Leading article: Wind power – a cautionary word

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:18

All new technologies carry risk. That is true of benign new technologies as well as the old industrial sort. This paper's report on the potential health hazards of wind turbines, generators of eco-friendly wind power, will be unwelcome for many environmentalists and indeed for the Government, which for entirely creditable reasons is committed to a great increase in their number. But a new book by a New York paediatrician, Dr Nina Pierpont, on which our report is based and which draws on international studies, ought not to be ignored.

This paper is in favour of wind turbines. But Dr Pierpont suggests that the vibrations and low-level subsonic noise that is emitted can cause a range of health problems, including sleep disorders, and may aggravate more serious underlying conditions. She attributes this to the fact that the human ear is far more sensitive to vibrations, not merely audible noise, than we have assumed. And the disruption to the ear's vestibular system – directly linked to our sense of balance – caused by vibrations and low-level noise from turbines is a factor that the British Government has not, so far, taken into account in assessing whether to commission wind farms. For the sake of public reassurance, it should.

This newspaper believes that Ed Miliband, Secretary of State for Energy, ought to study these findings, as indeed should the Department for Health. And we do so as firm supporters of the principle that Britain must take its environmental responsibilities seriously, and as a supporter of Mr Miliband's radical White Paper on energy. It is not incompatible with support for green issues to suggest that the move towards renewable energy sources should take account of human health concerns. Indeed, the Government stands a far greater chance of winning public support for reducing carbon emissions if it shows it is receptive to new scientific findings. Public health issues and eco-sensitivity must not be mutually exclusive if people are to be won over to the larger project of changing our patterns of energy consumption.

We hope, therefore, that Mr Miliband will not simply dismiss Dr Pierpont's book, which will be published in October, simply as ammunition for what he describes as "socially unacceptable" opposition to wind power. Dr Pierpont's research was self-funded, and she is not personally opposed to wind turbines. Only last week, we saw the consequences of a cavalier attitude to health in the decommissioning of the steelworks at Corby, which resulted in some children conceived at the time being born with deformities. If the Government were to continue to commission and site wind farms without regard for these new scientific findings, ministers, or their successors, may be laying the taxpayer open to the possibility of large claims for compensation. More importantly, they may be exposing innocent members of the public, including children, to avoidable health problems.

The obvious recommendations that flow from the new research about the effects of wind turbines on a range of health issues – effects that also flow, to a lesser extent, from reflected light off the blades – are actually relatively modest. Foremost, there is an urgent need for credible official research into the health effects of the turbines. Then there is a prudential argument for postponing the commissioning of land-based wind farms until they are shown to be safe. At the very least, they should be treated like electricity pylons, and houses should not be built close by – the French government allows a radius of 1.5km for residential developments near wind turbines, while Dr Pierpont recommends a radius of 2km.

This approach may seem contrary to a vigorous commitment to greener energy, but it need not be. Additionally, wind power is just one of several good options. It may seem perverse just now, given the weather, to argue for solar energy, but the German government has made huge strides in the past decade in promoting the production and use of solar energy panels. It has set a useful example, which the White Paper seeks to emulate, in encouraging citizens to generate solar energy for sale to the national grid. Japan too, has embraced solar energy. There is also wave power, a potentially vast source of energy, which should be explored further.

In any event, Dr Pierpont has made an important contribution to a debate about wind turbines that should be conducted not between champions and opponents of renewable energy, but within the community of those who want this country to behave in an environmentally responsible way. That we can and should do.

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