(Wind Turbine Noise: Rumors, Gossip, Lies, and Stories)
Le bruit de l’éolien, rumeurs, cancans, mensonges et petites histoires is a lovely little book–56 pages—I’ve had on the shelf for some time with the intent of reviewing it for its insights on the nature of rumor-mongering and wind energy. I haven’t done so until now because it has become one of the rules of public discourse since Don’t Think of an Elephant by George Lakoff to never repeat a false charge simply to rebut it. Lakoff warns that it is the false charge that is remembered, not the rebuttal. However, the authors of Le bruit de l’éolien argue that in the case of the myths about wind energy it is necessary to do so.
Edited by Vincent Boulanger of Observ’ER in Paris, the book is an intriguing glimpse into the French anti-wind movement’s psyche. As such, it has lessons for Anglophones in North America, Britain, and the Southern Hemisphere on how a bit of fact can be twisted into a falsehood and quickly become myth, or the more modern term, urban legend. It was the French, for example, that gave the world the classic urban legend that wind turbines attract sharks. (They don’t.)
This is not an academic or technical book. It is intended to debunk urban legends surrounding wind energy in France. Nevertheless, the book opens by explaining the phenomenon of how legends develop before it moves on to debunk the various urban legends in France about wind energy. It closes with an essay on what is a rumor, how it begins, how it propagates, and how it lives on.
Based on the work of Véronique Campion-Vincent et Jean-Bruno Renard, French sociologists who have specialized in how rumors spread, it begins with an example a French legend supposedly from the Netherlands to show how rumors develop.
In this legend, after several years of operation the low-frequency noise from wind turbines in the Netherlands destroyed the tissue holding the intestines of not only animals but humans living within 5 kilometers of the turbines, leading to death. For this reason the Dutch were removing the wind turbines and putting them out to sea.
(For more on this, see De source sûre Nouvelles rumeurs d’aujourd’hui by Véronique Campion-Vincent et Jean-Bruno Renard, Éditions Payot, 2002. 394 p. 19,95 €.)
One key to identifying an urban legend, say the researchers, is the false precision. In this example, the claim is overly specific: low-frequency noise, 5 km distance from the turbines, the “tissues holding the intestines in place,” and so on.
Another identifier is that many of the claims should be relatively easy to verify, but are not. If the wind turbines in the Netherlands had been removed and instead sent offshore that should be easily seen by visitors to the country. (They haven’t.) Similarly, it would be easy to check whether low-frequency sound can liquefy one’s intestines. (It can’t.) Or, the number of dead from liquefied intestines should be easy to count. (There are none.)
Many other such claims about wind turbines are equally bizarre.
Unfortunately, politicians and journalists are not trained in seeing through or taking apart such rumors. It’s as if they have the attitude, “where there’s smoke, there must be fire,” that is, if enough people repeat the rumor, it must either be true or, even more damaging, “partly” true, therefore, they can act on it without further thought or inquiry.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, rumors or what we now call urban legends can be deadly. See Public Acceptance of the Potato and What it Tells Us about the Acceptance of Wind Energy. Even when rumors are more benign—no one has been killed by an anti-wind protester (though some, such as myself, have been threatened)—they can have profound anti-social consequences. If such unfounded rumors delay or prevent the growth of wind energy, the planet and the people on it will be profoundly hurt by climate change and conflicts over fossil fuels.
Good propaganda, as the Nazis proved during the 1930s, is built around a core of fact or truth. This is what makes effective propaganda believable. And opponents of wind energy are adept at manipulating what may seem innocuous facts or observations, for example that wind turbines are big and spin in the wind, to some new, mysteriously dangerous phenomena.
Le bruit de l’éolien compares the urban legends surrounding wind turbines to the introduction of railroads to France in the 19th century. It was said at the time that the trains would hurt the health of the country’s cows. (It didn’t.) At the time France was a primarily rural country and anything that affected cows affected the farmers who depended upon them. A modern equivalent, says Le bruit de l’éolien, is all the ills that are attributed to high-voltage transmission towers. Today, we would add cell-phone towers or vaccinations as the sources of mysterious diseases not unlike those attributed to wind turbines.
