Photo: When it comes to health, wind power blows away the alternative

It’s never easy to find energy technologies that will satisfy everyone, but with the world facing ever-growing negative consequences of burning fossil fuels, we must weigh our options. (Credit: Randy Harrison via Flickr).

By David Suzuki with contributions from Dale Marshall, David Suzuki Foundation climate change policy analyst.

Wind energy is increasingly being considered a viable and attractive power source. Many countries, including the U.S., Germany, Spain, China, and India, are putting policies into place to drive the development of their wind energy industries. In Canada, the amount of wind energy being harnessed for use in our homes, offices, and factories has grown quickly over the past few years, led by Ontario with its Green Energy Act.

However, a backlash has been growing in many places where wind power is being developed. In Ontario, one of the main criticisms of wind development has been its impact on human health, mostly because of the noise that wind turbines produce. Yet, the peer-reviewed scientific research indicates that the sound from windmills, which generally falls into three categories (audible sound, low frequency, and infrasound), has little to no impact on human health.

This is especially true if windmills are built far enough away from residences. For example, the required setback in Ontario is 550 metres. At this distance, the audible sound from windmills has been found to be below 40 decibels, which is around the level of sound you'd find in most bedrooms and living rooms. Studies from the University of Massachusetts similarly found that even if the sound were audible, annoyance would be minimal.

Critics have also pointed to low frequency sound and infrasound as the source of health impacts from wind turbines. These are sounds that are either difficult to hear or inaudible to humans. However, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health did a review of the scientific literature and found no evidence that low frequency sound from wind turbines causes adverse health effects.

Research from Sweden and the Netherlands may shed some light on the opposition that windmills are facing, despite the lack of evidence for human health impacts. At or just under 40 decibels, 73 per cent of people could notice the sound and six per cent were annoyed. But those who did not like windmills or found them ugly were more likely to notice the sound and were more likely to be annoyed by it.

Though we should always remain open-minded about new and emerging research on any issue, the evidence seems clear that wind turbines built with appropriate setbacks do not constitute a health hazard. And wind becomes a more attractive energy source when you consider the health impacts of the main energy alternative, burning coal and other fossil fuels.

The Canadian Medical Association estimated that in 2008 Canada's air pollution was responsible for 21,000 premature deaths, 92,000 emergency room visits, and 620,000 visits to a doctor's office. Even if you look only at the health impacts of Ontario coal-fired power plants, the numbers are significant and startling.

When considering whether Canada needs to curtail the development of its wind resources or expand wind power in the way that Ontario's Green Energy Act proposes, we should heed the conclusion of Maine's Center for Disease Control. After dismissing the notion of a moratorium on wind development due to its health impacts, the Center's Dr. Dora Ann Mills concluded, "If there is any evidence for a moratorium, it is most likely on further use of fossil fuels, given their known and common effects on the health of our population."

As for the impacts on wildlife, that's another story. But "most scientific research shows that newer technologies and proper locating can overcome most of the threats to birds and bats. One recent study also noted that "the number of birds killed in wind developments is substantially lower relative to estimated annual bird casualty rates from a variety of other anthropogenic factors including vehicles, buildings and windows, power transmission lines, communication towers, toxic chemicals including pesticides, and feral and domestic cats."

It's never easy to find energy technologies that will satisfy everyone, but with the world facing ever-growing negative consequences of burning fossil fuels, we must weigh our options. In doing so, wind power comes out ahead. If we ensure that care is taken to use technologies with minimal environmental impact and to locate turbines in areas where effects on humans and animals are also minimal, there is no good reason to oppose wind power.

July 6, 2011

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Oct 22, 2012
8:16 AM

I am having a hell of a time speaking up for a proposed wind installation on 8200 hectares of Manitoulin Island. It is implied that anyone who would support large wind turbines must hate the Island, or be deficient in some soulful regard for nature. I have written to the local paper, The Manitoulin Expositor, accusing the anti-wind people of dissembling in their reasons for opposition, to wit, I have said that they seek to inflame health fears when their real agenda is to protect the pristine viewscape and to protect property values. The latest letter excoriating me has to do with huge increased costs that wind farms would bring.

I wish that someone would support me in my concern about clean energy and highlight the urgent need for an end to fossil fuel oxidization. People here seem to think everything is a gambit to get money on the newest thing. They have no interest in examining the genesis of the energy they use every day. How can they be encouraged to examine this global issue seriously and remove their self-interested blinders?

A little heavyweight support by the D.Suzuki Foundation would be much appreciated: Simply a letter to the editor explaining that turbines are safe, not unnecessarily costly and a necessary intrusion into wind farmable areas.

If you could help, thank you. If not, I understand your many agendas and tasks and will continue to respond to the anti-wind clamour.

Philip Dabous

Aug 12, 2011
1:30 PM

Latest human health related research is reported in August Issue of Bulletin of Science Technology and Society (Peer Reviewed).

