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Flickering shadows from wind turbines draw complaints

KINGSTON — It starts in the late afternoon, Doreen Reilly says. Stripes of shadow whip across her living room, kitchen, and bedroom, a pulse of flashing light and dark that can continue more than an hour and makes Reilly want to lose her mind.

“You can’t stay in your room. You get a headache,” Reilly said Thursday. “You can’t live your life.”

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The pulse is a phenomenon known as “shadow flicker,” the strum of shadows and reflections cast by the whirling blades of wind turbines. In Reilly’s case, it’s caused by a towering turbine some 1,000 feet from her house in this South Shore town, but residents from Newburyport to Falmouth who live literally in the shadow of wind turbines are also complaining. Some have claimed impacts on health. In Falmouth, voters next week will vote whether to remove the clean energy generators.

Studies have shown no direct health effects, and wind power supporters downplay the phenomenon as a nuisance that typically lasts for just minutes — and one that is a small price to pay for environmental and economic benefits.

“It’s very brief,” said Ellen Carey, an American Wind Energy Association spokeswoman. “The reality is that it’s predictable, and can be mitigated.”

Resistance to wind turbines has generally focused on noise and visual impact of large towers. But for some who live with the strobe-like effect, other complaints become secondary.

“People’s experiences are proving the point,” said Eleanor Tillinghast of Wind Wise-Massachusetts, an alliance that opposes the placement of wind turbines in residential areas. “People are getting driven out of their homes.”

‘When the sun is either rising or setting behind the blades, it creates a strobe effect.’

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In Kingston, Reilly says some of her neighbors are moving away, but she has lived there for two decades and does not want to leave.

“We have put so much blood, sweat, and tears into this house,” she said, pointing to the garage and mudroom her husband, Sean, built. “I don’t think I should have to leave here after 20 years. I was here first.”

Next door, Dan Alves calls the shadows thrown by the rotating blades a “nightmare” he deals with about 16 weeks a year when the sun sets behind the turbine.

“It’s an invasion of my property,” he said from the deck outside his back door. Alves said he particularly worries about his son, a ninth-grader who was diagnosed with epilepsy as a young child. He has not had any seizures for years, but Alves worries the pulses could bring them back.

“I don’t care if it’s a one-in-one-million chance,” Alves said. “That’s too much for me.”

Research has shown that modern turbines rotate far too slowly to cause seizures.

But Tillinghast said some residents complain of dizziness, and that even homes a couple of miles from a turbine can be affected.

“When the sun is either rising or setting behind the blades, it creates a strobe effect,” she said. “It tends to be more prominent when the sun is lower on the horizon.”

Kingston residents have demanded that town officials shut down the turbines, and have been angered by their refusal. At the request of town officials, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center recently agreed to examine the issue.

Catherine Williams, a spokeswoman for the center, said a study will seek to determine when residents are affected, and said the turbine could be programmed to shut off during those times.

“It’s easy to mitigate against,” she said.

On its website, the center describes excessive shadow flicker as “harmless” but says it may be considered a nuisance.

“Projects should ensure that shadow flicker impacts are minimized,” it states. The center requires an evaluation of shadow flicker when it funds a project.

Thomas Bott, the town planner in Kingston, said the flickers have no “identifiable health effects,” and that residents did not raise concerns about the turbines until they were built.

Reilly said she knew a turbine might be built, but assumed it would be smaller and farther away than it is.

“I’m all for clean energy,” she said. “I have three children. But not in a residential area; an industrial, offshore turbine.”

David Filipov can be reached at dfilipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov. Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.
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