Wind Turbines Close to Home

  • A debate is stirring in northern Michigan communities over how close wind turbines should be built to homes. (Photo by Erin Toner)

A big wind energy proposal near Lake Michigan is promising to pump more than a hundred million dollars into the economy over the next couple of decades.

And supporters see wind as a good alternative to burning more fossil fuels such as coal.

But, as Bob Allen reports, questions are being raised about possible noise pollution from such large scale projects:

The North Carolina based giant Duke Energy wants to build more than a hundred 500 foot tall turbines in rural Benzie and Manistee counties. Michigan officials have identified parts of these two counties as having the 2nd highest wind potential in the state.

Alan O’Shea has been in the renewable energy business for the past thirty years. He’s promoting the project at an open house in a high school gym as a consultant for Duke.

“We don’t have to wait for Michigan to heal. This project can heal northern Michigan. I mean there are people, workers that are here looking for jobs.”

But there also are people in the area opposed to this project.

And on the same day that O’Shea talks up Duke’s plan, opponents draw a few hundred people to a film in a nearby town.

The documentary “Windfall” features residents in a small upstate New York community whose good feelings about wind power have turned sour.

A related Environment Report interview

A related Environment Report story


“This one across the road, 1,050 feet from where we live, and it sounds like the noise is in the walls.”

A key issue in the debate is how far from neighboring homes wind towers will be built.

A typical industry standard is roughly a thousand feet.

But some researchers in Europe and the U.S. suggest maybe a mile or more is needed to buffer against the noise.

Duke Energy officials say that much distance isn’t necessary.

Acoustic consultant Peter Guldberg says it would be difficult to find a square mile in Michigan where there’s not at least one house.

“Suggestions that wind turbines need to be set back a mile-and-a-quarter or a mile-and-a-half from any sort of occupied areas are basically a back door ban on wind energy.”

Guldberg says Duke’s project will produce what he calls a quiet 45 decibels of sound at the nearest home. He points out that normal human conversation is around 65 decibels.

But audiologist Jerry Punch says it’s not a fair comparison.

He says the way sound is measured cuts off much of the low frequency noise. So it doesn’t capture all of the sound that turbines emit.

“And here’s the other thing. Would you want somebody talking in conversational speech all night while you’re trying to sleep?”

Punch is a professor at Michigan State University.

He’s reviewed studies of wind noise world- wide and he says some effects on human health such as dizziness, headaches and irritability are not yet widely accepted.

But what is well established is that once sound gets above 40 decibels, especially at night, sleep disturbance occurs.

And, he says, one out of every four or five people, depending on conditions, report being annoyed.

“Those are potential people who could complain and file lawsuits. And so it becomes pretty important for the wind industry to look at annoyance as real. Even though it may not be directly affecting health I think it indirectly affects health when it interferes with sleep.”

Punch says turbines may have to be at least a mile away from a home to protect those who are most sensitive to the sound.

That kind of distance likely would mean Duke couldn’t put up enough windmills for the project to work economically.

That possibility frustrates Alan O’Shea.

The energy consultant helped stop a new coal plant from being built in the city of Manistee several years ago.

But since then he’s also seen local communities reject alternatives such as wood biomass and offshore wind to generate electricity.

“We have to be open and frank and say if not coal, if not wood chips and not wind, what the hell are we going to do?”

For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.