Getting the wind up

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Why do countries that use wind power much more extensively than Australia, such as Germany and Denmark, report almost no public concern about the so-called “wind turbine syndrome”? Neil Barrett examines the evidence.

Exploring the concern about adverse health effects of wind power in Australia and Europe

Around the world, governments, academics and professional groups have conducted at least 17 independent reviews of the claims of `wind turbine syndrome’ (WTS) that have been made by opponents of wind power. Although the syndrome is claimed to involve a range of health disorders, including dizziness, memory problems, tinnitus and headaches, all 17 reviews have concluded that there is no convincing evidence that turbine noise directly causes health problems, apart from annoyance.

European studies indicate that between 5 and 20 per cent of people living near wind farms can be annoyed to varying degrees by turbine noise. However, they also note that annoyance increases significantly if the turbines are in line of sight, if the complainants are not actually hosting turbines on their land (at around $7,000 each) and if they believe the authorities have treated them unfairly.

What puzzled me some time after I returned from a study tour of Germany in 2006 was that the claims about adverse health effects were being made in North America and Australia but not, it seemed, in Germany and Denmark — where the industry first started and where population density and the number of turbines – over 25,000 in the two countries – is so much greater.  Surely, if there were problems they would have surfaced in these countries.

In the absence of polling on the issue, I decided to seek several types of evidence. One was the opinions of politicians, political commentators, wind opponents and investors.  Although none of the opponents responded, a total of 10 statements were received, all in broad agreement that health effects are not a significant issue in either country. Typical of the responses was that of Steen Gade, Chairman of the Energy Committee of the Danish Parliament:
‘The opponents to windpower in Denmark try to raise the issue of adverse health effects but with little success. It is just not an issue which has achieved much traction in this country. Windpower has strong public acceptance and a majority in parliament support the expansion of windpower capacity.’

In Germany, a member of Angela Merkel’s conservative party, the CDU, wrote that:
‘Based on meetings of the [CDU’s Environment and Economic Committee], there is hardly any or no debate concerning adverse health effects caused by wind turbines.’

And the Chief Whip of the coalition Alliance 90 Greens Party in the German Bundestag, Volker Beck, said simply that:
‘Health effects are currently no issue in the debate about windpower in Germany.’

Another type of evidence is provided by the websites of windpower opposition groups. Although there is no nationwide organisation of windpower groups in Germany, there is a web portal to which 78 groups have been linked. After putting aside the large number of sites that have lapsed, a total of 44 were left. Almost all of these sites are dominated by concerns about landscape and nature protection. As for health effects, about 40 per cent of sites devote only 1 to 2 lines to the subject and only three sites actually treat the subject seriously with more than a paragraph. Almost one-third of the 44 sites made no mention of health effects at all.

Why is there this profound disconnect between Australia, Canada and the US on the one hand and Denmark and Germany on the other?

There are three, or perhaps four, related explanations. Firstly, fears about nuclear safety and climate change have made Europeans much keener on renewables and, correspondingly, for the few who may be affected, much more prepared to put up with annoyance from noise.  Secondly, there is no powerful fossil fuel lobby in Germany or Denmark to stir up opposition to renewables.  And thirdly, in both countries, farmers, communities and small economies – not the Big 4 utilities – make a substantial proportion of the investment in wind power — this helps build wide community support.

A fourth possible reason has been advanced by Paul Gipe, the world’s most prolific authorof books and articles on windpower:
‘Why then are Germans, Danes, and Spaniards not falling by the thousands to dementia and disease? Are they made of sterner stuff? Or is it simply that they don’t speak English and can’t read all the propaganda fostered by the anti-renewables lobby. It is the anti-renewables lobby—it’s not just anti-wind anymore, they’re after solar too—that makes me sick.’

Whatever the reasons, our policy makers need to pay heed to what is happening in Europe.  Windpower is forging ahead, supplying around 8% of electricity in Germany and 20% in Denmark. And it is doing so in an environment where the public is seemingly unaffected and unconcerned about the health effects, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have lived in close proximity to turbines for decades now.

(This article is a summary of a much more detailed paper on this issue by Neil Barrett. The complete paper can be viewed at http://www.masg.org.au/communitywind.)
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