Thursday 28 May 2015

Why aren't Australian wind farm workers suffering a plague of 'wind syndrome'?

This blog is starting to sound a little repetitive, but today in The Australian, Graham Lloyd published an article about wind farms that claims wind farms are causing terrible health impacts in human beings.

"Two international studies have linked sleep disturbance and health effects of wind-farm workers to low-frequency noise and infra­sound from wind turbines"

This has become a predictable pattern: weak studies that seem to 'confirm' wind turbine syndrome are presented out of the context of the wider body of scientific research - which tells us there's no good scientific evidence that we ought to feel fear around wind turbines.

This isn't a problem with journalism as a whole - right now, there only seems to be one journalist fixated on this approach of presenting weak science as strong proof, with regards to wind energy.

Lloyd presents two pieces of research in his article: A Japanese paper that purports to demonstrate changes in neurological function in wind turbine engineers, and a particularly weird paper from Tehran that purports to show sleep loss in wind turbine workers. 

Inagaki et al 

"...researchers at Ibaraki University in Japan measured the brainwaves of 15 wind-farm workers listening to recordings of low-frequency and infrasound from wind turbines."

This paper was published in the International journal of Environmental Science and Technology (it went up on the Waubra Foundation website a few days ago) - the researchers exposed fifteen 'test subjects' to synthesised infrasound - not 'infrasound recorded from wind turbines', as Lloyd states.

It's the same type of synthesised infrasound that's been used in experiments testing whether warnings of 'wind turbine syndrome' are enough to induce symptoms. Inagaki et al play a loud synthesised low-frequency tone as a proxy for real wind turbine noise, and measure the brain waves of the 15 subjects in two different states:

"The induced rate of h rhythm has almost no change after the sound stimuli, but the induced rate of a1 rhythm becomes lower when the test subjects listen to all the sound and decreases with decreased frequency band. In particular, the induced rate of a1 rhythm after the sound stimulus with the frequency band of 20 Hz becomes the lowest among the other cases 
This means that the test subjects cannot be relaxed comfortably when listening to the low-frequency noise or the infrasound noise, which is a part of the aerodynamic noise generated by the large-scaled wind turbine"

Inagaki's research doesn't control for expectations, and it's very likely that the subjects could perceive the sound - 20 Hz at 92 dB(G), the volume at which the synthesised noise was played, would annoy anyone.

It's a stretch, to put it mildly, to conclude that wind turbines are warping the brain waves of technicians. You have to assume that technicians are basically working inside the nacelles of operational turbines, which is totally not allowed in Australia.

Then, you have to assume that the changes they recorded in brain waves correspond to actual physical impacts, which isn't established in the study. You also have to assume that there weren't any expectation factors causing their measurements - which you can't, because the design doesn't control for confounders. This study shows that people listening to a synthesised tone can become slightly less relaxed - it doesn't show that there's a plague of sickness sweeping across Australia's wind industry.

Abbasi et al 

This paper showed up on the Waubra Foundation website yesterday. The Japanese study isn't great, but this study is....really not very good at all. According to a contact in the acoustic science world, it was submitted to at least one other journal and rejected. From the first sentence, it certainly reads like it:

"Noise from wind turbines is one of the most important factors affecting the health, welfare, and human sleep"

No it isn't. Transportation noise is, by and large, the major cause of sleep loss, and where wind turbine noise isn't regulated properly, it affects people living extremely close to the turbines, not workers on site.

The last sentence in the introduction very strangely assumes that any exposure to low-frequency noise is harmful - without providing evidence for this assumption:

"Therefore, this study was done in order to investigate the impact of wind turbine noise on sleep disorder of workers who are exposed to the harmful effects of low frequency sound of turbines"

The author finds that the 53 participants have a significantly higher level of sleep disturbance than a, hang on. There's no control group. What Abbasi actually does here is take three groups of employees: mechanics, security and 'official', who he assumes work at differing distances for turbines  and....compares them to each other, rather than to a control group:

"Because of the difference in sound exposure in different occupational groups. The effect of noise in repairing group was about 6.5 times of official group and also 3.4 times of the security group. Sleep disorder effect caused by wind turbine noise in the security group is almost two times more than the official group"

The author also says, of the Epworth scale they're using to measure sleep impacts, that "A number in the range of 10–24 is recognized abnormal (high sleepiness)" - but, in the results table, there are no averages higher than 10.5, and seemingly, most staff seem to be under 10:

All this paper has done is established that people working in different professions have different sleep quality levels. A friend of mine points out too, that the author says sleep disorder decreases by 26% for every 1dB decrease in noise levels - if Lloyd accepts this, then it means residents near wind farms should have no problems whatsoever - I suspect Lloyd doesn't believe that.

