Cut Noise

Climate Uber Alles?

 

Climate change has shot to near the top of the political agenda in many countries. Extinction Rebellion is on the march. School children are skipping school to protest. Politicians and businesses are under pressure to act. However, there is a danger of a rush to adopt solutions that work for the climate but create problems elsewhere.

Some of the technological solutions being brought forward to deal with climate emissions might make the noise climate worse.

Wind turbines are the most obvious example. But solar is also not silent. Nuclear, the silent option, has an important role to play but is often looked at with suspicion by many green campaigners.

Read our Case for a Noise Audit of all energy sources: http://www.ukna.org.uk/case-notes--reports.html

The next few blogs look at how the noise climate could be made worse in the rush to develop energy to try and deal with climate change. And what the solutions to this may be:

Blog 1. Whisper it, nuclear could provide a silent solution

Blog 2. The answer is (not always) blowing in the wind

Blog 3. So how quiet is solar?

Blog 4. The heat pump revolution...that sends shivers down the spine

Blog 5. Heat pumps will be noiser & less effective than gas boilers

Blog 6. Why do greens back the noisest energy source? 

A number of these blogs are also in the relevant drop-down pages in this energy section

Whisper it, nuclear could provide a silent solution….

 

Nuclear may be back on the agenda. Mini nuclear reactors could be generating power in the UK by the end of the decade. Rolls-Royce has plans to install and operate factory-built power stations by 2029. Mini nuclear stations can be mass manufactured and assembled relatively easily, making costs more predictable. The nuclear industry is confident mini-reactors can compete on price with low-cost renewables. Rolls Royce plans to build up 15 stations in the UK, each a 16th of the size of a major power station such as Hinckley Point.

From a noise perspective it is preferable to solar, fracking and, particularly, onshore wind. Countries such as France or Sweden showed long before climate change was on the agenda that the quiet alternative, nuclear, has the potential to be the catalyst for delivering sustainable energy transitions. It should not be our only source of energy but, if governments are to avoid the noise problems and ill-health associated with some of the alternatives, they should choose the nuclear option.

'the silent giant of today’s energy system – runs quietly in the background, capable of delivering immense amounts of power'

Small reactors: the future:   There have been concerns around cost and safety of nuclear. But much is being done to address these. Although some of the large reactors are still being built across the world, the future is probably in small reactors. A small modular reactor (SMR) is defined as nuclear reactors generally 300MWe equivalent or less.

The nuclear industry expects that there could be 96 SMRs installed across the world by 2030. They will be much more affordable to low-income countries. And costs are likely to fall further as more are installed due to economies of scale. Because of their small size and modularity, SMRs could almost be completely built in a controlled factory setting and installed module by module, improving the level of construction quality and efficiency.

They also will be safer to operate and more secure. They give the potential for sub-grade (underground or underwater) location, thuroviding more protection from natural (e.g. seismic or tsunami) or man-made (e.g. aircraft impact) hazards.

A lot of the research and development has been private sector led but, if governments are to give energy subsidies, should it not be to the silent nuclear plants rather than noisy wind turbines?

The answer is (not always) blowing in the wind…..

 

Wind turbines create noise problems. It is a fact which should never have been in dispute. It only ever was because a rapacious wind power industry, often buoyed by generous subsidies, claimed there was no problem. There is no point mincing our words. It was a lie.

The World Health Organisation in its latest report (1) has shown quite convincingly that wind turbines cause noise problems. In fact people start to get annoyed at lower levels by wind turbine noise than by any other noise - see chart which follows this blog. This is almost certainly down to the high-level of low-frequency in wind turbine noise. 

As early as 2006 we wrote in Location, Location, Location (2) about the serious impact wind turbine noise was having on some people. The industry has reluctantly admitted there may be noise problems and is talking about mitigation measures or offering people money who live beside turbines. And some governments are now insisting that turbines can only be built within so many miles from the nearest residential property. Distance can deal with the noise but not always. Low-frequency noise can travel further and can penetrate buildings. In any noise audit of new energy sources wind turbines would come close to the bottom of the list.

Governments need to think whether onshore wind has a future.

In the immediate term all wind turbines which cause people problems should be demolished forthwith (with companies compensated if necessary) in to allow people who have been damaged by turbines to try and get their life back together again.

