Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Readers recall windmill noise over Boone

Some readers of Sunday's column on the possibility of building industrial wind turbines in the Western N.C. mountains reminded me of what happened a generation ago when an experimental windmill was erected in Watauga County on Howard’s Knob overlooking the town of Boone. That device made a racket that eventually led to its removal.

From a reader in Davidson:

You wrote a fine editorial in today's Sunday Charlotte Observer about windmills in the mountains, but left out one very important item.
You did not mention one word of the huge windmill that was built outside Boone on the mountain top back in the early 1970's. The few times that it worked, you could hear it go thump, thump, thump and you could feel the vibration in the ground when the blades turned. The people in Watauga County fought against the windmill, but it was built anyway and never achieved what it was supposed to do. After several years the huge windmill was dismantled.

And from a reader in the Western Piedmont:

Sure you remember this ill-conceived wind turbine, noted here in Time magazine piece of June 2, 1980:

"Shushing the swish-swish

"The world's largest windmill began operating last year in Boone, N.C. With blades that stretch 60 meters (200 ft.) from tip to tip and can generate 2,000 kw of electricity, it is also, it seems, the world's noisiest. Besides dominating the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains landscape—or despoiling it, as some of those living near by complain—the monster rattles windows, bounces cups and saucers and creates an irritating swish-swish.

"Surprised by this unexpected noise pollution from an experimental power plant that was supposed to be almost entirely free of environmental headaches, engineers from the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA flocked to Boone (pop. 8,754). Their findings: though the very low-frequency sound waves (about 2 cycles per sec.) from the windmill are below the usual range of human hearing, they can be amplified by wind and weather conditions and the terrain over which they are directed and thus become powerful enough to vibrate objects in the home.

"Muffling the wind machine may force a major retooling of the $6 million project, including a change of blades and electrical generators to allow for slower rotation. It may also require a reorientation of the basic design, so that future windmills face into the wind rather than away from it. Meanwhile, the Department of Energy has given Boone some temporary relief. Until some way can be found to hush the noisy blades, they will no longer be allowed to whirl at night, in the early morning or on weekends."

The reader went on:

During WWII my mother negotiated, entirely by mail and telephone, the lease of a summer house in the barren mesa northeast of Albuquerque. The owner was a professor at the University of New Mexico who was off to Spain on a sabatical. The property included a three-bedroom home and swimming pool enclosed by an adobe wall. Water was provided by a windmill. Upon arrival we found everything exactly as stated in the lease; what was not stated was that house did not have indoor plumbing and the windmill was soon revealed as grossly unproductive. It was a long, hot summer, albeit one that in later years we enjoyed recalling and often cited as a lesson in contracts.

I don't think I'd put a great deal of stock in wind turbines.


brandy said...

I work right next to the new windmill everyday in Boone, NC and guess what, it doesnt make a sound! I can walk out to my car everyday and not hear a thing! Alot has improved since the 70s!

John said...

"Their findings: though the very low-frequency sound waves (about 2 cycles per sec.) from the windmill are below the usual range of human hearing, they can be amplified by wind and weather conditions and the terrain over which they are directed and thus become powerful enough to vibrate objects in the home."

I wonder if anyone has thought about possible effects on local wildlife, which hear sounds outside the normal range of human hearing?

Michelle said...

The new windmill here in Boone is much smaller to say the least, than the one we saw in 1979. It is very attractive in my opinion!

A fun history tidbit: a group of windpower proponents gathered 'round the base of the 1979 windmill, called themselves "Whooshies" and chanted "whoosh!" every time the blade swept near the ground. It was a fun way to make the best of a controversial situation.

The new windmill is David compared to that Goliath. Its power may surprise us.

John said...

OK, then let's put these babies on the beach at Martha's Vineyard, Monterray, Big Sur and everywhere else that all those well-heeled eco-liberals like to call home. Beaches have great wind fields too. Hey, better yet, let's put one in Barbara Streisand's back yard... there's a heck of a lot of wind energy anywhere she goes! ;-)

John said...

I wonder how many windmills it would take, and how many acres of land... to replace just one power plant? I also wonder what effect that many windmills might have on wind patterns?

Make no mistake... no interface between man and nature leaves nature unchanged. We know that already. Windmills on such a scale would have to impact overall wind patterns and some theorize might actually create tornadoes!

There is no such thing as a free lunch, and I suspect, no such thing as free energy either.

John said...

"But a team of researchers from the University of Maryland have found that large-scale use of wind turbines as a power source may have an impact on our environment directly opposite that which they purport to minimize: Climate change."

Luke said...

You like to cite noisy wind technology from the 70s which is akin to citing vehicle noise from the 70s a an argument against today's cars. Try harder...

John, compare the ecological impact of a strip mine with that of a wind mill or even a large scale wind farm. Western North Carolina gets the vast majority of it's power from coal and as a result has become the ash tray of TVA. Yes, people have thought about the possible ecological impact or lack there of.

Ann said...

The two windmills were not compared. Excellent article!

brandy said...

Ann obviously didnt read his first article

Brad said...

There are some major oversights to the original article that should be addressed. The first would be the negative properties that wind turbines would have on the mountain vistas. I find this an interesting argument against wind power when coal burning plants, and other fossil fuels have done much more damage to our local views then anything else. I implore you to come to the Parkway near Grandfather Mountain and look at the Charlotte skyline. This used to be an easy task. Now it is the rare day when you can see the mere 90 miles. Visibility has decreased dramatically over the last several decades. There are numerous studies on this, and they are not theories. We get air pollution from coal burning power plants funneled through the Ohio Valley constantly. When you can't see Charlotte you can see a layer of smog over the entire area. This of course being the result of the burning of fossil fuels. If people don't think this is a problem try going for a run when it is a red level day. Wind power does not have these effects.

Secondly, why have you not mentioned the negative environmental impact of the coal burning plants? We will ignore the billions of gallons of waste that recently breached a containment pond, because that was an accident. Have you seen a coal mine? Have you seen a wind turbine? Erect a scale that can measure the differences between the two. The renewable argument against coal fits in this as well. Coal is not. It is a dangerous trap to be in when you depend on something that will eventually not be there.

I realize that there are negatives involving wind power. Damage to bird population being the one that is cited the most often. The newer vertical wind turbines hardly have any kill count compered to the horizontal ones. How many birds perish from the result of habitat loss and air pollution directly linked to coal power? If there are any naysayers on the topic of air pollution in the area go to any high peak in the mountains and you will see tree loss due to acid rain.

I understand that your original article was not about the environmental impact of coal burning plants, but it should have been. Do not try to make excuses and condemn a source of power because of what you think it will take away. Think about what we will gain in the long run. I do not blame you for the state of power production in our country, but I do blame your generation. It was the rapid expansion of power grids, the unwillingness to conserve energy and the ability to have the foresight to seek out cleaner and safer technology that has landed us in this situation. We now have the technology to create energy that is renewable, that is clean, and that is much friendlier to the environment then what we have had in the past. Please do not stymie progress in order to save what you believe to be the magnificence of the mountains. If we do not change the way we operate it will be lost.

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