This blog entry is one in a series from the Southern Wind Energy Association, attending and live blogging at the American Wind Energy Association’s 2016 WINDPOWER Conference and Expo in New Orleans.
Wind energy is wildly popular. Opinion polls show that public support for wind energy is astronomical: frequently between 70-90% of those polled support increasing the use of wind energy. Some people even go out of their way to visit wind turbines as part of “turbine tourism.”
But a small group of vocal anti-wind energy activists work day and night to assert that wind energy is unsafe. They share blogs and homemade movies online of occasions of wind turbine accidents and in some cases, photoshopped wind turbine destruction. While real risks go ignored on social media, anti-wind energy activists mistakenly portray wind turbines as more dangerous than in reality. How is the average person meant to separate fact from fiction?
Wind Turbines can Reduce Overall Risk
Unlike some other risks, wind turbines can actually reduce overall risk. By being relatively low-risk development, new land lease payments and taxes from wind farms can go towards reducing other high-risk activities. Wind turbines are frequently placed on agricultural land. Farming is one of the most hazardous industries in the country, with hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries every year. If landowners use wind turbine land lease payments so they don’t have to farm as much, or if they invest in farm safety equipment (like Roll-Over Protective Structures on tractors), those landowners are likely to reduce their overall health and safety risks.
Communities that receive additional property taxes from wind farms (sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually) can invest in safer roads, better fire departments and equipment or community health centers. Dilapidated rural roads are 3x more dangerous than all other roads in the country. And the South has some of the highest rural road fatality rates in the country.
Aside from the local community risk reductions, wind energy can offset risks caused by the fossil fuel industries. Coal mining disasters, natural gas explosions and the associated air pollution from burning fossil fuels kills tens of thousands of people annually, destroys local landscapes and habitat and can negatively impact homeowner property values. Yet, in Alabama a coal mine can be as close as 300 feet from a residence. In North Carolina, a coal-fired power plant’s toxic coal-ash pond has been found within 550 feet of a home. In Oklahoma, you’re not allowed to build a house within 125 feet from an active natural gas or oil well; but, if your house already exists, no statewide setback exists.
Certainly some risk exists with wind turbines; however, the risk from wind farms appears to be less than being struck by lightning and certainly less dangerous than fossil fuels. Still, wind developers have a responsibility to ensure projects are built to meet or exceed safety standards and to benefit the local communities.