References: (1).http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/383921/noise-guidelines-eng.pdf?ua=1

(2). http://www.ukna.org.uk/uploads/4/1/4/5/41458009/wind_farm_report.pdf

World Heath Organisation shows people get highly annoyed at lower levels of wind turbine noise

So how quiet is solar?

 

Solar energy can be created in two basic ways: either in a solar farm or from solar panels on the roof of a property.

We consider the noise from solar farms first.

The noise comes from the invertors and the transformer. A key study (4) found that the average noise at 10ft from the inverter face ranged from 48 decibels to 72 decibels. At 150ft the study showed that typically the noise didn’t exceed background levels. Generally, there was a reduction of 6 decibels with a doubling of distance.This means that noise from solar farms is only heard close to the farm. It takes the form of a hum. The report explains: “The high frequency peaks produce the characteristic ‘ringing noise’ or high frequency buzz heard when one stands close to an operating inverter. The tonal sound was not, however, audible at distances of 50 to 150 feet beyond the boundary. All low-frequency sound from the inverters below 40 Hz is inaudible, at all distances”. The available evidence, therefore, suggests, as long as solar farms are not sited within a few hundred feet of a property noise should not be a problem.

What about noise from rooftop panels?

There is less unanimity than with noise from solar farms. What is agreed is that inverters will make a humming noise while converting energy. And that could create a noise nuisance in a person’s home. One resident said: “A solar system was installed in April. A few weeks later, we started noticing a hum noise inside the house. It is more noticeable inside the house (as opposed to outside). The loudness of the hum is approximately the same in each room, upstairs and downstairs, as well as in the garage”. That reaction may not be typical as solar panels have not generated the level of protest which noise from wind turbines have. What is clear, though, is that in rented properties where tenants have little control over the siting of inverters or in blocks of flats were the panels may belong to somebody else there could be problems.

References: (1). https://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/environmental-noise-in-europe/ (2). https://inrix.com/press-releases/scorecard-2018-uk/ (3).https://www.transportforqualityoflife.com/u/files/200131%20An%20Eco%20Levy%20for%20Driving_cut%20carbon%20and%20clean%20up%20toxic%20air.pdf (4). https://files.masscec.com/research/StudyAcousticEMFLevelsSolarPhotovoltaicProjects.pdf

The Heat Pump Revolution - that sends shivers down the spine

 

Fossil fuel heating systems will not be allowed in new homes in the UK from 2025. Heat pumps will come in. 

The UK Government has said that fossil fuel heating systems – oil and gas boilers – will be outlawed in new homes from 2025. Their main replacement is likely to be heat pumps. These are like air conditioners which pump out heat. And most of them are situated outside. There are significant noise concerns.

'we simply cannot risk installing heat pumps in properties until we are certain they will not cause noise problems'

Thomas Lefevre, the director of Etude, which was commissioned by the Greater London Authority to study heat pumps (1), said, “The noise coming out is not huge, but it is not negligible. People who say they will not introduce any noise risk at all are wrong.” A report by the European Heath Pump Association admitted that the fan noise is a key problem. Mike Stigwood, the director of the consultancy MAS Environmental told the journal Noise Bulletin (2) that the tonal and low-frequency noise from noise pumps would be a problem. Where they are located is also important but in flats the choice of location can be very limited indeed.

'those on lowest incomes living in multi-occupancy properties and flats who are likely to be worst hit'

There is an expectation that the technology might improve as the mass market justifies and stimulates investment in quieter pumps but we simply cannot risk installing heat pumps in properties until we are certain they will not cause noise problems. Otherwise their constant low-frequency noise will create untold misery. And those on lowest incomes living in multi-occupancy properties and flats who are likely to be worst hit.

We hope this is not unfair but there is an awful sense of the Government bending over backwards to satisfy climate concerns at the expense of the least well-off in society.

