Whirlwind in Sonoma and Marin

 (Originally published at DailyCensored.org for Project Censored).

A few months ago, I was lying in bed enjoying the morning sunrise over the mountain range. Out my window the coastal fog had settled upon the open field next to the apple orchard. A gentle breeze was blowing in from the Pacific Ocean. From a distance, I heard an unusual sound. At first it sounded like a giant was on the march. I heard a slow and steady thump, thump, thump. It seemed like it was coming from down the ridge, perhaps in the little town of Sebastopol. For several hours, the distant thumping continued every two or three seconds.

Over the course of the day, this steady thumping gradually turned into a high pitched squeal. The squeaking noise began to grate on my nerves. I became irritable, developed a headache, could feel my blood pressure rise, and even started feeling sick to my stomach. By twilight, I was walking around the property at wits end. As I approached my neighbor’s orchard, the source of the annoyance became clear. The old windmill, which is used to pump water, had falling into disrepair. It desperately needed some WD-40. Unfortunately, the neighbors were away for the weekend and the rhythmic pollution continued on for a second day. I can say conclusively, no one within in a one mile radius of that darn windmill slept soundly that weekend.

Dr. Nina Pierpont, a graduate of Princeton and John Hopkins University School of Medicine, has written a well received peer-review report titled “Wind Turbine Syndrome”. Pierpont’s list of symptoms include “sleep disturbance, headache, ring or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus), ear pressure, dizziness, vertigo, nausea, visual blurring, racing heartbeat (tachycardia) irritability, problems with concentration and memory, and panic episodes with sensations of internal pulsation or quivering which arise while awake or asleep”.

As a result, Pierpont recommends wind turbines be sited no closer than 1-1/4 miles from a home. Dr. Robert McMurtry, a Canadian physician and special advisor to the Canadian Royal Commission on the Future of Health Care, agrees with Dr. Pierpont’s recommendations. In this brief video, Dr. McMurtry gives personal accounts from patients having suffered from “wind turbine syndrome”. One story of a young blind boy is particularly disturbing.  The child relied heavily on his ears and as he got closer to the wind turbines the poor child would go into a panic, because his world was being drowned out by noise. Pierpont explains the “turbine infrasound and low frequency noise (ILFN) create the seemingly incongruous constellation of symptoms”.

In Marin California, Dillon Beach is a quaint little surfer town. In August of last year, the Marin Country Deputy Zoning Administrator issued a routine permit to NextEra Energy Resources to erect two 197 feet tall towers to gather data regarding a potential wind farm site. Ever since, more an more environmentalist and community members from both Marin and Sonoma counties have been divided over any and all proposed wind farm projects.

A group of nine people, including leaders from the Marin Audubon Society, have come out against the wind towers. This has caused a bit of a riff between environmental groups. For the most part, the opponents of wind farms bring five main concerns to the debate. First, there is the noise pollution concern. “wind turbine syndrome” is a serious concern. Second, there are concerns about the effects on birds and bats. Third, the opponents point to big businesses, often out of state companies, pocketing large government subsidies and sending much of the money out of state. Fourth, there is the concern over blight, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And finally, opponents have called into question wind power claims of being a carbon neutral, clean source of energy.

I emailed Woody Hastings, the Renewable Energy Implementation Manager for the Climate Protection Campaign, a non-profit organization located in Sonoma county, and asked him to address some of the biggest concerns brought up from wind power opposition groups. Hastings made it clear that the Climate Protection Campaign is not interested in pitting its organization against other legitimate environmental organizations. Hastings also makes clear, “I am not an advocate of utility-scale wind projects installed against the will of the surrounding community”. Nonetheless, he agreed to address the five major concerns. The following is a short interview I conducted with Mr. Hastings:

D.W.: I have been reading a bit about “wind turbine syndrome? It has been suggested that the set-back for such projects should be no less than 1.25 miles from a wind farm. Some folks living in Dillon Beach believe they can be physically harmed by wind turbines. What is your take on this issue?

W.H.: “I happen to be highly sensitive to noise so I understand and respect the concern. I can’t address specifics of what an appropriate set-back would be since we are not engaged in that kind of work. I am aware that the wind industry is constantly working to improve the technology to reduce impacts, including noise”.

D.W.: Christopher Barnes writes in the West Marin Citizen, “The wind-farm business is an immense folly inflicted on a gullible public by big business, with the collusion of big government, at enormous expense to the environment, with shockingly little energy benefit.”  Certainly NextEra is a Florida based company with little connection to the North Bay area. What is your take on Barnes’ assertions?

W.H.: “Developing wind power is inherently capital intensive, so it necessarily involves larger entities, usually already involved in energy project development, that have the capacity to capitalize a wind project. Regarding the general characterization of windpower as an “immense folly” I would just have to respectfully disagree. The rapid growth of the wind industry worldwide belies the assertion. The problem of intermittency does not render wind, or solar for that matter, useless in developing a diverse clean energy generation portfolio. Storage technologies are improving rapidly (visit the California Energy Storage Alliance cesa.org) and other baseload options including biogas and geothermal can displace fossil and nuclear.”

D.W.: There are many that oppose wind turbines because they have been known to harm birds. Recently I have read that the average turbine kills approximately three birds a year. Is that a number you would agree with and what do you think the long term impart to bird populations will be?

