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.
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.