Monday, March 30, 2009

Letter from Las Vegas about Mars

Over the weekend, I received an email from Las Vegas, New Mexico (not Nevada). The sender is a radio talk show host who had me on his show a few years back. He says that a large wind farm is planned in his area, and the project has caused some commotion. Someone from his community apparently asked him to take a look at the Mars Hill project in Maine in an e-mail that included the following comments:
I believe noise is a design problem that could be fixed, and until this issue is cleared up, these turbines (GE 1.5 +MW) do not belong in populated areas. Because of lack of research, we do not know what a "safe" distance is... Industrial wind turbines are not quite the easy, clean green answer we have been told they are. Corporations stand to make HUGE profits off of them with subsidies provided by taxpayers.
I took a look at this video online to see what the issue was. The first thing I noticed was that the video starts with the "noise" from rotating turbines, but then switches to a street scene with the noise of trucks rolling by. It wasn't clear to me which was worse. I have been arguing for years -- and I am not the only one -- that you cannot hear a wind turbine if a car drives by.

The rest of the video also seems quite unconvincing. The people are interviewed in their living rooms, and it seems perfectly quiet there. And if you take a look at at 5:15 on the video, you can hear the bell on the front porch clearly, but I couldn't make out any swooshing of blades. The video seems to document the complete inaudibility of the wind turbines on the front porches of these homes. Where exactly are these turbines heard? Directly underneath?

Don't get me wrong: I am not trying to belittle the people on this video. But we should keep two things in mind. First, wind turbines are new, and people have the tendency to actually perceive them, whereas we take so many other things for granted -- such as the constant noise from traffic that surrounds us. (A few years ago, I decided against buying a house in southern France partly because of all the scooters that passed by.)

Second, the US is indeed mainly leaving renewables up to utilities, whereas European policy has allowed common people to invest in renewable generators. For years, I have been saying that NIMBYism is more likely to occur when communities see large projects coming at them. If the community does not directly benefit from the wind turbines on the hill, then they are only affected by the sight and sound of them.

The solution is quite simple. We have to involve communities, not only by allowing them to have input into the project up front (the video talks about how little community input there was, and all of it apparently occurred after contracts had been signed), but also by allowing them to invest and financially benefit from such projects. If each of these homeowners on this video had been allowed to chip in and buy a share of the project in installments of, say, $5000, they would see these turbines completely differently. And in these days of financial crisis, they would probably wish they had put more money into those turbines.

You can imagine how that community would feel about the prospect of a follow-up project.

I close with the view from my desk over Freiburg, Germany (click to enlarge photo). You will notice a large number of buildings with solar roofs in addition to four turbines on Rosskopf Hill in the background - the first leading from the Rhine Graben to the Black Forest. Locals cycle and hike up to the base of these turbines, which are a community project.

Remind me to post a video of these turbines from underneath -- and the video I took of that house in southern France with a scooter buzzing by outside.


  1. great article Craig. Looking forward to the videos. Bernard

  2. I am a stong supporter of alternative energy (bought my first solar panel 10 years ago) and I live on the mesa Invenergy wants to turn into an industrial wind facility.

    I am the one who suggested the Mars Hill video. My point about the video was the apparent anguish and frustration and insanity felt by the nearby residents.

    Mars Hill resident Wendy Todd lives 2600 feet from the nearest turbine. In the Acoustic Ecology fact sheet ( she says:

    "People think that we are crazy. They drive out around the mountain, stop and listen, and wonder why anyone would complain about noise emissions. But, believe me when we are having noise problems you can most assuredly hear the justification of our complaint. We have had people come into our yard get out of their vehicles and have watched their mouth drop. We have had company stop in mid conversation inside our home to ask, “What is that noise?” or say “I can’t believe you can hear those
    like that inside your house..."

    She continues, "Nick Archer, our Regional Director with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, thought we were all crazy, too. But he finally made it to our homes and heard what we were talking about. I don’t believe he has ever heard a 50+decibel day but he has heard close to that on more than one occasion and has made statements like these: “This is a problem,” “We need to figure out what is going on with these things before we go putting anymore of them up,” “I thought you were crazy at first but you are not crazy,”

    At first glance, these things look good. But face the threat of one plunked down in your front yard, and you find there are some big problems. People in my community have put together a web site to let others know what we have found in our research of these issues. See:

    We believe these industrial wind facilities simply do not belong in populated areas, and have asked the NM legislature to create regulations that protect the citizens from poor siting. (The facility in my community would affect hundreds of residents and is proposed for the site not because of good wind, but because it is close to a transmission line. They make great subsidies whether or not the produce large quantities of electricity!)

    How bad could these subsidies be? They were created with the help of Enron.

    Locally owned sustainable energy makes a hell of a lot more sense, and won't cost an arm and a leg, as well as sleepless nights for the unfortunate neighbors. For the benefits of local ownership, see

    Keely Meagan