W.H.: “I think that a lot of care needs to go into the siting of wind turbines with respect to bird and bat populations and for plenty of other reasons. That said, I do believe that appropriate sites for wind power exist and should be investigated for that purpose. Regarding a specific number for bird deaths, I do know that it is something relatively low – on the order of what you stated – and that the numbers killed by many other human activity-related causes far exceeds kills from wind power. I think it says a lot that the National Audubon Society generally supports appropriately sited wind power as a mitigation to climate change, which poses a catastrophic threat to bird and all species.”

D.W.: Another concern from the opposition group has to do with the blight. As you know, people that live in Sonoma and Marin counties are blessed with some of the most beautiful landscape anywhere in the world. Opponents point to other large scale wind farm sites and suggest the natural beauty of the area can be seriously scared by the proposed project. Can you please address this issue?

W.H.: “I think mountains and coastal scenes are beautiful. I also think wind turbines are beautiful. My hope is that most people will come to an understanding and acceptance of a need to transition to forms of energy generation like wind and solar, that do involve visual impacts. On a long term scale a thought I will offer is that wind turbines, as currently designed, will probably not be around forever. As other energy technologies are developed they will probably become obsolete. The fact that they require a very small amount of land to be disturbed renders their sites good candidates for future remediation – unlike large hydro dams, strip mines, mountain tops that have been removed, uranium mines, nuclear facilities, aquifers that have been destroyed by hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas, etc.”

D.W.: Some people dispute the carbon neutral clams from supporters of wind power. Opponents often point to the construction and maintenance concerns to back up their assertions. Can you please help break down some of those concerns?

W.H.: “I worked in the solar industry for a while and we would get that question, or challenge from time to time. For photovoltaic solar power it takes somewhere between two to eight years depending on a number of factors to break even with the amount of energy that went in to making the panel. Since they produce electricity for decades, and are typically warranted for 25 years, they are worth the investment from an energy return on investment perspective. Once that two or eight year mark is passed, they effectively become carbon neutral and theoretically begin displacing carbon emitting or otherwise damaging power. In the case of wind my understanding is that it’s a matter of months. Let’s also remember to stack this up against coal, natural gas, nuclear.”

Hastings makes a persuasive argument for wind power. I’m certain many people will agree with his comments. Nonetheless, the derision over wind power between environmentalists and the community in general is becoming perfectly clear. On the one hand, wind power is one of the cleanest forms of energy available. Within a relatively short time, wind power brakes even in the amount of energy it took to make the turbine. That’s a huge plus for wind power.

One the other hand, live within a mile range of a large wind turbine and you can be subjected to “wind turbine syndrome”, a debilitating illness. Whole communities have found themselves moving out of their homes as a result of “wind turbine syndrome.” The people of Dillon Beach may have a legitimate health and environmental concern.

Hastings is also correct the number of birds and bats killed each year is relatively low. The number I suggested of three a year is actually on the high side. For example, older turbines have the highest bird kill. In California, NextEra, the same company exploring wind power near Dillon Beach, is a major operator of the Altamont Pass wind farm, located about 50 miles east of San Francisco. According to a 2004 study commissioned by the California Energy Commission, and estimated 1,766 to 4,700 birds die annually from the 5,400 turbines operating at Altamont Pass. The number included between 881 and 1330 raptors, such as golden eagles, which are protected under federal law.

Last year, then California Attorney General, Jerry Brown brokered a deal with NextEra to replace the aging turbines by 2015 or close them down. Regardless, simply doing the math we find the kill ratio not at three percent but more like .5 percent. That said, build thousands of wind turbines and you will have thousands of dead birds. It’s all relative.

While Mr. Hastings may find wind turbines “beautiful”, for many, an Altamont Pass like site sprawling over the picturesque cliffs of Marin and Sonoma is nothing more than unwanted blight. Some might argue, environmentalists taking a “not in my backyard” attitude toward alternative energy is hypocritical. On the other hand, environmentalists can counter wind turbines are just another form of pollution, junking up the wilderness.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation which requires California’s utilities to get 33 percent of their electricity from renewable power by 2020. Both Marin and Sonoma counties have set their sights on over 40 percent. California’s goals are the most ambitious goals in the country. Hastings point about large scale energy development projects inherently requiring substantial capital investments is certainly fair enough. However, are there no local Marin and Sonoma companies that can do this work?

Recently, Google announced they are partnering with Citibank and pouring $55 million into wind farm project in the Mojave Desert. According to reports, “When complete, the project in the Tehachapi Mountains will generate 1.5 gigawatts, enough to power 450,000 homes. The installation will help boost wind jobs in the state by 20 percent while also feeding more than $1.2 billion into the Kern County economy, according to developers”.

Even before the Google project, the Tehachapi wind farms are the largest wind power project in California. Thousands of turbines, mostly run by Southern Edison Power, are already in operation. The combined new projects will cover over 50 square miles of once scenic mountain ranges.

As the planet heats up, the debate over how to best solve our energy problems is also heating up. In Sonoma and Marin, the debate over wind power has turned into protests. After Marin County Deputy Zoning Administrator issued NextEra their Dillon Beach permit last year, the nine opponents took their case to the Marin Planning Commission and won an appeal by a 5-2 vote. However, in December of 2010, the county supervisors reversed the ruling and the Dillon Beach project got the go ahead. That’s not stopping the opponents of the Dillon Beach turbines. They are monitoring the site for bird kills and attempting to build a coalition of environmentalists and community residents to oppose wind farms in the North Bay area.

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