In the discussion, the author theorises why the measured levels of sleep disorder aren't that high:

"Despite the close proximity of the staff to the wind turbine noise, the level of sleep disorder in workers of Manjil Wind Farm is less than that of reported by other studies on inhabitants nearby wind farms. This may be due to more knowledge, strength, and consistency of the workers compared to the ordinary people. Furthermore, workers may abstain from telling the truth of their sleep disorders due to the fear of punishment by their superiors and managers"

This is generally the type of stuff a good study controls for, rather than explaining post-hoc. It's followed by the author commenting that the mere sight of wind turbines are responsible for sleep disorders:

"In this study, the visibility effects of turbines are known as an obtrusive factor in increasing the rate of sleep disorder among the workers in the repairing and security groups working outdoors"

So, the author found that different occupations have differing levels of sleep disorder, and links these to the '8-h equivalent sound level'. So, the author concludes with

"So despite all the good benefits of wind turbines, it can be stated that this technology has health risks for all those exposed to its sound. However, further research is needed to confirm the results of this study"

For this study to make any sense, the workers sleep next to wind turbines, the security guards sleep at the perimeter fence, and the office workers sleep in their office. This is an unlikely set up.

Why is wind farm noise affecting the sleep of people who work, but don't sleep, at the wind farm? Why wasn't there a control group? The measure of sleep impacts looks at 'daytime sleepiness' - so is the author saying the wind turbines are making them sleepy, or that the wind turbines somehow cause sleep loss later on, like some sort of weird latent magic? And how does looking at wind turbines cause sleep loss?

Finally, the journal it's published in, Fluctuation and Noise Letters, has an impact factor of 0.77. Impact Factor isn't always a great way of measuring a journal's reliability, but this is particularly low, which might go some way to explaining why the study was accepted. 

Australian wind farm workers 

A recent Bureau of Statistics release showed that wind industry employment peaked at 2,690 in 2013-14. This was in the Hamilton Spectator on the 13th of April, 2013:

"AGL's wind energy operations manager Brendan Ryan said absenteeism due to ill health had been very low. "Site morale is high and engaged, with total hours worked since June 2012 being 36171 hours. Sick hours during this period is 136 hours - which is less than half of one per cent"

If you actually talk to wind farm workers, they're pretty happy with their lot. This is Phil Lewis at the Capital Wind Farm:

"“Servicing of the turbines is ongoing as the 90 turbines are serviced at six month intervals. Although the wind chill in winter can be a bit challenging when you’re up that high. It’s a great crew and we have a good laugh. We’ve got people who used to work as a butcher, fitters, mechanics, a shearer, and electricians.” Phil said he hadn’t experienced any ill health effects from working on a wind farm. “When you look at countries like Japan our options could be a whole lot worse – we could have a nuclear plant in our backyard""

Andrew McDade, also at Capital:

“I suffer no ill effects from being in and around the turbines, and sleep very well at night after a hard day’s work. My life has changed for the better. All in all it’s a great environment to work in and I’m so happy to have found this job.”

I know, anecdotes aren't evidence. But, of the thousands of workers who've worked with wind power over the years, none have complained of health impacts from wind energy. There are plenty of happy workers. It's hard to take Lloyd's claims seriously.


The anti-wind farm movement tends to focus heavily on single papers, rather than the glacial shift of a body of scientific research. This is like a political pundit that clings profoundly to polls at the upper end of a larger trend that's shifting downwards.

