The idea of windmills brings to mind bucolic Renaissance paintings of Dutch landscapes and tulip beds. But that’s hardly the experience of some who have to live next to the 400-foot electricity-generating giants being built across America’s breezy plains.
They complain about the incessant “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” of the machines at work, the flashes of light and shade across their windows, and the occasional terrifying midnight screech of turbines repositioning themselves to catch shifting winds.
“It sounds like a train going through, except the train never comes through,” said Wayne Danley, whose life had been turned upside down by a giant windmill located 900 feet from his house in rural Fenner, N.Y., where he has lived since 1976.
Danley said he fears the days when the winds come from the northwest. “The whoop, whoop, whoop becomes a roar,” he said. And in the spring before the trees sprout leaves, the turning turbine causes flashes of light in his living room that so annoyed his wife, the pastor of a local church, that she had to flee to the bedroom to get away from it.
Danley said he has nothing against windmills or the 19 others in the neighboring windfarm. He only wishes someone would do something about relocating the one on his doorstep. “It’s too close,” he said.
While the industry portrays electricity-generating windmills as a benign and natural source of power, community opposition to new windmill farms is cropping up across the country _ particularly in Eastern states, where there are more people fleeing urban blight to live in idyllic rural towns.
Last week, authorities in Vermont rejected plans for a windmill farm on top of that state’s scenic mountains near East Haven, Vt., while Peru, N.Y., declared a one-year moratorium on any construction of windmills so the town can further study the impact on the rustic charm of the Adirondacks.
Community activists in Dryden, N.Y., last year forced Cornell University to withdraw plans for a windmill farm in their tiny community, and in England _ where opponents have ridiculed the huge machines as “lavatory brushes in the sky” _ lawmakers are considering proposals that would require any new windmills to be located no closer than two miles from homes, and preferably out of sight.
John Semmler, an education consultant who has lived in Dryden for 30 years, said he’s been ridiculed as being a NIMBY _ meaning “not in my backyard” _ for his role in leading the opposition to the Cornell project. Semmler and other residents argued that if Cornell wanted to build an industrial complex of windmills, it could easily do so next to the Ithaca campus eight miles from Dryden and leave their vistas and peace undisturbed.
“I’m not a NIMBY, I’m a NAMBY _ not in anybody’s backyard,” said Semmler, who toured other windfarms in the region to find out how they have affected people’s lives. “I resent the use of the word ‘windfarm’ to describe these projects _ these are huge, monstrous pieces of machinery that make noise,” he said.
The industry did not expect the intensity of community opposition that windfarms are getting, said Marion Trieste, publicist for the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, an organization that has the backing of industry and environmental groups.
“There’s a lot of misinformation, and a lot of inflamed discussion about negative encroachment,” she said.
Trieste said supporters of wind energy outnumber opponents. The group has put a video of testimonials from people living under windmills who enthuse about their experience with the machines, and the contributions windmills make to renewable energy.
“People are passionately concerned about their communities, and concerned about energy, and we have to come to terms with the alternatives,” she said.
The American Wind Energy Association, which represents the industry, says it knows of only a few complaints about noise. Scores of new facilities are set for construction under incentives for wind energy that Congress included in last year’s energy bill. The incentives expire in 2007.
“You can stand under a wind turbine and have a normal conversation,” said Laurie Jodziewicz, a policy specialist for the association. “It’s just a ‘whoosh.’ ”
Jodziewicz said modern turbines are much quieter than the first generation of windmills, and that complaints about windfarms today “are very, very rare.” She said there have been complaints about the strobe-light effects, but those occur only during certain months of the year and depend on the sun’s angle to the turbine blades.
Robert Larivee, a professor of chemistry at Frostburg State University in Maryland, says that’s not his experience. He and his family have lived for the last three years under a windfarm built on Meadow Mountain, about a half mile from his home in rural Meyersdale, Pa.
Larivee said he had a professional engineer measure the noise, and found the windmills showed an average reading of 75 decibels _ about the level of noise from a washing machine.
The industry says the average windmill gives off only 45 decibels, but Larivee said the mountainous topography around his home amplifies the volume _ and it didn’t help that developers clear-cut the trees on the top of Meadow Mountain to make way for the wind.
“It’s a low frequency, a rumbling like you are listening to a base drum,” he said. “It’s a constant background of ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.’ ” He said he and his family haven’t adjusted to the sound. “If you’ve ever had a leaky faucet, you know it doesn’t make a lot of noise, but it drives you nuts.”
Larivee, who stresses he’s an environmental chemist, said he favored the windmill farm as the green way to go when the facility was built.
But he’s now concluded that windmills aren’t a very efficient way of generating electricity. The windfarm scrambled his TV and radio reception, and the turbine blades have claimed the lives of countless bats that used to keep control over the population of mosquitoes and other summer insects.
Larivee’s advice to residents of other rural areas planned for windfarms: “Fight it.”
(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com.)