movement.

LFN, which is generally described as noise in the frequency range of 10 Hz to 200 Hz, has been linked by media reports to sleep disturbance, fatigue, migraine headaches and depression. LFN emissions were characteristics of some early wind turbine models, particularly where turbine blades were downwind of the main tower. With modern wind turbine designs, which have their blades upwind of the tower, the "wind shade" behind the tower is avoided, and LFN is significantly reduced.

Experts agree that LFN, at sufficient levels, may be a health concern for those who are sensitive to its effects. The effects of inaudible levels of LFN have not been sufficiently studied to date to rule out the possibility of health effects, but commentators have weighed in on each side of the debate. Setbacks and noise surveys are common requirements imposed on new wind farm developments, in part to minimize the risk of wind turbines causing health effects on local residents.

Media reports have recently focussed on claims of adverse health impacts from LFN. Earlier this year, a family from Lower West Pubnico, Nova Scotia abandoned their home, located approximately four hundred metres from the nearest turbine. Daniel d'Entremont and his family complained of lack of sleep, fatigue, headaches and a lack of concentration. And while the d'Entremont family may have legitimate concerns about the particular wind farm they claim was affecting their lives (new sound testing has been commissioned by the federal government), such reports are being used by those opposed to wind farm development to slow down or stop projects.

Several significant Canadian projects have been abandoned in recent months because of public pressure. Brookfield Power abandoned a proposal to build a thirty-turbine farm in the Blue Mountain area because of delays in receiving permits, and Enbridge has cancelled plans to install eleven turbines in the community of Saugeen Shores because of a local requirement for a 250 metre setback. Other projects that have been slow to receive approvals are encountering local criticism based on potential LFN effects.

Ontario Energy Minister Dwight Duncan was recently quoted as saying that some people have moved past NIMBY to NOPE (Not On Planet Earth) or BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere), and that these phenomena are a threat to the province's energy security. It appears that NIMBYism will be with the wind energy industry for some time to come; only a combination of more information and strong political direction will allow the industry to reach its full potential.

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