The lie behind wind energy model ordinances

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.

DEC 4 2008
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