The health and safety of those living in proximity to industrial wind turbines are at risk due to a lack of objective, practicable siting standards.
Given the lucrative and enabling energy policies now in place to promote renewable generation across the U.S., local communities are under significant pressure to develop land use regulations aimed at protecting their residents from poorly siting industrial wind plants. Inevitably, such efforts invite difficult technical questions regarding turbine noise, shadow-flicker, decommissioning and a host of others related to building and operating industrial power plants.
The controversy surrounding wind energy development complicates the siting issue making it difficult to know what or who to believe when it comes to standards. A review of existing wind ordinances adopted in other communities is helpful but standards that might work in one area are not necessarily right for another given population densities, terrain, and other environmental considerations.
Working with no standards
Rules and regulations guiding the siting of wind energy projects essentially do not exist as James Luce, chairman of the Washington State Energy Facility Siting Council, made clear in the Council's October 2011 order recommending conditional approval of the Whistling Ridge wind plant.
In the order, Luce wrote:
The Council is challenged by the fact that it has no rules for siting renewable resources. ...For guidance, we look to our previous decisions, organic statutes and regulations developed primarily for thermal projects. And we use our best judgment to "balance" competing considerations. ...Absent rules, the Council proceeds on a case-by case basis and our decisions inevitable leave room for questioning whether the correct result was reached.
A lack of guidelines does not mean a lack of evidence. But guaranteeing the evidence is taken seriously by review boards is another matter.
Noise models and non-standards
This is certainly the case regarding wind turbine noise. Despite extensive expert testimony that credibly demonstrates the flaws inherent in noise predicting models used by the wind industry, the methods are still utilized.
In two separate proceedings before the Vermont Public Service Board -- Deerfield Wind and Kingdom Community Wind -- Kenneth Kaliski of RSG, Inc. modeled turbine noise emissions at different points within several thousand feet of the proposed towers. Kaliski relied on the Cadna A software tool used by the wind industry, which is based on the ISO 9613-2 standard for sound prediction.
Kaliski knows the ISO 9613-2 standard was never validated for wind turbine noise but insisted its use was appropriate. He argued that by using another tool, the "CONCAWE algorithm," in conjunction with Cadna A he could more accurately predict turbine sound levels. He calibrated his 'modified' ISO method using sound data from a wind farm in Kansas but admitted on cross that he never calculated a "standard confidence interval" before applying his findings to projects in Vermont. He provided no data supporting how his modeled data in Kansas compared to actual sound data surveyed at the Kansas site, nor did he attempt to explain how the mountainous topography, different ground and atmospheric conditions, and foliage found in Vermont compared to that of Kansas and what adjustments he made (and potential errors introduced) to account for the differences.
In short, Kaliski used modeling software (Cadna A) outside its accepted parameters, applied a second tool previously tested at a site located on flat farm land, threw in undocumented adjustments for the Vermont setting and declared his noise predictions accurate for the Vermont sites because he said so -- with no way for any independent party to validate his work.
The flaws in Kaliski's work were obvious but ignored by the Vermont Public Service Board. Instead, the Board imposed a post-construction noise limit on the projects that was itself, non-standard. Neither wind project is in-service at this time but we have good reason to expect operating noise levels will prove problematic for nearby residents.
Public safety and non-standards
This same 'standard-less' approach appears to have guided the Ohio Power Siting Board when it approved the Buckeye Wind LLC application to construct a wind facility in Champaign County, Ohio. The Board's order was upheld in a 4-3 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court but the two dissenting opinions were appropriately critical.
On the question of public safety, Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton cited the risks of blade shear. Buckeye assured the Siting Board that a "shorn blade could fly only 500 feet", 41 feet less than the minimum setback from neighboring properties. But when the Board's staff asked Buckeye for supporting data, testimony revealed that Buckeye's prediction pertained to a different, smaller turbine, and that "no such calculation existed" for the proposed turbines.
Justice Lundberg Stratton wrote:
Nevertheless, despite lacking either evidence or sufficient competence in physics even to attempt to calculate the distance a blade could fly, the staff member responsible signed off on Buckeye's proposal. His portion of the investigatory report stated, 'Staff believes that the Applicant has adequately evaluated and described the potential impact from blade shear at the nearest property boundary.' ...even though this appeal represents the final review of the final order of the board, we have no evidence that the project is being built safely away from yards and homes, and we never will. Yet the majority affirms the order.
The Buckeye wind project is not built but the company's flawed testimony on blade shear has already been demonstrated in the field. On April 26, two blades on a Vestas V90 1.8 MW wind turbine sited at a different project in Ohio shattered under high wind conditions catapulting blade debris up to 1,300 feet from the turbine's foundation.
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While of course the wind farm may be one of those projects with such overwhelming policy benefits (and political support) as to trump all other considerations, even as they relate to safety, the record expresses no such proposition. -- U.S. Court of Appeals
Earlier this year, windaction.org wrote how turbines sited within fifty miles of U.S. radar installations are now disrupting our navigation aids and impairing U.S. national security.