References:

(1). Low carbon heat: heat pumps in London

(2). Noise Bulletin, April 2019, has an excellent in-depth piece on heat pumps

Hear pumps will be noisier and less effective than gas boilers

This article by Emma Gatten was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 4/4/21. It can be found here: 

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/04/04/home-radiators-will-have-ten-degrees-cooler-britain-reach-net/

It provides a useful reality check on heat pumps which will be less efficient and noisy than the gas boilers they replace. The Government has said it wants hundreds of thousands of heat pumps to replace gas boilers

Radiators would have to run 10 degrees cooler under changes to homes needed for Britain to hit net zero, the public has been warned. The Government has said it wants 600,000 heat pumps replacing gas boilers every year by 2028 to help decarbonise the country’s home heating, which accounts for 10 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. But MPs and experts have warned that without a massive programme to address the UK’s draughty homes and scale up engineering skills, people could be left in the cold by the technology, which works by drawing in heat from the air or ground outside.

While gas boiler heating systems can pump 60C water into a home’s radiators, the Climate Change Committee, which advises the Government, assumes heat pumps will operate at 50C. To keep homes warm, that may require bigger radiators, underfloor heating and improved insulation, with full modifications estimated to cost on average £18,000.

The costs of an energy efficient house are high. Homeowners will currently have to cover the costs themselves as the government scrapped its grants scheme after just six months. Heat pumps can reach high temperatures, but become inefficient and expensive to run, though a regular hot cycle is necessary to kill legionella, which can lead to Legionnaires Disease.

Darren Jones MP, the chair of the Commons business and energy committee, said: “It’s not the same as gas. You can’t just knock up the dial on your wall a little bit and suddenly it gets a bit warmer”. The UK is nearly halfway to meeting its target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, but the transition has so far been achieved largely by phasing out coal-fired power plants and boosting the offshore wind industry.

 The Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) established a behaviour change unit last year to tackle how the Government will persuade people to make the necessary transition. Home heating is considered one of the biggest hurdles, because of the level of investment and intrusion required to change it. “It is a problem to persuade people that they can’t necessarily rely on a system which will transform the warmth of the room that they’re in, in a matter of minutes,” said Philip Dunne MP, chair of the environment committee. “And that does require education. And it’s difficult to do with people who are not committed to the environmental cause. They’re just concerned that they’re cold.”

It’s not just heat pumps that mean homeowners might need to make costly adjustments to their homes. The Government wants the majority of homes to be EPC C by 2035, and 2030 in the private sector. That means retrofitting measures in the two-thirds of homes that are currently EPC D or below. Measures might include double or triple glazing, solid or cavity wall insulation and underfloor heating. Energy efficiency could be linked to lower mortgage rates, or higher loans to cover improvement measures.

However, the Government has scrapped its flagship £1.5bn Green Homes Grant scheme, which gave homeowners up to £5,000, or £10,000 for low-income households, toward the cost of insulation and installing low-carbon heating, after just six months. 

The government wants heat pumps to replace gas boilers, but they are bigger, noisier and other changes to homes are needed to ensure they don’t leave inhabitants cold.

Experts say heat pumps can warm homes to a comfortable level, provided the right system is installed, and can bring benefits by reducing the flow of indoor air pollution by maintaining a low level of heat. “[A heat pump] is a low temperature heat system. It’s an advantage, but can be seen as a disadvantage,” said Nathan Gambling a consultant specialising in training heating engineers. “Ideally all our heat systems in our home should be low temperature, for a number of reasons. Low temperature is a healthier form of heating.” But he warned that heating engineers lack the expertise to ensure people have the right system installed when they make the swap.

And information for those wishing to go green in their homes can be hard to come by. “Right now if you want to switch to a low carbon heating, you’ve got to go on some kind of grand journey of discovery. You need to become a project manager or a building physicist,” said Mr Newey. “It’s quite an invasive process in your home,” said Darren Jones MP, the chair of the Commons business and energy committee . “And because the market is not fully mature yet the cost of installing is very high. You’re looking at 10 to 15k, plus invasive work in your home. “Government, energy suppliers – they’re not really talking to customers about this, or explaining that something significant is gonna have to change.”

Heat pumps are also a bigger and noisier option than a gas boiler, which could prove an issue when they’re installed on a large scale. “Architects historically haven’t given any sort of thought to the heating. We’re given a kitchen cupboard for your boiler. So that mindset is going to have to change,” said Mr Gambling. “We haven’t really got to that point in the uptake where we know whether that’s an intrusion on people’s comfort,” he added. “They’re not as noisy as some people think, but then again, noise is quite subjective.”

