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.

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) 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. 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) 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 wind pumps

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. Even the admirable Mark Lynas, who in his book The God Species, who took a lot of abuse from many in the environmental movement when he agued that the way forward must include nuclear power, GM crops and geo-engineering, didn’t see noise as a ‘planetary’ issue, something deeply damaging to the planet, when I spoke to him.

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 the 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