NIMBYism dressed up as science

While I don’t discount the possibility of some negative effects associated with wind turbines (“Wind energy’s ripple effects,” Dr. Gary Carlson, Star Tribune, November 9, 2010), there’s no such thing as a free lunch. I’d rather see locally owned wind turbines surrounding many rural communities in Minnesota, providing clean energy and local economic benefits without the need to build the new high-voltage transmission lines required for most large corporate wind farms, than build so much as one more coal or nuclear power plant.

st-olaf-turbine-landscape-2Carlson’s suggested setback requirement of one-half to one mile would mean that the only wind projects that could be developed in Minnesota would be large, remotely located corporate wind farms with a need for hugely expensive and controversial new transmission lines and upgrades.

While ever-increasing energy efficiency and the kinds of personal responsibility Carlson mentions, such as walking to work rather than driving, are essential, there is no way to effectively address global climate destabilization without adding renewable energy to the electricity generation mix in a big way. The electricity generated annually by just one wind turbine of the size proposed for his neighbor’s farm reduces carbon dioxide emissions as much as walking about 10 million miles rather than driving.

Dr. Carlson’s argument that perhaps 15% of the population will develop “some sort of symptom” when exposed to infrasonic and low-frequency noise strikes me as NIMBYism dressed up as science. While anecdotal reports of such effects from ardent opponents of wind energy in their own backyard abound, I am unaware of peer-reviewed studies of a statistically valid sample size of this supposed effect. A perfect test population for the argument Carlson makes is at his alma mater, St. Olaf College, also in Northfield. St. Olaf installed a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine (roughly the same size as the proposed turbines about which he has concerns) on its campus in 2006. Ninety-six percent of St. Olaf’s roughly 3,100 students live (and all study, work and play) on campus within his one-half to one mile radius of concern. Another 811 faculty and staff are on campus for a good portion of the typical week as well. I would be keenly interested in knowing if 15% of this population (nearly 600 people) began suffering the ill effects he describes over the past four years. I live in Northfield, and I have heard not a peep about an epidemic of this proportion.

I know and respect Gary Carlson. However, methinks the good doctor protesteth too much. It’s already terrifically difficult to develop locally owned wind projects for a host of reasons. Minnesota needs to make it easier, not harder, to develop such critically-needed wind projects.

One Comment

  1. Posted November 10, 2010 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Bruce, I must suggest that StOlaf is not a valid test, since those people were already in a noisy and urban environment. The people who have tried to move away from that now find that that urban sensibility that they were fleeing seems to be hunting them down in the rural areas where they live. But you are correct, a real test would require more than just anecdotes. As we say, good anecdotes make for bad science.

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