Library from Vermont
Seven 499-foot turbines proposed for Rocky Ridge may be the first major energy project in the state to face stringent scrutiny via the approval process of the newly configured Public Service Board. The board, which will change its name to the Vermont Public Utility Commission starting Saturday, issued an order to Swanton Wind on June 22 that sets a higher standard of public accountability.
A key aspect Act 174 is that it allows regions and municipalities more influence over siting wind, solar, hydro or other energy facilities during the Public Service Board permitting process, if they have a certified plan in place.
During the meeting, the most contentious issue was the setback provision, which sets the distance between turbines and homes at 10 times the height of the turbine. Also discussed were proposed decibel sound limits of 39 dBA (A-weighted decibels) at night and 42 dBA during the day. By the end of the morning, the committee voted to push the deadline for adopting new rules back to October.
It's all likely to prove academic, since LCAR is almost certain to vote down the rules sometime after leaf-peeping season. At that point, the PSB would have to resume work on a new set of rules. Given the fact that the board and the Scott administration take a dim view of ridgeline wind and most legislators are in favor of renewable energy including wind, it's going to be very tricky to find a set of rules acceptable to all parties.
A legislative panel has deferred action on a proposal that could have significant impacts on the future of ridgeline wind energy in Vermont.
Permit enforcement is a concern raised at nearly every public hearing for renewable energy projects. People want the government to protect them if and when a company violates the terms of its operating permit. It's hard to trust that the government will do that when so much of the monitoring process is in the hands of the company being monitored or its agents.
The DPS requested that the board “reject the proposed sound monitoring protocol and require Deerfield Wind to submit a revised protocol” that includes the department’s suggested changes. The department’s stance was echoed by the Wind Action Group and Thomas Shea, who owns property in Searsburg and is an intervenor in the project permit process.
Reached by phone Friday, Shea, who has been a vocal opponent of the project, said he was "not too surprised" by the board's decision, saying, "They seem to favor developers over residents." He said he remains concerned about the effects of heavy construction vehicles like rollers and large loaders he says have "been running up and down the road [Route 8] repeatedly."
Under the proposed rules, noise from large turbines would be limited to 42 dBA during the day and 39 dBA at night; smaller turbines would be limited to 42 dBA. ...Developers also would have to build large wind turbines away from local residents by a distance of 10 times the height of the turbine.
On Thursday, an obscure legislative committee will have the final say over new wind-power rules that have sent shock waves through Vermont's renewable-energy community.
Gov. Phil Scott has chosen Anthony Roisman, a private attorney with years of experience in nuclear energy and toxic waste litigation, to lead the Vermont Public Service Board.
But Scott believes Vermont can do its part on climate change without wind turbines on scenic ridgelines. He is sticking to a campaign pledge to seek a moratorium on large wind energy projects.
Back in the 1960s, Yale psychology professor Stanley Milgram conducted a research experiment whose results shocked the nation. Participants were told that they were taking on the role of “teacher” in a study of methods to improve learning. An authority figure told the “teacher” to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks to a “learner” in the next room whenever a question was answered incorrectly. There actually were no shocks and the learner was part of the research team, but the “teacher” heard increasing cries of pain with each “shock” administered. Even as the intensity of the shocks approached the maximum of 450 volts, the authority insisted that the shocks should continue – that the anguished screams, the banging on the wall, the pleas about heart conditions, and ultimately the ominous silence from the other room should all be ignored.
The final rule keeps the daytime sound level at 42 decibels, but the board changed the allowable nighttime level from 35 decibels allowed in the draft rule to 39 decibels. The board also kept a controversial setback limit of 10 times the height of the turbine, so that a 500-foot turbine would have to be at least 5,000 feet from the nearest residence.
About a year later, the board ruled in favor of Georgia Mountain Community Wind and determined that noise coming off the spinning turbine blades was not in excess of its state permit. But in that ruling the board said the McLanes and the Public Service Department could request additional testing if they could convince the board that the previous sound testing was not accurate.
VPIRG and REV have implied that the proposed rule will be the end of wind power in Vermont. In particular, VPIRG undertook a GIS study that showed that 0.2% of Vermont would be available for wind facilities due to the setbacks in the proposed rule. There are two problems with VPIRG’s analysis: its premise is wrong and the conclusion does not follow from its data.
Editor’s note: This commentary is Mark Whitworth, who is president of Energize Vermont, a statewide organization that supports sustainable energy development that protects our environment and respects our communities.
The board has proposed limits of 35 decibels at night and 42 decibels during the day, as measured outside neighboring homes. Most turbines today are subject to a 45-decibel sound limit outside neighboring homes and a 30-decibel limit measured inside neighbors’ homes.
The board released its draft version of the new rules in March, and the board members held four meetings this week to hear from the public and from wind and sound experts as they get ready to finalize the sound standards.
Prospective neighbors of wind turbines heard all the promises: “Quiet as a library.” “Like a baby’s breath.” “The same decibel level as a refrigerator.” The more brazen wind developers claimed “you will not hear them.” Then the four hundred and fifty foot wind towers with their bus-size nacelles and three-bladed fans were built. Sixteen in Sheffield, four on Georgia Mountain, twenty-one in Lowell. And neighbors learned the truth. Yes, you can hear them. They sound like “a jet plane that never lands,” or “sneakers in a drier,” or there is a “thump thump thump” or a “whoosh whoosh whoosh” as the blade passes the tower, causing something called amplitude modulation.