It's also neatly analogous to people thinking cold winter days mean global warming isn't happening:

Unfortunately, for those who adopt this attitude to science, meta-analyses often paint a very different picture. These judge each study for scientific veracity, and then examine the available evidence as a whole. Each of these meta-analyes has consistently come up negative, the most recent being a study from the Council of Academies in Canada:

"For all other health effects considered (fatigue, tinnitus, vertigo, nausea, dizziness, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, etc.), the evidence was inadequate to come to any conclusion about the presence or absence of a causal relationship with exposure to wind turbine noise"
This is why an anti-vaccination campaigner can cite a research published in the British Medical Journal - peer review isn't perfect, and the few papers that slip through the cracks are enough to serve as confirmation:

Mountain View

It's relatively unsurprising these meta-analyses don't feature heavily in Lloyd's article. The pattern will probably continue - it's easier to sustain improbable beliefs when you narrow your field of view. 

Wednesday 27 May 2015

A follow up - Are German doctors trying to ban wind turbines?

As a follow up to this post, I've received a response from the German Medical Association - a group that The Australian claims were moving to ban wind turbines in Germany. As I described, they weren't, but I thought I'd check.

You can read my original email here, and I've pasted the full response below, with the permission of the author:

"Thank you for your interest in the debates of the German Medical Assembly. We have taken notice of the interest in the motion regarding wind energy. However, there seems to be a degree of confusion that may be caused by a lack of understanding of the role of the Assembly and also a lack of accuracy in processing the received information.  
First and foremost: the German Medical Assembly has not moved to ban wind turbines in Germany, but asked for further research in possible side effects of wind turbines. Only in one sentence does the motion call for a moratorium to stop erecting wind turbines in the vicinity of residential areas until said research has been undertaken. 
Allow me to answer your questions:  
- the motion was forwarded to the board for further action, i.e. no support for the actual motion was required. The move to forward the motion to the board of the German Medical Association, however, had the support of Assembly. It is difficult to imagine how the author of the article would know whether the motion was passed unanimously as there are no written minutes of the German Medical Assembly, hence there are no details around the debate available.    
- Currently there is no timeframe but the board will decide how to proceed with the motion in June.  
- The motion was not raised by Bernd Lucke the politician but by Bernd Lücke (please see the different spelling in German u/ü)"

My original suspicion, that the leader of the German 'alternative' party may have raised the submission, was wrong - as the GMA points out, the spelling is different. But, as I suspected, there hasn't been any collective move to halt the construction of wind energy in Germany by 'doctors' - a motion raised by an individual was referred to the board for further deliberation.

Craig Morris, from the magazine Renewables International, is skeptical too - he writes that:

"I will follow-up with another post when I have heard back from the organization, hopefully soon. It is worth noting that the resolutions also include an investigation into nuclear weapons submitted by eight doctors along with a resolution to investigate divestment from fossil fuels, submitted by three doctors. Only a single doctor is behind the call to look into the health effects of wind farms"

I assume that, if the board turns down the motion, we won't be hearing about it from The Australian.

Monday 25 May 2015

The asparagus wind turbine thing isn't a cure for community discontent

There's a new turbine model on the block, and it's making people dizzy (with excitement). It's made by a Spanish company called 'Vortex Bladeless', has designed a stalk-like generator that uses a kind of vibrating stalk and some magnets to create electricity from the kinetic energy stored in the wind. The first thing you see on their website is a video explaining that modern wind turbines are killing birds, they're noisy, wasteful and expensive:

Turbine Gif

Media outlets that should know better happily accepted the 3-bladed shopping list of horrors gleefully propagated by Vortex Bladeless. Science Alert even created a new hashtag for the occasion.
'I fucking love science' was keen enough to include some healthy skepticism in their coverage, writing that "Vortex claims that their wind turbine can adapt to any wind speed with the assistance of the magnets in its core; however, the details on how this actually works are frustratingly hard to come by". CleanTechnica featured a 'reality check', alongside their other coverage:

"It doesn’t move through a swept area as wind turbine blades do with limited materials, so scaling to intercept more wind is a virtually linear progression of materials to swept area, unlike HAWTs. This means it has fundamental limits to scale, and while it might possibly beat a tiny wind turbine, it won’t scale to anything useful economically"

Normally, I'd support new technology and wish these entrepreneurs the very best. But instead of presenting data about their own technology, they immediately fill your screen with myths about wind turbines - the type of stuff we bat away from climate change deniers and anonymous lunatics.