However the most cogent arguments against IWT’s are economic and environmental — they cost too much and do essentially nothing to reduce fossil fuel dependence or GHG emissions. I am astonished at Dr. Suzuki’s position on this matter — I would have expected him to have done his homework properly.

Jul 11, 2011
10:03 AM

By putting the following statement at the end of the article that doesn’t consider all of the implications of wind power, you remove the credibility from the argument:

“If we ensure that care is taken to use technologies with minimal environmental impact and to locate turbines in areas where effects on humans and animals are also minimal, there is no good reason to oppose wind power.”

What really needs to be considered is how are we going to supplement the energy requirements when the wind doesn’t blow. The greater the wind power potential on a grid is the more spinning reserves that are required to make of a power deficit when the wind does not blow. This reserve power must be available at a moments notice and in southern Alberta at least, this is supplied by brand new low efficiency open cycle gas turbines (put in place for this very reason). The option of having a closed cycle high efficiency gas / steam turbine solutions is not viable as it cannot respond to quick changes in wind driven power supply.

Of course there likely better ways around this (perhaps a smart grid ), but to imply that the only downside to wind power is a little noise pollution is completely missing the point and misleading your readers. Please research your articles further prior to publishing them to help build credibility to the cause of clean energy.

Jul 08, 2011
4:38 PM

Dear David: I should say Dear my Hero: You bring tears to my eyes when I see all the accomplishments you have attained. Just wanted to thank you for being their for all who are concerned with what is wrong with our world today. You David are a GOD SENT. I try to see as many of your programs as possible. Today my oldest daughter Michel sent me the article on seafood in the grocery store, and I thought it was due time to get in touch with you. Monday someone on your team is calling to take info on a monthly donation to your cases. Being a pensioner here in Canada You know we don’t get enough, so it will be a monthly minimum. But good news I have this nagging thing in my brain telling me Iam soon to win the lottery, and once that ship comes in I will be sending more. I can hardly wait till it happens but in the mean time my monthly donation will have to suffice. It is beyound words how much we the population of this planet owe You David. You are my HERO, as is Superman but he is ficticious. So my dear you are NUMBER ONE. PLEASE KEEP UP THE GREAT WORKS your friend forever, Joyce… P.S. I have wanted to get in touch with you so many times, and now I can due to the net.

Jul 08, 2011
1:02 AM

Let’s see….a power source that only works when the wind blows, but not too strongly, and is only possible with heavy government subsidy…..ya sounds great to me….NOT!

The truth about wind power, is that it cannot exist without those subsidies, and it also needs to be backed up by reliable fossil fuel generating capacity. People shouldn’t peddle this “alternative” tripe. It’s total nonsense. This is without even mentioning their devastating effect on wildlife.

Jul 07, 2011
11:47 AM


Policy is great, but we still come up against the laws of physics. Other than the total energy use both nationally and globally, the specific limitation with PMG wind turbines are their behaviour and contribution (or lack thereof) on the electric grid. There is good reason why ESO’s (electric system operators) are limiting wind turbine penetration to 20%. That’s the bad news.

The good news is there are some work-arounds for PMG (permanent magnet generators) that can make them appear to dynamically operate similar to their synchronous counterparts. This means they can contribute to frequency and voltage stabilization rather than tax it. Also, it reduces the capacity requirements on transmission lines.

The systems I am referring to are Wind Turbine plus Battery Electrical Storage System, or WT+BESS or short. The Japanese have termed them a “Synthetic Plant”. Research and pilot plants have been reported in peer reviewed papers from China, Japan, Canada, and the U.S. We are working towards building one of the first in N. America here in BC.

WT+BESS takes the nearly random and unreliable power generation of a stand-alone wind turbine farm and turns it into a dispatchable, load following electrical generation source. This, or course, is what electrical system operators need.

WT+BESS also reduces the capacity requirements for the transmission system. i.e. for a 500 MW wind farm only 150 MW plus short term over capacity is required. When we need our maximum electrical generation in the winter the transmission line can be loaded up 200% if the ambient temperature is low enough and there are thermal sensors on the line.

So what’s the cost? Naturally, the systems are more expensive than a typical AC connected wind turbine. However, if we look at three important financial parameters: 1) higher value energy price for near-firm delivery, 2) can use a gear-less turbine reducing the cost, weight and maintenance, and 3) reduced transmission system upgrades and expenditures, the WT+BESS comes in at a levelized cost of energy (LCOE) comparative to existing wind farms.

That is, the current LCOE for Site C is $85-$95 per MWh. We can do this for around $75-$80 per MWh. (And no valleys flooded, ungulate migratory routes blocked, or wildlife killed — beaver, moose and muskrat).

Jul 06, 2011
11:27 PM

Those interested in reading critiques of several of the leading lights in windturbine health doomsaying may be interested in this and this Chapman S. Wind turbine sickness prevented by money drug. ABC Unleashed 29 Mar 2011.

Jul 06, 2011
6:32 PM

Finally some common sense in relation to the value of wind energy.

It is time for the truth to be faced — there is no evidence to support the notion that wind turbines cause health issues.

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