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Published on March 17th, 2014 | by Michael Barnard

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Homes In More Danger From Meteors & Cars Than Wind Farms

March 17th, 2014 by  


Wind farm setbacks are an unnecessarily controversial issue in many parts of the world. While public health organizations, major utilities, the government, and the wind industry have worked closely together to find a good balance, to establish guidelines and laws, and to put in place modelling software to assist in site planning to minimize impacts, anti-wind organizations such as the Ontario Society for Wind Vigilance and the Australian Waubra Foundation are lobbying for much, much bigger setbacks based on no science at all. Oddly, many of these requested bigger setback distances would prevent wind farms from being seen from these anti-wind lobbyists’ rural vacation and retirement properties.

So what is the right distance? What measures should we consider? What does the safety history of the wind industry tell us? And what does this have to do with meteors?

The short answer is that Ontario’s setbacks appear to be a good balance with 550 meters for smaller wind turbines or groups of wind turbines and up to 1500 meters for larger wind farms. This reduces noise to World Health Organization levels of about 40 dBA in the closest bedrooms the large majority of the time based on ISO standards for assessing environmental noise, allowing simple noise mitigation mechanisms to be effective. For perspective, that’s much less noise than people live with in cities 24/7/365. The noise modelling, as with all noise standards worldwide, is very conservative and will in the majority of cases overstate the actual noise experienced at homes. Many US states have noise standards that effectively equate to 400 meter setbacks with no adverse effects.

But the long answer is more amusing as we look at five different fears people raise about wind turbines being anywhere near people’s homes:

1. Let’s define safe as extremely unlikely to kill or physically harm someone through fire, collapse, or ice-throw.

In this case, a house could be built around the base of a wind turbine. There have been about 185 incidents worldwide related to fire and a few more related to other forms of wind turbine destruction not involving fire according to Caithness (an anti-wind energy group who obsessively keeps track of these sorts of things). One person in the history of wind turbine use has been killed by ice from the turbine or blades, a maintenance worker part way up the turbine. With 300,000 wind turbines or so working today and a large number more decommissioned and replaced, the likelihood of any major event that could possibly cause a human fatality if the circumstances were just right is perhaps 0.01% over the 20-25 years of the wind turbine’s life.

Many more houses have been hit by meteorites than by wind turbine debris or ice throw.
 And the recent meteorite shock wave in Russia collapsed buildings, broke windows and injured over a 1,000 people.

home meteor

Meanwhile, the odds of homes being hit by cars is comparatively astronomical.

Collage of car-home collisions assembled from news stories

As court evidence points out, no one has been injured or killed who wasn’t doing maintenance on the wind turbines at the time.

2. Let’s define safe as not doing organic, physical damage to humans through sound or vibrations.

In that case, the safe distance is once again having a house built around a wind turbine. Wind turbines emit audible sound pressure levels and infra sound level pressures well below that required for organically related health impacts. Noise at the base is below the 85 dB specified as the level safe for occupational exposure for 8 hour shifts. Infrasound at the base is at a level below the infrasound from surf at 75 meters.

3. Let’s define safe as not annoying the vast majority of nearby people and causing them to have stress reactions including loss of sleep due to unwanted environmental noise.

In this case, the Ontario Regulation 359/09 setbacks of 550 meters for a typical mid-sized wind turbine or group of mid-sized wind turbines, or up to 1500 meters for groups of large wind turbines is about right. This reduces noise in the vast majority of cases to 40 dB in the closest bedrooms following international ISO and WHO guidelines for environmental noise. Where noises occasionally are louder, simple mitigations that hundreds of millions of people worldwide use for annoying environmental noise are highly effective: white noise generators, ear plugs and closing windows.

White noise generator

As a bit of perspective, a poorly constructed but widely promoted wind health survey in Ontario found only 109 complainants around 1200 wind turbines in 2011; Australia Professor Chapman’s peer-reviewed study found only 129 complainants around 1100 wind turbines; and Danish anti-wind material lists only 50 complainants around about 5000 wind turbines. This is practically an almost homeopathic level of complaints.

nyc4. Let’s define safe as not annoying anyone ever.

The setback in that case is over 14 kilometers, the current record for furthest distance at which annoyance has been attributed to wind turbines by anti-wind advocates. This is from Sarah Laurie, an an unregistered former doctor in Australia who heads up the Waubra Foundation (an anti-wind advocacy group) who has added many, many symptoms to the current list of over 200 attributed to wind turbines. For context, 14 kilometers is a third of a marathon, roughly the distance from Ground Zero to the far end of Central Park in Manhattan, roughly the distance from Uluru in Australia to the nearest airport, and about 4 kilometers higher than the average passenger jet flies. (Of course, one George Papadopoulos of Australia is claiming 50 and 70 kilometer impacts from wind farms on his health while living next to a major road, and is taken seriously enough by the anti-wind lobby to be quoted, but we can assume that the vast majority of anti-wind lobbyists are much more connected to reality than Mr. Papadopoulos.) In the event that anyone suspects that this is a hysterical exaggeration of anti-wind lobbyist claims, the current Waubra Foundation setback demand — once again based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, as that Foundation’s head agreed under oath — is 10 kilometers.