Nevertheless, Le bruit de l’éolien warns that these rumors have a life of their own and, like polio, are very difficult to eradicate, requiring constant rebuttals. Le bruit de l’éolien acknowledges that this slight volume won’t stop or prevent such rumors from spreading, but it hopes it will at least offer a small counter current to combat such misinformation.
I won’t list all the topics covered in the book, only a few that are the most entertaining or those that haven’t received widespread publicity in the English-speaking world.
Effects on Humans
Les éoliennes rendent fou
Wind turbines will drive you crazy. (They don’t.)
Because the wind turbines spin, they can cast shadows (shadow flicker) or reflect light (disco effect). This will put those who watch the wind turbines into a trance and eventually drive them crazy (fou). This legend may have its basis on the mystery surrounding hypnosis.
A legend related to the effect of the spinning rotor has a particular resonance with the French since the revolution: decapitation. So it’s natural that anti-wind activists will associate wind turbines with Dr. Guillotine.
Effects on Animals
Les éoliennes entraînent la prolifération des moustiques
Wind turbines lead to a proliferation of mosquitoes. (They don’t.)
This rumor has its basis in the fact that wind turbines can and do kill some bats. Bats eat mosquitoes, therefore, more mosquitoes wherever wind turbines are located.
Les pales font tourner le lait des vaches
Wind turbines turn milk, that is, they sour the milk in cows. (They don’t.)
Le bruit de l’éolien isn’t sure where this idea came from, but the author relates it to the 19th century fear that the coming of the railroad would make cows sick. Suffice it to say France has both cows, modern trains. . . and fresh milk.
Les éoliennes font vêler les vaches
Wind turbines cause cows to abort. (They don’t.)
Probably from the fear of the mysterious “infrasound,” a rumor has spread that wind turbines cause cows to abort. After all, if “infrasound” can turn your intestines to mush they must surely cause cows to abort.
Les éoliennes font fuir le gibier
Wind turbines drive wildlife away. (They don’t.)
I investigated noise effects on wildlife early in my career, specifically the noise from highway traffic. Noise has little or no effect on wildlife, period.
However, hunting is often prohibited around wind turbines to primarily protect employees. This prohibition—or the threat of it—angers hunters and thus arises the claim that wind turbines will drive away wildlife.
Les éoliennes attirent les requins
Wind turbines attract sharks. (They don’t.)
This is one of the best I’ve heard—and the reason for taking the time to write this review—and I’ve heard a lot of outlandish claims.
There was a proposed wind farm for La Desirade, an island near Gaudeloupe in the French-ruled Caribbean. At a public meeting someone made this charge and sent fear racing through the audience. The charge and resulting fear led to a lengthy study of the land-based wind turbines’ possible effect on marine life. Despite the conclusion that they wouldn’t have any effect, many remained skeptical. After all, you can’t prove a negative.
Only later was it discovered how the rumor began. A hotel operator was looking to cash in on a new marina under development and he hoped to attract high-powered businessmen to the island—or in the vernacular “the sharks of finance”.
Effect on Humans
Les éoliennes font un boucan d’enfer
Wind turbines will create literally the din of hell. (They don’t.)
That is, wind turbines will roar like jet engines. Wind turbines are audible and the noise can be heard for some distance, but they surely don’t roar like jet engines. This is a classic example of taking a little bit of truth and stretching it out of all proportion to make an exaggerated claim.
Effect on Agriculture
Les cultures sont aplaties derrière les éoliennes par les turbulences
Wind turbines flatten crops downwind. (They don’t.)
Supposedly, the wind accelerates downwind from the turbines and, therefore, flattens crops. The opposite is true. The wind turbines extract some of the energy in the wind–that’s their job after all–and slow the wind down slightly.
Les vibrations font fuir les vers de terre
Vibrations from wind turbines will drive earthworms out of the ground. (They don’t.)
