Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Familiar Ring?

Does this have a familiar ring? A promising new technology is introduced with great fanfare about how it will solve all the problems of existing technologies. It will provide ample amounts of electric power. It is carbon- and pollution- free. We can get the costs down to reasonable levels. But…whoops, someone has identified some potential health risks. The emissions are below levels that are known to cause health effects, but people near these generators are suffering a variety of ailments.

Sounds like nuclear power plants, right? Wrong! This would be…wind! A recent article called “Are wind farms a health risk? US scientist identifies ‘wind turbine syndrome’” has hit the streets.

I was going to put this claim in the same category as claims of radiation effects from very low exposure levels, but I’m no expert on problems of the inner ear, so I’m not going to take a stand on this. Nor am I going to use it to wave over my head and say, “See, wind isn’t safe.” I profoundly believe that we need all energy-producing technologies. I was going to say that this is NWIMBYE (no wind in my backyard either). That may be an element, but if it is, it makes my concern about our energy future even more important.

The message of this article to me is yet another warning to be wary of claims of nirvana just around the corner from every new technology. People complain that nuclear was originally touted as being “too cheap to meter.” (That is not quite an accurate reading of history, but that is a story for another time. What is pertinent is that the public got the impression that was the case.) Going back still farther in time, people thought that automobiles were the answer to the…uh, pollution…from horses in the streets of cities. When there were just a few cars on the then unpaved roads of New York and Paris, no one worried about their emissions, their noise, traffic congestion, the migration of people from farms to cities, or the runoff from the paved streets that would have to be built. Going back yet further, people thought that petroleum would address the growing shortage of whale oil.

The message here is not to dismiss wind. It is to recognize that wind power will come with some cost, just as every technology does. Visceral vibratory vestibular disturbance (VVVD) may or may not turn out to be one of the costs, but whether or not it is, there are other concerns as well—bird kills, visual impact on scenic areas, effects on weather, etc. Just as there are concerns about carbon sequestration, solar collectors, hydroelectric dams, and every other form of energy. Even insulation and weather stripping has a downside, as it cuts down on air exchange and lets radon and toxic gases accumulate in buildings.

The message here is that the risks and costs need to be understood and addressed or managed. This is true of wind, it is true of nuclear power, and it is true of every other energy-producing technology. I’m convinced that the risks can be managed, but it will take an attitude shift on all sides.

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