FAA and military radar experts in the field are well aware of the compromises to radar resolution caused by poorly sited turbines. But with the debate surrounding energy policy dominated by politics and money, they've bowed to the pressure.
Last week we learned of another project that poses safety risks.
The U.S. federal appeals court found that the FAA failed to adequately analyze whether Cape Wind, the controversial proposal to erect 130 utility-scale turbines offshore in Nantucket Sound, would pose a hazard to air navigation.
The project's proponent vigorously defended the agency's review claiming that for over eight years the FAA repeatedly found the project would pose no hazard. But the record clearly shows otherwise.
In May 2010, the FAA issued identical Determinations of No Hazard for each of the Cape Wind turbines. These determinations were conditioned on implementing a tiered mitigation plan that incrementally upgraded nearby radar systems to correct for any interference the turbines would produce. While the upgrades would limit the impact of the spinning blades, the FAA acknowledged that the 'fixes' would reduce the resolution of the radar, and might not work. Like Travis Air Force Base which we previously wrote about, aircraft flying in the area would go undetected or false objects could appear. If, after the turbines go online, the interference was found to be a safety risk, the FAA recommended revising airspace procedures to restrict air traffic to transponder only - also like Travis.
Transponder-only airspace is an unacceptable mitigation option since it relies on pilots complying with the rules. Not all aircraft are adequately equipped and not all pilots may want to be seen. We remind readers that the first thing the 9/11 hijackers did after seizing control of our passenger planes was to turn off the transponders.
Remarkably, this is not the first time the FAA's No Hazard determinations on wind turbines were overturned by the Courts. In 2008, a near identical finding to the Cape Wind case was reached by the Federal Appeals Court. In that case, Clark County, NV challenged the FAA over turbines proposed to be built several miles from the County's planned airport.
Windaction.org has interviewed radar specialists familiar with the mitigations implemented at Travis AFB and those proposed near Nantucket Sound and elsewhere. They are very clear that the reduction in radar resolution poses a serious risk to air safety and should not be permitted.
Our national security and air safety have been compromised by wind turbines and U.S. taxpayers are unknowingly funding the degradation of our radar through federal renewable programs. The larger question is why? Why are our agencies and military services allowing these compromises and why are the courts -- and not the agencies themselves -- being called upon to correct their actions? Indeed, political pressure is playing a role in these compromises along with a general disinterest by many in Washington to consider both the good and bad of renewable energy. Public safety should never take a back seat when siting projects.
The Court had it right when it stated:
"While of course the wind farm [Cape Wind] may be one of those projects with such overwhelming policy benefits (and political support) as to trump all other considerations, even as they relate to safety, the record expresses no such proposition. [emphasis added]
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U.S. air space has been made less safe by turbines and our national security compromised because of a reckless policy of siting wind towers within 50-miles of radar installations. Military radar experts in the field know the damage that’s been done. But with the debate surrounding energy policy dominated by politics and money, the military has bowed to the pressure.
Military leaders are under pressure to not disrupt White House green energy policies even while green energy technology is disrupting our navigation aids and impairing U.S. national security.
Washington has a track record of muzzling military testimony to protect its pet policies and political friends. Last week, Air Force Gen. William Shelton admitted he was pressured by the administration to change his testimony regarding LightSquared’s network and its adverse impact on military space-based navigation systems. We applaud Shelton for not backing down.
But the military has not been honest about the effect wind turbine technology has on our national radar systems.
The fact is that our air space has been made less safe by turbines and our national security compromised because of a reckless policy of siting wind towers within 50-miles of radar installations. Military radar experts in the field know the damage that’s been done. But with the debate surrounding energy policy dominated by politics and money, the military has bowed to the pressure.
Radar interference and mitigation
The military services and federal agencies have conducted numerous studies on the radar question, as have multiple international military and private interests. Not all studies agree on levels of severity and potential mitigations, but all agree that large scale industrial wind turbines have the potential to negatively affect military installations, radar, and navigation aids.
The problem is easy to explain, but difficult to resolve.
Since radar technology is designed to detect moving objects, spinning turbine blades create interference which degrades the signal. Wind towers carry a signal strength greater than a Boeing 747, so when the radar repeatedly sees the large return it cannot detect actual aircraft in the same area.
Large expenditures of time and funds have been allocated in pursuit of technical mitigations but so far the results are controversial. According to Raytheon lead radar engineer, Peter Drake, radar mitigation technology does not yet exist. “…These things [turbines] inside of 20 miles, look like a 747 on final approach,” Drake said. The trick, he adds, “…is to somehow make them disappear, while still being able to see a real 747…we have not figured that out yet.”
By 2008, nearly 40% of our long-range radar systems were compromised by wind turbines. Today, more than twice the wind capacity is installed and the problem of radar interference persists.