5. Finally, let’s define safe as reducing harm to humans and animals.

In that case, once again the houses could be built around wind turbines and the overall safety to humans would increase if coal and other fossil fuel generation were significantly reduced. Coal has a negative externality of approximately 18 cents on the kWh, most of that health related. One study shows 13,000 deaths in the US alone due to coal.

Obviously, no one is recommending putting a house at the base of a wind turbine and no one would. But when you start looking at the actual risks and actual statistics for danger, wind turbines are even more obviously benign. The major real concern is audible noise, and setbacks of 400-500 meters are usually enough to to minimize noise-related impacts on neighbours.






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About the Author

works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth in the transforming low-carbon economy. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, with some of his work included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consultation, speaking engagements and Board positions.



  • WallyLafferty

    Why not adopt the very same setback requirement mandated for highways? This seems to have reached public approval in terms of both noise and safety. Cars are far noisier and far more hazardous than wind turbines.

  • Larry

    This headline is Oh So True in Arizona where intoxicated cowboys drive their 4 wheel drive pickups through concrete walls and into swimming pools on a regular basis. They also like to attack apartment buildings often ending up in the occupants bedroom.

  • “according to Caithness (an anti-wind energy group who obsessively keeps track of these sorts of things)”

    The last time I looked at that list, they had actually counted an incident in Germany where a motorist on the Autobahn was distracted by the view of a wind farm under construction and caused an accident. Hilarious how far this group is willing to go to rack up the numbers. How many deaths have short-skirted girls caused? Probably more than wind turbines.

    But a very useful list nonetheless. Why?

    “One person in the history of wind turbine use has been killed by ice from the turbine or blades, a maintenance worker part way up the turbine.”

    If you work down the list, nearly all accidents involve employees in the wind industry. I won’t say their deaths aren’t to be mourned, but they made a conscious decision to run the risks involved in working at height. And they reaped the benefits of that decision (=salary).

    The number of innocent bystanders that were killed is almost 0.

    Anti-wind groups can only resist wind farms and demand setback rules based on risk to the public, not risk to the workers. That’s none of their business.

    And let’s not forget what it’s all about: the number killer by a wide margin is of course coal, having caused millions of deaths to the public. And (thorugh climate change) coal will continue to spread misery long after its death.

    As a replacement for that source of energy, wind causes negative danger to the public.

    • Bob_Wallace

      If you work down their list you find some very questionable listings.

      First, there are a number of deaths related to small privately owned wind turbines. Those deaths don’t belong in a wind farm database.

      There are highway crashes involving freight trucks hauling wind farm hardware.

      Then there are some “interesting” inclusions.

      Parachutist hits turbine.
      Someone sneaks onto a wind farm and commits suicide.
      A farmer, upset about wind turbines, kills himself.
      A young couple doing something unspecified in a generator shed die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
      Two more distracted motorists crash.
      A trespasser climbs up tower and falls.
      A high school student climbs up his school wind tower and dies.
      A worker at a rail yard was hit by a forklift.
      A pilot was killed when he flew into a meteorological tower.
      A snowmobiler was killed when he drove into a wind farm fence.
      A man was shot in the face while protesting a wind farm.
      Five people died in a helicopter crash in the vicinity of a wind farm. There was no mention of the farm being a factor in the reporting.

      Eyeballing the database it looks to me that legitimate wind farm deaths are decreasing across years. And almost certainly annual deaths per MW of installed wind have been dropping.

      Someone might want to work up the data. Be careful in your count. There are three drownings which are listed three separate times.

      I’d suggest three categories – legitimate deaths (falls, electrocutions), transport (road accidents involving shipping) and questionable inclusions.

      http://www.caithnesswindfarms.co.uk/fullaccidents.pdf

      • Ronald Brakels

        Might have to include another category: “Laughed to death reading ridiculous anti-wind claims.”

        • A Real Libertarian

          My favorite is:

          “1212 – Miscellaneous – 07/03/2012 – Hull, Massachusetts – United States – “Faulty generator to blame for Hull turbine
          shutdown”. The Hull Wind II turbine had
          been shut down for 3 weeks.”

  • Ronald Brakels

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the Australian MI6 should hire George Papadopoulos and use his super hearing to spy on our enemies. If he can hear wind turbines 50 miles away then he should be able to hear evil plots being concocted against us. “But who are Australia’s enemies?” I hear you say. Well, there’s New Zealand who are always trying to beat us at rugby. And while that might not seem like much of a list of enemies if we needed an extra one we could always disown Tasmania. Australia does seem to like to pick on small islands full of friendly people who are no threat at all. And when you think about it, Australia has basically made the most intelligent enemy selection the world has ever known, even beating out the British Empire when they decided their ideal enemy should be three feet tall and armed with blades of sharp grass. Anyway, looking at the track record of our current government, maybe they should get George to spy on common sense as that definitely seems to be an enemy of theirs.

  • JamesWimberley

    The other genuine complaint is loss of visual amenity. Tastes vary enormously here, so the simplest solution for objectors is to move house: there is no documented loss of property values, as the affected houses are bought by people like me who don’t mind a turbine or two in the view.
    One amenity problem that can surely be fixed is flashing lights to warn low-flying aircraft. The planes at risk are flying at or above hub height. The lights can surely be screened so that they can’t be seen from ground level. Lighthouse beams have been screened for a century.

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