A hydrogen boiler is potentially a much less intrusive option compared to heat pumps, costing around the same as a gas boiler. But hydrogen is not yet ready for use in homes, and it’s unclear when it will be and on what scale. When it is, it’s likely to only be in certain areas, meaning investing in a hydrogen-ready boiler now could feel like a waste of money down the line. It is also going to require some retrofitting of pipes to make them safe to carry the hydrogen.

Accommodating electric cars will mean homeowners need a charger and will face increased energy bills. New petrol and diesel cars will be banned from sale from 2030, and the CCC wants 64 per cent of all cars on the road to be electric by 2032. Installing a charger at home can cost up to £1,000 to install, with Government grants covering up to £350. This is expected to fall to around £680 by 2040. Electricity bills will increase with daily charging (though still cheaper than fuel costs), making shopping around for the best tariff crucial. Many supply electricity at significantly cheaper off-peak prices which can be utilised if it has smart features.

Some can even be linked to the renewable energy supply in your home, such as solar panels, and can sell your excess electricity back to the grid. But with many deals available online, there is a potential for those without digital access to be left behind, warns Dhara Vyas, the head of future energy services at Citizens Advice. For those without off-street parking, trailing cables across pavements is technically illegal.

Trials are under way in Oxford to dig trenches to stretch the cables from your home to the roadside. A BEIS spokesperson said: “The UK has a strong track record in improving the energy performance of its homes, with 40 per cent now rated EPC band C – up from just 9 per cent in 2008. “We are committed to going further and faster, and are investing £9 billion in improving the energy efficiency of our buildings, while creating hundreds of thousands of skilled green jobs. “This includes funding for the first hydrogen powered houses, nearly £700 million for low carbon heating like heat pumps through the Renewable Heat Incentive, and more than £500m this year alone to improve the energy efficiency of 50,000 homes of those on low incomes across the UK.” 

Why do greens back the noisiest energy source?

 

Many greens back wind power yet shy away from nuclear, the quietest form of energy generation.  Of course the extraction of oil and gas is hugely noisy but, unlike so many wind turbines, takes place far, far from where people live. The World Health Organisation showed in its recent report that people start to get annoyed by wind turbine noise at lower levels than other sources of noise. This is because of the high content of low-frequency in the noise. And, due very often to the subsidies offered by Governments, far too many cowboys – and in Italy, the Mafia – have become involved in the wind power industry, with little regard to how closely they build turbines to people’s homes. Yet I have not seen the greens tear into this industry. Indeed, some leading members of green NGOs have gone to work for wind power companies.

I am being somewhat unfair in putting all environmentalists under the term ‘the greens’. Many conservationists, very much environmentalists, have led the fight against many wind farm proposals. And there are other environmentalists who want to tackle noise. But far too many climate change campaigners have been willing to overlook the dire noise impacts some of the turbines have had on people.

'too many climate campaigners overlook the dire noise impacts of wind turbines'

And yet many of the same climate activists are very wary of, or actively opposed to, nuclear power. Nuclear has been a controversial source of energy. There have been concerns around cost and safety. But modern technology is sorting the safety problems and the smaller plants now on the market will cost much less. Nuclear power has been described as “the silent giant of today’s energy system – it runs quietly in the background, capable of delivering immense amounts of power, regardless of weather or season.”

From a noise perspective it is preferable to onshore wind, solar or fracking. Countries such as France or Sweden showed long before climate change was on the agenda that the quiet alternative, nuclear, has the potential to be the catalyst for delivering sustainable energy transitions. Surely if you want to ‘Go Green’ your slogan should be ‘Go Nuclear’.

'I just don’t think noise is seen as a green issue by most environmentalists'

I just don’t think noise is seen as an environmental issue by most environmentalists.  I think noise does damage the planet. In my book Why Noise Matters I point to the evidence that underwater noise has doubled each decade during the past 50 years, posing a significant threat to whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife. Equally, the natural rhythms of the jungle are disappearing. Bernie Krauss, the eminent American acoustician who has recorded nature’s sounds for over 40 years, estimates in that time nearly a third of the ecosystems have become ‘aurally extinct.’ And still many greens don’t ‘get’ noise. It would be nice if that was to change. If it doesn’t, climate change campaigners can expect to meet growing opposition to any noisy plans they put forward.

John Stewart