It's frustratingly common. If their aim was to see the greatest reduction in carbon emissions, they'd let us 3-bladers go about our business. The technology's also seen as some sort of cure for community complaints about noise and visual impacts:
This is a really dangerous thought. It assumes the complaints that emerge from communities can be resolved by simply removing the stimulus. This ignores the very important fact that the complaints offered by communities are often proxies for larger issues: equity, fairness, control and place attachment. If you build a bank of solar panels, you can still encounter community objections - the factors are complex, and the shape and size of the machine has very little to do with community reactions.

Vortex Bladless begin their crowdfunding campaign in a few days. Perhaps they'll use Science Alert's hashtag. Regardless, their arguments are based not only factual errors, but a fundamental misunderstanding of how people and communities engage with new energy technologies.

This isn't the first time a new wind energy technology has sought to benefit from the amplification of myths about modern wind turbines. Some previous examples:


This weird little plate thing managed to score a TED talk, but never went anywhere after 2013. Their promotional video exaggerates the impact on avian life, and even goes so far as to cite 'wind turbine syndrome' as a criticism of wind power:

The Windstalk 

"Many residents near proposed wind farm sites have raised concerns over the aesthetics and the low frequency vibrations they claim are generated by wind turbines. An interesting Windstalk concept devised by New York design firm Atelier DNA could overcome both these problems while still allowing a comparable amount of electricity to be generated by the wind"

So wrote Gizmag, inspired presumably by copy in the Wind Stalk's press package. It's quite similar to the Vortex Asparagus turbine, but this came about in 2010, and quickly went nowhere. I like that this design tried hard to combine aesthetic beauty with conventional generation, but do we really need to always frame new technology in the mythic impacts of previous ones?

Catching Wind 

This company takes an unsubtle and aggressive dig at conventional wind energy, in a promotional video for an experimental design. They even feature a youtube video of an exploding conventional turbine on their website:

Invelox Sheerwind

This odd-looking device makes some relatively tall claims - namely that the device produces six times more power than 3-blade models. Aside from the fact they've not demonstrated that at all, the video states"

"What if wind power generation could take place safely on the ground, at modest wind speeds, safely in the middle of urban settings, close to people who need the power? Causing no harm to birds, creating no radar interference, and without affecting human health?"

Great, thanks guys. Keep up the great work.

The Wind Tree

Aside from the asparagus thing, this was the most recent, and it really caused a stir. The headlines could've been taken from any rabid anti-wind farm blog:

Translate their site to English, and you get the same idea - "The silence of operation vertical axis cancels noise pollution of traditional wind turbines"


There are many more examples, each more frustrating than the last. Innovation should never grow stagnant. Why boost new technologies using the myths that scupper readily deployable, effective and efficient machines? It hasn't worked for any of the previous models; it won't work for 'Vortex Bladeless', either.

Update - 2015-05-27 - Vortex Bladeless responded to me, on Twitter. Something about time.

Sunday 24 May 2015

No, Graham Lloyd - German doctors haven't banned wind turbines

Update 27/05/2015 - See my follow up, here

In a news article published today, Senator David Leyonhjelm, one Australia's most vociferous libertarians, declares he's keen to create an entirely new government agency dedicated to curbing the impacts of 'wind turbine syndrome':

"Indeed, many health experts and environmentalists have long dismissed turbine-related health concerns as a myth. 
But Senator Leyonhjelm has seized on reports that the German Medical Assembly wants a halt on further wind farm developments near housing pending more research into the possible health impacts"

Unsurprisingly, the German Medical assembly hasn't actually signified they 'want a halt' on further wind turbine development. The story was published last week in an article in The Australian, by its in-house 'wind turbine syndrome' expert, Graham Lloyd:

"The Medical Assembly motion said this required “scientifically sound findings of potential health effects, and a deliberate balance between benefit and validity to be able to make conscious weightings between the benefits and of the disadvantages and risks”"

Since Lloyd's publication, the story followed the trajectory of every single myth of its kind: endless repetition, for the purposes of being decontextualised and repeated to convince communities they ought to feel fear and anxiety around wind turbines.