Proper siting of turbines, while politically cumbersome, is the only tried and true form of mitigation. But this means denying wind developers access to land areas covered by radar.
Radar interference at Travis Air Force Base
The problem of radar interference first cropped up in the United States in early 2007 near Travis Air Force base in California. Two wind proposals were before the Solano County Planning Commission that would erect over one-hundred new turbines in the area. The spinning blades resulted in smaller planes appearing to drop off the radar while others appeared when they weren’t actually there.
Both Travis and the Solano County Airport Land Use Commission urged a delay in approving the projects, citing air safety and the need for more time to study the effects the towers had on navigation.
In his letter to the County, Colonel Steven Arquiette, commander of the 60th Air Mobility Wing at Travis warned the turbines would create significant interference with the base's radar and could lead to potentially serious flight safety hazards.
The county heeded their concerns and agreed to the delay. Commissioner John Moore was particularly firm when he said "...Nothing happens unless the Air Force's problem gets fixed."
Travis held firm on its objections until a year later when enXco, one of the project proponents gifted $1 million to the base for technical mitigations.
Col. Arquiette was told by his superiors to accept the money and withdraw his complaints despite the fact that the mitigation offered little more than a ''detuning" of the radar signal to lessen the impact of the towers.
enXco's project was built but the radar problem was never resolved.
The Travis AFB Midair Collision Avoidance (MACA) pamphlet was updated this year with a warning that states the wind farms southeast of the base interfere with radar. Unless an aircraft is 'squawking' it can't be seen. See image on right or click here to access the MACA .
Squawking refers to turning the aircraft’s transponder on to allow communication between the aircraft and the secondary radar system installed at air traffic control facilities.
The strategy of requiring areas to be transponder-only airspace could work but relies on pilots complying with the warning. Recreational pilots may not remember to comply or their aircraft might not be adequately equipped. And worse, drug runners or — in this post-9/11 world — terrorists, might prefer they not be seen. The first thing the 9/11 hijackers did after seizing control of our passenger planes was to turn off the transponders.
Remarkably, participants at the radar forum at AWEA’s Annual Conference last May touted the Travis solution as the gold standard for mitigating turbine interference. You be the judge.
Shepherds Flat wind and long-range radar
The radar problem at Travis involves airport surveillance radar. This type of radar is used by air traffic control and has a range of about 60 miles. Long range radar monitors in-route air traffic control used for homeland defense and NORAD. The mile distance for long range radar is distance of 250 miles.
A year ago, the unmanned Air Force radar facility located in Fossil, Oregon became the source of significant controversy when the Pentagon objected to the proposed $2 billion Shepherds Flat1 wind energy facility. The project's 338 GE turbines totaling 845 megawatts would be built in the line of site of the radar sweep .
Fossil's radar monitors the U.S. border along the Pacific northwest including the territory north, over the Canadian border, and south into California.
Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley were outraged and tried pressuring the military into silence. They joined nine other senators in writing to Defense Secretary Robert Gates requesting a resolution of the conflict and insisting the Department failed to search hard enough for practical solutions.
Sen. Wyden also lobbied for $8 million in the 2011 appropriations to cover the cost technical mitigations akin to what was implemented at Travis.
Windaction.org interviewed long-range radar specialists familiar with the mitigation proposed for the Fossil radar. The technology known as "Scan Step" involves installing a digital processor that, with software, will work to lessen the effect of turbine clutter. The process results in targets becoming invisible. In fact, aircraft the size of the space shuttle could fly through the radar swept area undetected.
The processor underwent its first test in the field last spring. Word back was that it failed all tests. None of the FAA or DOD engineers we've spoken to believe Scan Step technology will work in the way people have been led to believe. No one doubts there will be a loss in radar resolution. Critical questions still pending are: 1) What level of radar reduction will be deemed acceptable? 2) Who will decide the level of reduction that will be permitted? and 3) Will the public be informed as to the extent Shepherds Flat has compromised our national security?
When Windaction.org asked a staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee what would happen if Step Scan didn't work, his response was an abrupt: "It has to"
Indeed! Shepherds Flat is slated to go in service in 2012.
The cases at Travis AFB and Fossil should raise red flags. But unlike the LightSquared example, the military is comfortable whitewashing the turbine issue and hiding behind technical mitigations that don’t work. Our national security and air safety have been compromised by wind turbines and U.S. taxpayers are unknowingly funding the degradation of our radar through federal renewable programs. It’s time the military had the courage to step up and speak the truth to the American people.
1. The Shepherds Flat wind facility was the subject of the White House memo that complained the project received $1.2 billion in governmental subsidies covering 65% of the cost and risk for the project while its equity sponsors incurred only about 11% and an estimated return on equity of 30% -- a hefty return for a project where the American public is absorbing the bulk of the investment risk.
