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Let's Get Real on Wind Turbine Noise

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I was plenty dismayed to come across yet another New York Times article on wind turbine noise complaints, this time headlined -- rather unfortunately -- "For Those Near, the Miserable Hum of Clean Energy."

The article focuses on three large wind turbines at a $15 million facility in Maine's Fox Islands, which residents claim are making life there "unbearable." One resident -- whose husband heads out on night missions to record the turbines, intending to report nighttime sound-limit violations -- gets particularly, shall we say, dramatic:

I remember the sound of silence so palpable, so merciless in its depths, that you could almost feel your heart stop in sympathy," [Mrs. Lindgren] said. "Now we are prisoners of sonic effluence. I grieve for the past.

Talk about the year's most spectacular overstatement!

Alright, Mrs. Lindgren, let us grieve for a moment. Shall we grieve for the days when we brought coal buckets into our homes -- polluting not just the outdoor air, but our very living rooms? Do we long for the days when "having electricity" meant installing your family's one and only light bulb?

We're all guilty of romanticizing the past to some extent -- but really, someone needs to fact -- check these NIMBYs. We need to get real about how much noise wind turbines actually make -- and how that pales in comparison to the benefits of living with clean, renewable energy.

Large turbines like the ones in Maine emit collectively, from a distance, around 45 decibels at their top rotational speed, which they reach in winds upwards of 12 to 15 miles per hour. Typical residential-size wind turbines, whose blades are approximately 6 feet long, are actually louder -- 57 decibels at maximum rotational speed, which they achieve in a wind of about 28 to 30 miles per hour -- than the big guys. This is because smaller turbines usually spin faster.

So what does this mean? It means that in order for turbines to be making the most noise, the wind has to be blowing hard enough to be nearly as noisy as the turbines. In the wind industry, the turbine noise being washed out by the ambient sound of the wind is referred to as "masking."

Now let's put this into perspective. A dishwasher emits about 60 decibels. Imagine you are standing in front of your dishwasher while it is running. Now move away from it. The sound diminishes. Now imagine that on the scale of large wind turbines, located outside, on towers over 200 feet high, surrounded by all of the other naturally occurring sounds in the immediate environment. Even accounting for the subjectivity of individual reactions to sound, it just doesn't seem quite so offensive now, does it?

That's because it's not. These turbines are generating over 11 thousand megawatt-hours of electricity per year, enough to power their entire community. And, according to the same article in which Mrs. Lindgren laments her prison of "sonic effluence," most residents love the turbines -- not to mention how much money they're saving on their electric bills!

So why is the majority opinion so marginalized in this article -- and in so many articles just like it, whenever wind farms and turbines are discussed in the media?

It's because the NIMBYs are well organized and trumpet lots of supporting information, whether it's true or not. As Tip O'Neill would say, all news is local, and the complaining neighbors always make a great story. They know how to get press and people's attention. Unfortunately, the press seems to care more about a vocal few than they do about the contented masses.

The good old days always look just fine through the rose-colored glasses of today. But again -- let's get real! If you were a minority in the 1950s, it wasn't that idyllic; if you were an immigrant in the 1920s, the decade wasn't as "roaring." Let's understand that we've come further since those days, in every way, and the energy we create today can actually be better than the energy we created in days gone by.

Let's not grieve the black-and-white images of a simpler time. Let's look at clean energy as what we're doing better today to power our cities, our homes and our lives. And let's be honest about how much of a sacrifice it really isn't.

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