It's nearly seven years since this disease was first created by a couple living near a proposed wind farm in Malone, New York. Since then, there's been no scientific evidence to suggest that the theory was correct. It's been in 'we're on the cusp of finding the smoking gun' mode for seven years, and it probably will be for another seven. This is why the slightest suggestion that researchers are curious to know more is touted as absolute proof that those living near wind turbines ought to be be scared and anxious.

The German Medical Assembly is the annual meeting of the German Medical Association. It's an authoritative group, but Lloyd interestingly neglects to mention who raised the research throughout his piece - an interesting omission.

You can read the full set of notes from the meeting here, but the interesting part is page 356,  "Intensivierung der Forschung zu möglichen gesundheitlichen Auswirkungen bei  Betrieb und Ausbau von Windenergieanlagen", or roughly translated, "Stepping up research into possible health effects at operation and expansion of wind turbines". The language in the proposal seems curiously strong - presuming that wind turbines are harmful and demanding that science proves a negative.

What's played down by Lloyd and seemingly ignored by Leyonhjelm is the fact that this isn't a 'decision' at all - it was debated, and simply transferred to the executive board for a decision. Nor was this initiated by 'doctors' - the motion was moved by Dr. Bernd Lücke. Lloyd refers to the whole 'medical assembly' calling for a ban, despite the fact it was raised by a single individual, and simply referred to the executive board, rather than accepted.

The head of Germany's equivalent of UKIP, 'Alternative for Germany' or AfD, is an economist named Dr Bernd Lucke, who's deeply opposed to Germany's transition away from nuclear power, towards renewable energy. The Lucke of the AfD, says that:

Lucke: These [citizen's] initiatives [against wind farms] are there so that wind generators are not set up in natural parks or forests, and so that the distance between the wind generators and and residential areas are at least 10 times the maximum blade height. Those are sensible targets that merit support. 
NAEB: So you want to scale back the construction of wind power, solar power and biofuel power. This will lead to job losses. Can we afford that? 
Lucke: We have to look at the entire picture. By making the price of electricity more expensive, we are threatening to cause lots of job losses in the manufacturing sector. Because of the high costs of electricity, many companies are no longer working economically. 

Is it the same Lucke? Maybe not. There's at least one medical practitioner in Germany with the same name. But the motion reads too much like someone who opposes wind farms in general - particularly, the mention of the payback of embedded energy in turbines, a favourite of anti-wind groups. More pertinently, the AfD have spoken at length about the 'health risks' of wind turbines:

In the video above, an AfD representative calls for a halt on wind turbine development until health effects can be ruled out (when it comes to actual science, it's impossible to prove a negative, which is presumably why wind farm opponents love demanding it). My translation is a little rough, but it seems to be pretty much the same demand presented to the Germany Medical Assembly.

The question remains: was it the Bernd Lucke of the AfD that raised the motion reported on by Lloyd and snaffled up by Leyonhjelm? It's a possibility, assuming the Medical Assembly allows motions to be raised by people who aren't medical professionals. But it could be a coincidence.

Regardless, the motion wasn't accepted - it was simply passed up to the executive of the German Medical Association. Lloyd's article is still misleading, and Leyonhjelm is wrong.

But it's going to take more digging to establish which 'Bernd Lucke' was responsible for Lloyd's misleading story. I've emailed the international contact of the GMA - let's see what they say.

Monday 18 May 2015

The Oz's latest anti-wind report: funded by opponents; disproves anti-wind arguments

Oh yes, ladies and gentlemen - it's that time again. Graham Lloyd, environment editor at The Australian, has written a thing about how wind farms are the worst.

The thrust of Lloyd's article in the Weekend Australian is rehashed from a submission made to the senate wind farm 'inquisition' (Lloyd's chosen terminology) (no, seriously):

"Carbon dioxide emissions savings from wind turbines were 20 per cent less than claimed, leading to the overpayment of renewable energy certificates worth about $70 million last year, according to an inter­national analysis of Australia’s national electricity market. 
The study found wind farm inefficiencies were likely to grow as more turbines were added to the grid under the renewable ­energy target."