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Last month, the LA Times examined how the push to build more wind and solar installations was raising safety concerns for workers and the general public. As if on cue, local newspapers around the U.S. also ran stories on five separate catastrophic events involving turbines: a shattered blade in Ohio, fires in Texas and Michigan, the death of a technician in Iowa and another hospitalized in Kansas. None of these stories made national news so most people have no idea the frequency of such events.
Large-scale wind turbines operating in the U.S. are typically located in remote areas away from where people gather. Should a turbine fail the risk of bodily harm is low. But as more communities respond to government incentives and work to erect their own towers on town-owned land we're finding a dangerous pattern of authorities approving proposals with little consideration, or apparent understanding, of the safety risks.
The story of mounting safety concerns is not new. A report from 2007 found that as wind turbines multiplied around the globe, the number of dangerous accidents was also climbing. The authors cited problems ranging from defects in design and manufacturing processes to construction errors and harsh operating environments. Thousands of insurance claims filed in 2006 alone led some to question whether wind turbines were as reliable or as safe as developers purported.
According to Warren Diogo of Ascot Underwriting, the onshore wind sector is undergoing "rapid evolution". Turbine components are being modified and scaled-up quickly to meet changing market demands and challenging site conditions. The period between research and market launch is greatly reduced leaving little time for testing prototypes before they're placed in the field.
The industry insists that even if a failure does occur, safety setbacks lessen the likelihood of anyone being harmed. That's true, but there's no consensus regarding setback standards. Each time a project is proposed, the same arguments are raised over how close is too close.
Safety vs. statistical probabilities
Advancing the notion that these massive spinning structures can be safely erected a few hundred feet from property lines, public areas and rights-of-way sends a dangerous message to the public. Blade failures, fire, and turbine collapse are more common than many have been led to believe. Communities should not be lulled into a false sense of safety. And when turbine failures are reported, they should take notice and not assume any failure is a singular event that won't repeat in their town.
Safety cannot take a back seat to statistical probabilities but that's what's happening especially in densely populated communities where land is scarce.
The latest example, and perhaps one of the most egregious we've looked at, involves a proposal to erect a General Electric 1.5 megawatt turbine in Salem, Massachusetts. The city's mayor is recommending a 382-foot tower be sited at a public park on Winter Island, adjacent to several historic buildings, the harbor master's office, and 300-feet from abutting property lines.
A turbine on Winter Island?
The Salem proposal exposes how ambiguous the question of turbine safety has become.
When asked what land would be removed from public access to accommodate the tower, the city's answer implied no safety buffer at all:
The diameter of the monopole (tower) for the proposed Winter Island turbine will be about 15 feet (180 sq ft).
On the question of catastrophic failure, the response was equally unsettling:
Modern wind turbines are fitted with ice monitoring technologies that sense ice buildup and "turn off" ...In a study that looked at a 31 year period ending in 2006, among thousands of installations worldwide, there were no injuries or deaths attributable to wind turbine blade throw, either among the general public or wind industry workers. Typically it would take something in excess of a Category 5 hurricane to blow one of the units over.
Salem's mayor appears to be accepting everything the industry claims in order to sell the wind turbine project. Unfortunately, safeguards don't work as well as advertised. Footage on the web clearly shows turbines spinning with ice caked on the blades. Also, hidden damage to turbine components can lead to failures long after the events which caused them. Turbines may appear to be in good operating order and then fail unexpectedly. Three separate collapses occurred in the northeast since 2008 and none involved category 5 hurricanes.
It's not clear whether G.E. will even agree to erect one of its turbines on Winter Island.
Recall last year when Falmouth and Charlestown in Massachusetts approached the company about supplying turbines. G.E. refused citing inadequate setbacks for mitigating the risk of ice shed. To meet the same standard, the Salem project would need to be setback 775+ feet from occupied structures, roads, property lines and public access areas. The city would be wise not to ignore this setback.
Salem has been poorly served by the experts it consulted. We recommend the project, as defined, be cancelled immediately and call on the industry to bring more clarity to the setback debate. Erecting this enormous wind turbine in a public park so close to a neighborhood is nothing more than a recipe for disaster.
(Note: The distances referenced in this editorial pertain to the risks of flying debris from operating turbines. Setbacks to mitigate for turbine noise, shadow flicker and visual impacts -- which would be much larger -- are not considered.)
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Several years back, we wrote how the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), a quasi-public agency tasked with encouraging renewable energy technologies in the State of Massachusetts, gambled $5.28 million in public funds to purchase two new (at the time) Vestes V82 – 1.65 megawatt wind turbines. MTC hoped to jumpstart local public renewable projects by making the Vestas turbines available for sale.
The Town of Orleans was one of the first candidates for the towers but sensitive watershed areas compromised the plan. The agency then moved aggressively to place them in Mattapoisett, MA and neighboring Fairhaven, MA, but public opposition to the giant turbines too close to residential areas stymied the effort. MTC took delivery of the V82 turbines in September, 2006 and warehoused them in Houston, TX at storage fees as high as $3,000 a month. They eventually found a 'home' -- in Falmouth, MA.
