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Wind turbine (noise) and health: update

Pondera Consult  |  20 July 2021

The fact that our blog on wind turbine noise and health from 2018 is still being read to this day and is the most read blog on our website leads us to conclude that the issue of health effects is relevant. It indicates that the subject is still topical and is of concern to many people. Recently, new studies and publications have appeared that are worth reading, including two new RIVM studies. In one study, RIVM updates its previous literature review into health effects (footnote 2). The second report (footnote 3) describes the results of research into the effects of new energy sources on health and safety in the Netherlands. In this paper, we discuss the results of this research.

A large part of the population is in favour of increasing solar and wind energy

Recent research by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS)[1] shows that a large part of the population is in favour of reducing the use of fossil fuels or stopping their use altogether. According to a majority, sustainable energy sources such as solar energy, wind energy, hydropower and geothermal energy should be used more. Statistics Netherlands reports that 83% of Dutch people think that more use should be made of solar energy and 72% of Dutch people think that an increase in wind energy is necessary. On the other hand, the survey also shows that 31% are not in favour of wind turbines when it concerns  development plans in their own area.

Changing the living environment has an impact

Most people seem to understand the usefulness and necessity of the energy transition, and despite the concerns of some local residents, a large part of the population is in favour of generating renewable energy. However, things start to change when the consequences are nearer to home and the immediate living environment changes as a result of this transition. Concerned citizens are worried about concrete plans for solar and wind parks. After all, interventions in the (immediate) living environment have an impact on humans and animals. This also applies, for example, to the arrival of a new highway, an expansion of a business park or a new residential area that is constructed in the immediate living environment of people. It is inevitable that the living environment will change as a result of social development and human needs.

Every change has an impact. For example, solar and wind farms contribute to achieving the climate objectives, but on the other hand they also create nuisance for the environment. When wind turbines are installed in inhabited areas, local residents may experience nuisance as a result of visibility, shadow flicker or noise. Unfortunately, some form of nuisance due to the installation of wind turbines cannot be ruled out. This also applies to the construction of a road or the expansion of a business park. However, legislation and regulations must of course be complied with, in which a trade-off has been made between freshwater (more sustainable energy) and acid (a certain degree of nuisance). Before a permit is granted for the construction and operation of a wind farm, research must show that no unacceptable effects will arise in the field of nuisance aspects such as noise, shadow flicker and safety.

The health effects of wind turbines is the subject of research

Recently, new studies and publications have appeared. We summarise these recently published studies below:

RIVM 2020: no significant relationship between health and wind turbine noise

On 29 October 2020, the RIVM published a further report[2] on the issue of health effects associated with the presence of wind turbines. The study was carried out at the request of the Swiss Federal Environment Agency. In this report, RIVM lists the literature published between 2017 and mid-2020 about the effects of noise from wind turbines on the health of local residents. The 2018 WHO study is part of the literature review. RIVM collected the new scientific literature compared to previous studies on, among other things, the effect of wind turbines on the experience of nuisance, disturbance of sleep, and cardiovascular and metabolic effects. RIVM also looked at what is known in science about nuisance caused by the visual aspects of wind turbines and other non-acoustic factors, such as the local decision-making process. The RIVM research is a literature review and is therefore a collection and analysis of previously conducted empirical research.

The main conclusion of the study is that there is no unequivocal evidence for effects other than nuisance.

Possible health effects are related to nuisance rather than direct exposure to noise
In line with previous research, it follows from the literature review that wind turbines can cause nuisance (such as through noise, visual and a sense of injustice). Scientific research has shown that there is a link between total nuisance and health complaints. However, no conclusions can yet be drawn about the direction of this association: do people who are seriously bothered by wind turbine noise have more health complaints or are people with health complaints more bothered by wind turbine noise? Various studies have shown that sleep disturbance and other health effects of wind farm residents may be related to nuisance, rather than direct exposure to wind turbine noise.

No association between low-frequency noise (LFG) and health effects. Nor does LFG lead to extra nuisance
The literature does not show that the low-frequency part of the wind turbine noise (tones) leads to extra nuisance. Furthermore, there is no direct evidence for a link between low-frequency noise from wind turbines and health effects.

RIVM 2021: Wind turbines can cause nuisance to local residents

RIVM published[3] a study in May 2021 in which it analysed the effects [air pollution (outside), indoor environment, (low-frequency) noise and other effects, such as electromagnetic radiation and odour nuisance] of new energy sources on health and safety in the Netherlands. The research is therefore not only about wind turbines. From the health effects and safety risks that are estimated, it appears that the impact of most of the measures from the climate agreement will be limited. If the RIVM roughly compares these effects to the ‘gain’ of phasing out the use of fossil fuels on health and safety, the picture is that the net effect will be positive for health and safety. However, some energy sources can cause negative effects on health and safety. For example, wind turbines can cause nuisance to local residents, and wood-burning stoves and installations for burning biomass cause air pollution.

Limit nuisance by optimising locations and taking appropriate measures

Any health effects on people living in the vicinity of wind farms are related to the nuisance experienced. The degree of nuisance can be limited by taking health aspects into account in planning by optimising locations where wind turbines are installed. In addition, it is known that when local residents are involved in decision-making about locations and landscape integration and they are provided with good, reliable information, any nuisance is prevented as much as possible. Setting up a complaints system, making a button available to stop wind turbines, and economic incentives (by letting local residents share in the yield of wind turbines) can also contribute to a preventive approach to nuisance. Other measures to limit the noise pollution from wind turbines are technical innovations, such as reducing the rotational speed, applying a different blade shape and applying structures to the rotor blades that reduce the noise.

The effects of noise nuisance from wind turbines require further research

In its 2021 publication, RIVM indicates that there is insufficient information for some measures to be able to make a proper estimate of the health effects and safety risks. This mainly concerns the health effects of the combustion of biomass and biofuels and the consequences of noise nuisance from wind turbines.

‘Expertise Centre for Wind Energy and Health’

There is much public debate about where wind farms should be located. Some people are concerned about the consequences of turbines being placed near their living environment. They are concerned about the size, horizon pollution, shadow flicker and noise pollution. But also whether they, as residents, are involved by the government in making plans. There are also concerns about health effects. This is why there will be a new expertise centre for health problems that can arise from wind turbines. The RIVM and the GGDs are working together to set up an ‘Expertise Centre for Wind Energy and Health’. The expertise centre collects knowledge and stores it in a database. In addition, they are exploring the options for possible additional research into the health effects of wind turbines on land. The expertise centre is advising the ministry on the findings of these explorations.

Conclusion

We are following the research and advice on health in relation to wind turbines with great interest. It is necessary in order to be able to advise stakeholders on wind energy. Hopefully the representation above gives an impression of the current state of this research. At Pondera we conduct (location-specific) research into all kinds of effects of wind turbines, and also into the nuisance aspects of visual, shadow flicker and noise. Based on this, better substantiated and hopefully more accepted decisions can be made about wind projects.


[1]  Klimaatverandering en energietransitie: opvattingen en gedrag van Nederlanders in 2020 (cbs.nl) (Climate change and energy transition: attitudes and behaviour of the Dutch in 2020)

[2] Health effects related to wind turbine sound: an update (RIVM report 2020-0150)

[3] https://www.rivm.nl/bibliotheek/rapporten/2021-0054.pdf

For more information:

Annemarie Kristen

Senior Renewable Energy ConsultantMore about Annemarie Kristen

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