The UK needs more onshore wind farms to meet emissions targets. Wind turbines on land currently provide the lowest cost low carbon electricity. A five fold expansion is envisaged by 2030, taking the UK to about the same geographic density of turbines as Germany today. Widespread and determined opposition from a substantial minority of UK citizens will slow, or even stop, the growth of wind. Recent government proposals to increase the payments by wind developers to communities affected by the developments are not enough. If you think turbines are noisy and ugly, your views will not be changed by a few free solar panels on the school roof.
There is only one route forward. Local people must be given shares in the wind farm, giving a measurable and significant stake in the development. Why? First, of course, because their views and their standard of living are affected by the development and they deserve recompense. Second, because people who own stakes in wind farms have different attitudes towards the turbines on their doorstep. For example, they aren't annoyed by noise. They hear the turbines as much or as little as others; they just don’t mind.
Many studies, particularly in Europe, have shown the real and substantial effect of wind turbine noise on local people. Wind is generally regarded as worse than industrial or traffic noise at the same measured volume. Some people are annoyed by wind turbines at noise levels equivalent to those typically found in a public library. (about 40 db. Source: Argonne National Laboratory)
Rather than deny the problem, wind advocates need to find ways of dealing with it. Luckily, research shows an easy route: give people a financial stake in the wind farm.
This is a chart from a widely quoted 2009 paper (1).
(The stars on the right hand chart indicate measures of statistical significance)
It compares two groups of Dutch people, totalling over 700 people. The larger sample contains individuals that do not benefit financially from local wind farms. The much smaller group only includes those with a personal stake in their success.
The graph on the left records the percentage of each sample that could hear the turbines near to them. As might be expected, the number rose as the intensity of the noise increased. At levels between 35 and 40 decibels, the number able to hear was about 80% and this didn’t vary very much between those with a holding in the wind farm and those without.
When it comes to being annoyed by the noise, the pattern is very different. For example, 20% of people without a stake were upset at noise levels between 35 and 40 db (that is, below the ambient level of a public library) but none of the shareholder group. Current noise recommendations in the UK suggest a maximum level of 43 db. (2) This noise is heard by almost everybody, annoys 25% or so of non-shareholders but a tiny percentage of stakeholders. (Overall only 3% of the shareholder group were annoyed by any wind disturbance).
A reasonable implication is that giving people individual stakes in a wind farm will reduce the volume of noise objections to close to zero if regulations are adhered to. But what about those who simply dislike the appearance of turbines? Most studies show a very close correlation between disliking the appearance of a wind turbine and being annoyed by the noise. The connection of causality isn’t clear: it could be that dislike of appearance drives a hatred of noise or it could be the reverse. If it is noise that is the cause of opposition to wind, then giving affected people a stake of a few thousand pounds, and more if the noise levels are high, is going to dissipate much of the antagonism. Rather than offering token community payments, wind developers need to find a way to give their neighbours reasonable stakes in the success of the wind farm that has changed the appearance of their landscape.
1, Pedersen E, van den Berg F, Bakker R & Bouma J. (2009): Response to noise from modern wind farms in the Netherlands. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 126(2): 634-43. (Paywall)
2, And, in a little noticed part of the recommendations, these figures can be slightly higher if the affected persons have a stake in the development. Very sensible but ignored.