WIND 1 went online in early 2010 at Falmouth’s Wastewater Treatment Plant. WIND 2, currently under construction, will be located only 1000 feet (less than five rotor widths) away.
With homes a short 1,350 feet from WIND 1, as soon as it started spinning complaints about noise and shadow flicker hit the media.
GE and Buy America
While WIND 1 was community funded through a combination of general bonds, grants and advanced payments on renewable energy credits sold under the State's Renewable Portfolio Standard program, the second is being funded entirely through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) .
Recall, ARRA Section 1605 asserts a "buy America" provision and MTC's Vestas V82 (vintage 2005-06) turbines were not American-made. Falmouth needed a waiver to get its hands on the stimulus money or change out MTC's turbine in-hand for a domestic-made equivalent.
Apparently, the Town solicited General Electric as a potential turbine supplier, but GE's siting standards required a safety setback of 1.5 times the hub height plus rotor diameter be maintained in the event of icing. The setback distance would be measured from occupied structures, roads, property lines and public access areas.
Unless the turbine was moved, GE was unwilling to do business.
This must have been a relief for Falmouth and MTC. Why hassle with another vendor, especially one so particular about safety, when the Vestas turbine was already in hand and, better yet, Vestas, the company, didn't suffer the same safety hang-ups. The town would solve the problem by requesting a waiver from the Buy America provision in the law.
GE's safety setback applied to the Vestas V82 would be 797 feet . WIND 2 will exceed the standard to the property line (552 feet), the nearest public road (646 feet) and come within 350 feet of the nearest residential structure.
In siting documents prepared for the Falmouth site, risks of ice throw were dismissed this way:
Icing of wind turbine blades mainly occurs during standstill periods. If icing appears to be a problem at the proposed location, then adequate start-up procedures should prevent the wind turbine from starting if blades are covered with ice. Regardless, the recommended location is far enough away from property lines or public ways to minimize risks associated with these issues.
The federal government, in this case the EPA, determined that no domestic manufactured wind turbines were available that could meet WIND 2's project design and performance specifications. The waiver was granted.
The notice of waiver that appeared in the Federal Register on April 27, 2010 included this text:
Section 1605 of the ARRA requires that none of the appropriated funds may be used for the construction, alteration, maintenance, or repair of a public building or a public works project unless all of the iron, steel, and manufactured goods used in the project is produced in the United States, or unless a waiver is provided to the recipient by the head of the appropriate agency, here the EPA. A waiver may be provided if EPA determines that (1) applying these requirements would be inconsistent with the public interest; (2) iron, steel, and the relevant manufactured goods are not produced in the United States in sufficient and reasonably available quantities and of a satisfactory quality; or (3) inclusion of iron, steel, and the relevant manufactured goods produced in the United States will increase the cost of the overall project by more than 25 percent.
So, let's be clear here. GE, which has more of its turbines installed in the United States than any other manufacturer, and arguably the most experience with operating turbines in the varied climates within the US -- certainly more experience than EPA and the Town of Falmouth -- raised public safety concerns over the risks of ice throw, and Falmouth looked the other way. EPA, in turn, agreed that applying GE safety standards to the site would be "inconsistent with the public interest". Is it any wonder Falmouth is the latest poster child for poor turbine siting?
The risk is real
If anyone doubts that ice builds up on turbines in the Massachusetts area, it's worth watching this short video clip from Newburyport, MA where a smaller 600-kw turbine standing just under 300-feet was erected. Or watch this clip from Wisconsin involving turbines similar in size to the V82.
The story doesn't end there.
Two months prior to Falmouth receiving its waiver, EPA supported a waiver request by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (“MWRA”) to acquire a turbine built by Chinese turbine maker, Sinovel. The turbine is expected to power the DeLauri Pump Station in Charlestown, Massachusetts where GE found the setback distances insufficient to protect the public from ice throw. Lucky for the MWRA, Sinovel was more than happy to take the money.
We would have expected public safety to trump other interests, but apparently not. At some point, the turbines in Falmouth and Charlestown will throw ice and the risk is real that people/property will be on the receiving end. But with EPA, MTC, the US Treasury and other public entities all willing to waive the risk on behalf of the public, who will be held accountable?
 The hub height for the Vestas V82 is 262 feet; the rotor diameter is 269 feet. The safety setback calculation is 1.5 x (262 + 269) or 796.5 feet.
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This week, utility giant National Grid teamed up with Nantucket High School in Massachusetts to erect a 100 kilowatt wind turbine on school property. The 158-foot turbine  is located immediately adjacent to the school's football and baseball fields and by the road that runs behind the school.