This is related to one of my all time favorite fables about wind energy. In Mojave, California, a dusty crossroads downwind from one of the world’s largest concentration of wind turbines in the world, a rumor was rampant in the early 1980s that vibrations from the wind turbines would drive rattlesnakes from their nesting places toward town, endangering everyone who lived there.
In three decades, the Sierra Club has led 28 hikes through the wind farms of the Tehachapi Pass and they’ve encountered one rattlesnake in all that time. Indeed, the town of Mojave still exists as do its residents. Both the rattlesnake and the human population seem to have remained in (uneasy) harmony.
I suspect this myth began with ineffective whirligigs sold in hardware stores ostensibly to drive away moles and gophers from destroying manicured lawns. If vibrations from small whirligigs are sold to drive away gophers, then certainly giant wind turbines would drive subterranean animals even farther from their dens.
La projection de leur ombre au sol diminue le rendement des cultures
The shadow from the wind turbines will reduce the yield of crops nearby. (They don’t.)
This is another in those seemingly logical series of causation that we are warned about in Logic 101. Wind turbines cause shadows. Shadows reduce crop yields. Therefore, wind turbines reduce crop yields. While the first two statements are true, the third is not necessarily true. In this case, the third statement is not true.
Les éoliennes assèchent les terrains
Wind turbines dry out the land. (They don’t.)
Le bruit de l’éolien suspects this myth began with a misunderstanding of how wind turbines work. Since wind turbines look like giant fans, they must blow the air across the ground, hence, drying out the surface.
Of course wind turbines are not fans, they are turned by the wind, and in doing so they slow the wind down slightly.
Effect on Climate
Les éoliennes provoquent une ionisation de l’air
Wind turbines ionize the air around them. (They don’t.)
This myth may be built on the idea that wind turbines are like those static electricity generators we played with in high school physics class or it could be from the fact that wind turbines generate electricity. In either case, the wind turbines produce negative ions and these cause anxiety among those who live downwind.
En Inde, les éoliennes ne sèment pas le vent, mais récoltent la tempête
In India, wind turbines do not sow the wind, but they reap the whirlwind (the monsoons). (They don’t.)
After three years of drought in the Indian state of Maharashtra, anti-wind energy activists made the observation that the onset of the drought began with the installation of a large number of wind turbines. Critics argued that the wind turbines chased away the life-giving rains of the monsoons.
While laughable, the movement became so powerful that it endangered the operation of 1,700 wind turbines in the state during the Monsoon season. Only when the government conducted a study that found—not surprisingly–that the wind turbines didn’t cause the drought was the tide turned.
I’ve often been confronted with a related fear that if we install too many wind turbines we will slow down the rotation of the earth—with untold consequences. (Sometimes all you can do is smile.) Wind turbines are like trees in this regard and the earth has done quite well in the past with most of the continents in forest.
L’éolien va nuire à ma production de foie gras
Wind turbines will destroy my production of foie gras (goose liver paté). (They won’t.)
Few things are more serious in France than a charge that something will affect wine or foie gras. Thus, it should be expected that opponents of wind energy would claim wind turbines will endanger geese, and, therefore, foie gras farmers would be exposing the animals in their charge to inhumane treatment, threatening them with the loss of their coveted—and highly valuable—Appelation.
Wind turbines won’t have any effect on the geese or the foie gras and, thus, won’t endanger the loss of an Appelation.
Some vineyards celebrate wind energy in their domaine by adding scenes of modern wind turbines on their wine labels. See Wine Labels Featuring Wind Turbines. I haven’t found any similar label for foie gras, but I suspect it’s just a matter of time.
The book closes with a chapter by Pascal Froissart, the author of La rumeur. Histoire et fantasmes on how to demystify the origin and spread of malicious rumors, and what to do about them.
While a slim volume, Le bruit de l’éolien offers a lot of food for thought for those on the front lines debunking one farfetched myth after another.
Le bruit de l’éolien, rumeurs, cancans, mensonges et petites histoires by Vincent Boulanger, ObservER, 2007, 56 pages, format 16 x 24, 16,00 €.