Residents in the town of Falmouth say that a nearly 400-foot wind turbine has severely impacted their quality of life. They talk about noise issues, ringing in their ears and changes in pressure when they are outside. But sound isn’t the only thing generating discontent. As Sean Corcoran reports in the third part of our series, The Falmouth Experience: The Trouble with One Town’s Turbine, there also are complaints about a phenomenon called ‘shadow flicker’.
FALMOUTH, Mass. — It’s just after 8 in the morning, and as a light show begins in the kitchen, Malcolm Donald goes over to his computer and fiddles with its music player.
“Well, is it time to put on Dancing Queen?” he asks. “You have to do something to make it a little more tolerable, and I’ve been putting on a little disco music.”
See for yourself
These videos of flickering shadows were taken by Malcolm Donald at his West Falmouth home.
What just a few minutes ago was a well-lit kitchen now is filled with flashing light. The reason stands some 1,900 feet away in the form of a 400-foot wind turbine at the town’s waste water treatment plant called Wind One. Some neighbors allege the noise from the turbine is making them sick. Donald feels fine. But what he does have is this “shadow flicker,” which creates a strobe light effect on the neighborhood as the sun rises behind the moving blades.
“I don’t know why we should have to be exposed to this. Somebody’s put up a machine, we lived here 20 years, and now all of a sudden we have flashing lights in the morning,” said Donald.
The intense flashing can make reading, watching television and even having a conversation a challenge. A good analogy might be to imagine trying to read a book in a moving car as the sun flashes through the trees. Donald says that this time of year the flashing continues for about 30 minutes. Two years ago, that wouldn’t have been too much of a problem. But last year Donald and his wife installed a half-dozen new windows in the rear of the house in an effort to eat breakfast with the sunlight.
“We’ve just done major renovations, taken out some walls so we can live here and enjoy the sunshine. And now the sunshine is flashing at us,” Donald said.
Opponents of wind turbines typically give a wide range of reasons for opposing it. There’s talk about alleged human and animal health effects, questions about connecting to the electricity grid, and concerns about cost, industrial accidents, property values and general noise. David McGlinchey of the non-partisan Manomet Center for Conservation Studies in Plymouth says shadow flicker often is another source of concern, but more of an annoyance.
“As far as we know, there are no health affects related to flicker. On the other hand, if that’s your house and it’s occurring when you want to eat breakfast, it’s an impact. It’s a nuisance,” explains McGlinchey.
In recent wind debates on Cape Cod, there’s been confusion about shadow flicker. Some speakers have said it can cause health effects. And it’s not uncommon to hear claims that the flashing light can cause epileptic seizures. Heather Goldstone says that’s unlikely to be a problem in Falmouth.
“I’ve seen two studies that directly address whether shadow flicker from wind turbines can cause seizures and they both conclude that the only risk comes from small turbines that turn quickly enough to cause shadows to flicker at least three times per second. At their fastest, the blades on Falmouth’s Wind 1 interrupt the sunlight once every second and a half. It’s just not fast enough to be a risk,” Goldstone said.
The primary reason Malcolm Donald opposes Falmouth’s wind turbines is because his neighbors say sound from Wind One is making them sick. But even flicker, he says, is reason enough to stop wind projects near neighborhoods. To his aggravation, when he makes such a suggestion, the reaction he often gets from wind advocates is skepticism and indifference.
“‘You know, ‘Get over it. You’ll get used to it.’ It’s maddening. A certain small segment of the population shouldn’t have to sacrifice for the good of the entire community,” Donald argues.
Unlike noise complaints, the source and scope of which are highly debated, shadow flicker is an impact turbine developers say can be predicted by computer modeling, and often avoided or at least mitigated. But so far, Donald says he’s received little comfort from being advised to cover his windows, grow more trees in his yard and to keep his lights on in order to reduce the flicker.