According to the Nantucket Independent, the high school originally proposed locating the tower immediately west of the Newtown Cemetery to provide for an adequate "fall zone" but the plan changed after concerns were raised about the visual impact of the tower on the historic burial ground. The turbine was moved to its present location.
This aerial image of the school sports fields shows a circle with a radius of approximately 50 feet to denote the location of the turbine.
Apparently, the school reconsidered the need for a safety zone which would have to be at least four times that size.
Perhaps they were unaware of the three turbine collapses in the Northeast alone since September 2008.
In one of these instances, the turbine detached at its base and fell full-length in a field. In another, the turbine malfunctioned and went into over speed. When a spinning blade hit the tower the turbine exploded and fell to the ground. Firefighters were called out to extinguish flames caused by the collapse.
Catastrophic failures are more common than the public has been led to believe. In 2009, three small-scale turbines at the Perkins High School in Ohio sent blades flying after a wind gust apparently caused a blade to flex and hit the support pole. Earlier this year, two turbines sited on Cape Cod in Massachusetts blew apart in high wind conditions. Many more incidences of fire, blade throw, and collapse have been documented.
GE Energy explains that we do not have a good understanding of what happens to turbines when operating in extreme wind conditions. If GE is recommending caution it would be prudent to understand the risks other manufacturers are citing. The coastal areas of New England are well known for severe wind and weather conditions.
Ice shedding is a separate but real issue. According to GE Energy's Wind Application Engineering Group, wind energy siting in cold climates, at a minimum, should be based on the following formula for calculating a safe distance: 1.5 * (hub height + rotor diameter). Using this formula, the Nantucket high turbine could fling ice nearly 300-feet away, well into areas where students play and gather. This e-mail characterizing ice-shed at the Searsburg, Vermont wind facility provides some insight into the problem. (Note: the turbines at Searsburg are 198-feet tall).
It's hard to imagine the parents whose teenagers attend Nantucket High School were aware of the risks of siting a turbine so close to populated areas. And the question of safety must have been just a fleeting thought for school officials since they agreed to the present location. Unfortunately, the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust (now part of Massachusetts Clean Energy Center), who partially funded the project, is silent on the safety question.
When Windaction.org asked about setbacks in reference to the Newburyport, MA turbine, also funded by the Trust and sited close to homes, we were informed by e-mail that: "Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust's goal is to support the installation of renewable energy projects and expansion of the clean energy industry in Massachusetts for a cleaner environment and stronger economy. The Trust evaluates projects at a high level and seeks to support projects that have a high likelihood of success and are deemed suitable by the communities in which they are located. The Trust is not a permitting agency; rather, permitting decisions for wind turbines are in the hands of each community."
There is a consistent pattern across the U.S. of small communities approving wind turbine proposals with little consideration, or apparent understanding, of the serious safety risks of erecting towers near public areas, rights-of-way, and residences. It surprises us that the insurance industry has not responded to the heightened risks. Hopefully, we will not see persons injured, or worse, before those making the decisions start taking the risks seriously.
 The NHS turbine has a hub height of 134 feet and a blade length of 24 feet, which totals 158 feet to the top of the blade when in a vertical position.
(Note: The distances referenced in this editorial pertain to the risks of flying debris from operating turbines. Setbacks to mitigate for turbine noise, shadow flicker and visual impacts are not considered.)
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In the last ten years, wind industry representatives have successfully laid the groundwork for expedited project review and approval in many States in the US. Reaching out to legislators and State agency directors, the industry argued that existing laws governing siting of electric power plants were unduly onerous when applied to wind facilities. After all, operating wind turbines do not produce air emissions or use/discharge water, the basis for these stricter laws.
To allay concerns over shortened review periods, developers proactively worked with environmentalists and large landowners to help establish guidelines governing the siting of wind plants. The guidelines, or model ordinances, were then presented to State officials with assurances that if developers adhered to them, projects would be safe for residents living near the turbines and less impacting on the natural environment. Although the guidelines did not carry the weight of law, they also helped provide continuity for wind projects subject to local review at the town or county level.
In theory, this proactive teamwork could have worked. But all is not "green" roses.
Wind energy developers count on the fact that few people have "experienced" a wind energy facility and thus cannot imagine the enormity of the towers even from one-mile away. At the same time, these developers know that turbines operate at a noise level that far exceeds the background noise of the rural zones in which they're erected.
We need only look at a few of the 'guidelines' in place to understand how consistent these model ordinances are from state to state and in all cases skewed in favor of wind.
In Michigan, the State Task Force working under the Department of Labor and Economic Growth, recommended in its "Siting Guidelines for Wind Energy Systems" that noise limits be set at 55 dBA or L90 + 5 dBA, whichever is higher. The setback distance from the property is the height of the tower including the blade in the vertical position, which for most turbines today would be about 400-feet.
