There’s no getting away from the fact that, as the effects of climate change really start to bite, we are going to have to find alternative ways of powering our lives. Renewable targets have been set and, in some cases, surpassed already, but there’s still a long way to go. Part of the solution is wind power – those huge white monoliths that, according to some critics, blight our countryside and coast. If they’re nowhere near you then they’re a positive force for good, even if they do ruin your panoramic photos of the countryside when you’re on holiday. But what if you live next door to one? Are wind farms good neighbours?
The big issue with wind turbines (apart from their sheer size) is the amount of noise they generate. At first glance, you wouldn’t think this would be a problem, but the low-frequency noise generated by the turbine’s blades is a huge bone of contention for those who live near to them.
Noise from wind turbines comes from two sources – the mechanical noise generated by the generator and gearbox in the turbine’s nacelle (the housing covering these components), and the aerodynamic noise from the turbine’s blades. The loudest of the two noise sources comes from the blades, particularly on the downward stroke. As turbine blades have got bigger, the claim is that they have also become noisier. However, because of the development of more advanced blades that are more efficient and slimmer, the noise levels have been reduced.
The level of noise produced by modern blades has been likened to general ‘background noise’, and one side of the scientific coin says that as a result there is absolutely no impact on human health, and there are plenty of peer-reviewed papers to support this view.
On the other hand, there are also plenty of peer-reviewed scientific papers that claim that the noise (and in particular ultra-low frequencies) generated by wind turbine blades does have a significant effect on both humans and animals close by. A 2016 study commissioned by the Department of Energy and Climate Change found a ‘clear link’ between the amount of noise generated by wind farms and the impact on the sleep patterns and well-being of people living close to the wind farm. They found there was an ‘increased risk’ of sleep deprivation as the turbines’ noise levels exceeded 40 decibels.
More technical studies are also looking into the effects of ultra-low frequencies, and investigating reports by some people of nausea and headaches that they claim have been caused by the noise emanating from the turbines. To date, there is no concrete proof to say that it is a major health concern, but by the same token, there hasn’t been enough research carried out to definitively say that it isn’t a problem.
An eyesore, or an essential part of 21st-century life?
Apart from the noise debate (which looks set to continue for some time), there is also the question of just how acceptable it is to have huge forests of enormous wind turbines planted in the middle of some of the UK’s most beautiful countryside. Do these white giants enhance the landscape or are they an unwelcome addition that ruins the view? Again, the answer is going to depend on whether you’re a supporter of alternative power generation, or you’ve got one casting a huge shadow over your house at the bottom of your garden.
Some conservationists also claim that wind turbines represent a real danger to birds and bats, who fly into the blades with the inevitable, somewhat messy, results. Yet the RSPB, that bastion of all things feathered, have installed a 100m wind turbine at their headquarters, and the scientific magazine Nature claims turbines kill far fewer birds than other human activities such as power lines, pesticides, and domestic cats.
Objecting to planning permission for wind turbines
Because turbines are such huge structures, planning permission has to be sought before they can be approved. In the majority of cases, residents living near to the site will have been consulted long before the plans have been submitted, but there may be times when an objection to a plan is justified, due to its proximity to residential housing. However, there are rarely any other real reasons for putting in an objection to a wind turbine or wind farm other than proximity, as the scientific evidence as to the alleged harmful effects of turbines has yet to be proven either way. That does not, however, remove the right of citizens to question the positioning of turbines.
With the UK legally bound to generate 15% of its energy through renewables (according to the stipulations laid out in the 2009 EU Renewable Energy Directive), there’s little chance that we’ll see these white giants disappear from our countryside any time soon. We need to accept that turbines are now part of the landscape, but that doesn’t mean those living next to them cannot ask some serious questions about their location and the long-term impact on health and well-being. It’s up to the turbines to become better neighbours, and that the concerns of ordinary people are listened to by both planning application committees, and those whose job it is to manufacture and erect the turbines.
If you’re fighting a planning application to allow turbines to be built near your property, or are a turbine company facing challenges from local landowners and property owners, talk to a legal expert specialising in environmental or planning law.