Oh, lord. A study. An international analysis. This sounds very sciency. Lloyd surprisingly declares the research was paid for by a group named the "Association for Research of Renewable Energy in Australia"

"ARREA is a not-for-profit ­organisation founded in 2013 by a group of senior businessmen including former liquidator, Tony Hodgson. ARREA spokesman Rodd Pahl said the group believed “the behaviour of wind farm companies and the level of subsidies they are given is the ­result of bad policy settings and sloppy administration”."

Pahl and Hodgson are, as you might expect, both opponents of a wind farm near their properties and are spokespeople for an anti-wind farm group 'Friends of Collector'. Also unsurprisingly, Lloyd doesn't consider their hatred of wind farms to be a relevant point.

"Opponents of the latest proposal at Cullerin, Friends of Collector, say wind farm developments are surrounded in secrecy. Spokesman Rodd Pahl said an inquiry into the failure to protect the health of NSW citizens was inevitable. 
Friends of Collector founder Tony Hodgson said wind farm proponents should not lodge environmental assessments until draft guidelines were put out, and sound acoustic testing was completed."

This wasn't exactly a mystery to Graham Lloyd, who literally wrote an entire article about Hodgson and Pahl's opposition to wind farms in 2011, but somehow neglected to mention this when talking about the 'Association for Research of Renewable Energy in Australia' in his article on Saturday.

More interestingly, you can buy an ASIC report on 'ARREA' (I paid $20 for it - I'll skip lunch for two days, don't worry). Pahl's PR firm 'Blugrass consulting' is quite prominent:

Pahl was 'Managing Director - Public Affairs Practice (Australia) for Burson-Marsteller 1992-2001'.  Buson Marstellar used to work on tobacco, 'crisis management' for Union Carbide's horrifying Bhopal disaster, a botched anti-google campaign on behalf of Facebook, and now do PR for Peabody Energy, trying to convince the world that coal is good for the developing world through a sleazy astroturf campaign replete with hundreds of thousands of fake Twitter accounts.

The ASIC report also reveals Mike Inster as another of the group Lloyd describes as 'senior businessman' behind the organisation. He's the head of an anti-wind farm group, the 'Booroowa District Landscape Guardians'. Again, not mentioned in Lloyd's article.

To the uninformed, the organisation sounds like it might be an independent research body. The logo on the website doesn't indicate that it's an anti-wind farm group, and Lloyd's refusal to fill in the history of Pahl and Hodgson's in his article, or mention Inkster's involvement, won't do anything to inform his readers.

That Lloyd considers it necessary to leave these things out is a pretty stark indicator: if you're trying to convince people that wind farms are terrible, you shouldn't declare it when your sources have vested interests.

The report contradicts the entire anti-windfarm lobby

The full report is on the website of Jospeh Wheatley, a physics graduate and businessman. The thrust of the argument is that wind power, when dispatched on to the National Electricity Market, doesn't always displace the dirtiest, highest-emissions generator.

This is true - the removal of the carbon price means coal is cheaper, so sometimes, wind power displaces gas. Nowhere in the RET legislation does it say 'wind power can only displace coal'.

Basically, this isn't a surprise to anyone who understands the basics of the electricity market; nor is it an 'inefficiency' - the government considers legislating against emissions a bad thing, so it's unsurprising that coal gets given priority to pollute, even when the wind is blowing.

Wheatley's report correctly points out that emissions reduction isn't a component in how generators are dispatched. We tried sneaking that in to a price signal for carbon-intensive polluters but...yeah. Nope. We axed the carbon price and emissions jumped up.

The weird part here is that this seems to be an admission that wind power does in fact reduce emissions. A chart in Wheatley's report demonstrates this awkward fact:

This is a pretty major problem for Australia's anti-windfarm groups. They've held the belief that wind farms are 100% ineffective for quite some time; having to admit that, to some degree, they crowd out carbon-intensive fuels, is horrifying to them.

In fact, wind farms opponents contend that emissions are increased in a system with lots of wind power:

So; which is it? Do wind farms increase emissions, make no difference to emissions, or decrease emissions in a way that we'd expect if carbon-intensive fuels didn't have pollution priced in to their usage?

They want to have all three arguments at once, but it's more embarrassing than they realise. They're stuck in an enclosed loop. It's not surprising they're weirdly content with this monumental state of constant contradiction.