In Wisconsin, the State Task Force recommended 50 dBA for noise levels and tower setbacks of 1000-feet from the wall of a residence. And in Pennsylvania, the model ordinance, which carried the Gamesa stamp of approval, set noise limits at 55 dBA outside the home and setbacks of 1.1x the height of the turbine as measured at the wall of an occupied building.
In a recent questionnaire submitted to wind developers by Union Township in Wisconsin, the respondents defended these specifications with statements like:
"Turbines are sited to have maximum sound level of 45dBA, well below levels causing physical harm. Medical books on sound indicate sound levels above 80-90dBA cause physical (health) effects. The possible effects to a person's health due to "annoyance" are impossible to study in a scientific way, as these are often mostly psychosomatic, and are not caused by wind turbines as much as the individuals' obsession with a new item in their environment."
Community noise experts Kamperman and James took issue with this and published a formal response to the questionnaire, highlighting major deficiencies in the wind developers' statements, including:
* The tone and context of the statement implies that 45 dBA is fully compatible with the quiet rural community setting.
* No acknowledgement is made of the dramatic change this will be for the noise environment of nearby families.
* No mention is made of how the wind facility, once in operation, will raise evening and nighttime background sound levels from the existing background levels of 20 to 30 dBA to 45 dBA.
* There is no disclosure of the considerable low frequency content of the wind turbine sound; in fact, there are often claims to the contrary.
* They fail to warn that the home construction techniques used for modern wood frame homes result in walls and roofs that cannot block out a wind turbine's low frequencies.
* They do not disclose that the International Standards Organization (ISO) in ISO 1996-1971 recommends 25 dBA as the maximum night-time limit for rural communities. Sound levels of 40
dBA and above are only appropriate in suburban communities during the day and urban communities during day and night. There are no communities where 45 dBA is considered acceptable at night.
* Making statements outside their area of competence, wind industry advocates, without medical qualifications, label complaints of health effects as "psychosomatic" in a pejorative manner that implies the complaints can be discounted because they are not "really medical" conditions. Such a response cannot be considered to be based in fact.
So how do these model ordinances pass the muster and get approved?
The "stakeholders" involved were largely wind energy proponents, environmentalists, and landowners who might see turbines on their land. A significant group of stakeholders, the residents of targeted communities, likely had no idea such meetings were happening. If these model ordinances were to be reconsidered, it's a certainty that many people would step up and make their thoughts known.
Windaction.org strongly encourages States to revisit their guidelines and model ordinances now that we have experience with the effects of turbines built close to where people live. But in a next go around, the guidelines must be grounded in science and empirical evidence and not on data provided by the very people financially and ideologically vested in the outcome. While everyone is interested in seeing renewable energy get built, no one has the right to harm the health, safety, and welfare of others.
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Late last year, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC), the state's development agency for renewable energy, awarded a $474,340 grant to Mark Richey Woodworking and Design, Inc. of Newburyport MA, for the construction of a single 600KW (292-foot) industrial-scale wind turbine to be sited adjacent to the business.
Months later, in April 2008, the Town of Newburyport amended its zoning ordinance to allow wind turbines up to 400-feet tall with minimum setbacks of 150 feet from abutting property lines and 300-feet from residential zoning districts. The Richey turbine proposal was submitted to the town shortly thereafter and a special permit was approved in August paving the way for the turbine to be erected. The location of the turbine is 319-feet from the public pedestrian rail trail, 350-feet from heavily-traveled U.S. Route 1, and 800-feet from the nearest residence.
During the town's review hearing on the project, the developer addressed the risk of ice-shed as follows: "[the turbine] was a long way from the rail trail and if the ice did shed it would be directly below on the Richey property."
Wind turbine manufacturers disagree. According to GE Energy's Wind Application Engineering Group "wind energy production in cold climate provides the following formula for calculating a safe distance: 1.5 * (hub height + rotor diameter)". Based on this formula, the proposed turbine could fling ice 560-feet away, well into the area of the rail trail and traffic on Route 1. This e-mail characterizing ice-shed at the Searsburg, Vermont wind facility provides some insight into the problem. (Note: the turbines at Searsburg are 100-feet shorter than that planned for Newburyport).
Blade failure is another safety factor. Scott Larwood, who researched the history of turbine setbacks in California and the probabilities of rotor and blade failures, told Windaction.org that turbines slightly larger than the Richey tower should have a "safe" setback of 300 meters (987-feet). Turbine manufacturer, Vestas, writes in its Mechanical Operating and Maintenance Manual for the V90 3.0MW turbine that a "radius of 400m (1300 ft) from the turbine" is necessary to ensure safety.
Blade failures, fire, and turbine collapse do happen and turbine debris can fly considerable distances beyond the setbacks established in the Newburyport ordinance.
When Windaction.org confronted MTC on this issue, public information officer Emily Dahl replied: "Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust's goal is to support the installation of renewable energy projects and expansion of the clean energy industry in Massachusetts for a cleaner environment and stronger economy. The Trust evaluates projects at a high level and seeks to support projects that have a high likelihood of success and are deemed suitable by the communities in which they are located. The Trust is not a permitting agency; rather, permitting decisions for wind turbines are in the hands of each community."
Windaction.org has found a consistent pattern across the U.S. of small communities approving wind turbine proposals with little consideration, or apparent understanding, of the serious safety risks of erecting towers near public areas, rights-of-way, and residences. Windaction.org is particularly critical of MTC for its public advocacy in seeding projects like the Newburyport wind turbine while shirking responsibility for informing the communities of these risks.
(Note: The distances referenced in this editorial pertain to the risks of flying debris from operating turbines. Setbacks to mitigate for turbine noise, shadow flicker and visual impacts are not considered.)
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Last month, Barrington, RI voters approved plans to fund and erect a $2.4 million wind turbine to power the local high school. Town leaders anticipate the 600 KW turbine to supply a substantial portion of the school's energy demand. Windaction.org tried to determine a cost breakdown, expected electric generation, and suggested payback period but documentation on the Town's website showed numbers to be inconsistent and difficult to reconcile. For example, documents put the turbine cost at $1.4 million installed with published annual capacity factors varying between 19% and 25%. Further, no wind studies were done to gauge whether the marginal area winds meshed with periods of high demand.
Financials aside, Windaction.org is most concern with the suggested placement of the turbine. According to published reports, the base of the 328-foot structure will be located roughly 200-feet from the high school building, between the football and baseball fields and at 500-feet (or less) from the nearest residence. Town reports justify the minimal setbacks with rhetoric like "In order to attract investment, this new industry cannot afford any failures so the machines have to be designed to meet extremely high safety standards and have thereby enjoyed an excellent safety record ..."
Windaction.org encourages Barrington residents to demand a more thorough investigation into the risks of placing turbines so close to where people gather. Turbine collapse, blade throw, ice drop, and fire are a few of the accidents reported in the US just in the last 10 months. See also: http://www.windaction.org/faqs/14347 . Turbine manufacturer Vestas recommends no less than 1,300-feet clearance for technicians. And noise is another important factor. The noise level of the 600 KW machine at hub height is 98 decibels, only slightly lower then the turbines installed at Mars Hill, ME.
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Last month, Oregon's Occupational Safety and Health Division (OR-OSHA) released its report on the wind turbine collapse at the Klondike III wind facility that left one worker dead and another seriously injured. Oregon OSHA fined Siemens Power Generation Inc. $10,500 for safety violations and multiple errors in Seimens' training and procedures.
Now that safety problems have been identified at one site, it's reasonable to question whether similar deficiencies exist at other Seimens sites or even nationwide, regardless the companies involved. Windaction.org encourages each reader to send a copy of the OR-OSHA citation to your State OSHA office along with a list of wind projects proposed or under construction in that State. Recent press reports highlighting the lack of trained personal to work at wind sites warrants a pro-active stance by OSHA State offices.
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Last Friday, a Vestas wind turbine in Denmark was caught on video blowing apart in high wind conditions. It's been reported that the braking system failed on the unit causing the blades to speed out of control.
In August 2007, a catastrophic failure at the Klondike III wind farm in Oregon killed one person and injured another. Preliminary reports found the turbine went into "over speed operation" before collapsing.
These failures were two of several in the last six months. Others include:
1) Fenner blade break (NY)
2) Turbine blade shredded (PA)
3) Turbine burns (Iowa)
4) Steelwinds wind farm disabled (NY)
5) Turbine collapse (UK)
Six months ago, Business Week published "The Dangers of Wind Power". The article opened with: "As wind turbines multiply around the globe, the number of dangerous accidents is also climbing, causing critics to question overall safety." As developers race to install turbines closer and closer to where people live, the cost of such accidents are certain to grow. Still, wind proponents continue to press for limited setbacks from residences.
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A retired EMS pilot in Wisconsin was interviewed by the Calumet County ad hoc committee regarding emergency medical transport within the vicinity of industrial wind turbines. The pilot substantiates several warnings including:
Ms. Ann Younger-Crandall, program manager for ThedaStar Air Medical in Wisconsin indirectly confirmed some of these warning in her Dec 8, 2007 letter to the local paper, but ends with assurances that "no one in Calumet County should be denied air medical transport because of the construction of wind turbines within the county." Ms. Younger-Crandall's use of the word "should" is interesting, but unconvincing. As the pilot stated in his interview, "Do you want to be the one who has to tell the parents why their child is going to die? Because you can't fly into an area anymore to safely pick them up."
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[ Structural Failure | Canada ]
[ Structural Failure | Canada ]
[ Structural Failure | Asia ]
[ Structural Failure | Michigan ]
[ Icing | Massachusetts ]
[ Structural Failure ]
[ Structural Failure | Colorado ]
[ Structural Failure | Wyoming ]