MONTPELIER, Vt. — Lawmakers agreed to send a controversial renewable energy siting bill to the governor’s desk, but opinions on what difference the bill makes — especially with regard to wind turbine noise — are mixed.
“We pulled a lot of stakeholders together and kept a lot of them with us throughout the process,” said state Rep. Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, vice chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee.
“I think people were able to respect the outcome and feel heard even if they weren’t able to get the outcome that they wanted or needed. That’s a process that I think we can be proud of at the end of the day, and I hope the governor realizes that and will support our work.”
Not all legislators felt that way following passage of S.230, a bill that aims to give towns more say in where solar and wind projects get sited. Despite the bill’s unanimous approval by the House a week earlier, changes to wind turbine noise standards adopted by the Senate at the last minute nearly stalled the legislation.
“It’s very odd when you can have a unanimous roll call vote out of the House and then all this stuff happens (last minute changes to the wind provisions),” said state Rep. Job Tate, R-Mendon. “… All this happened because some special interests got irate.
According to the Senate version, new noise standards to be adopted by the Public Service Board by July 2017 needed to apply retroactively to April 15 of this year. The retroactive stipulation was taken out when Gov. Peter Shumlin threatened to veto the bill over worries that the language amounted to a moratorium on new wind projects, due to uncertainty for developers.
“If they have to engineer something with, say, a 35 decibel limit, a developer may look at that ahead of time and say, ‘I can’t produce to that level and so I’m not going to do the project,’” said state Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chair of the House Energy Committee.
New wind turbine applications between now and July 2017 will get 45 days for a sound standard to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Another provision is the maximum standard for decibel limits cannot increase past what’s already been approved in the state, which is 45 decibels average per hour outdoors and 30 decibels average for indoors.
Sally Collopy, a Fairfield resident concerned over noise generated by wind turbines, was not happy with the final product.
“While there are a lot of caring legislators in Montpelier who listen to us, and tried very hard to help, sadly there are also a lot that don’t,” she said. “It’s clear that the energy lobbyists have more influence than affected citizens — (it’s) a perfect example of regulatory capture. The PSB now has the chance to show that they are actually listening to the concerns of Vermonters being impacted by industrial wind.”
John Brabant, regulatory affairs director for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, was also critical about the lack of a wind standard.
“The issue is there’s no public policy directive,” he said. “Basically, we are at where we were before, except we are telling them they need to come up with rules really quickly.”
Ed Stanak of Barre, also doesn’t see much difference.
“The net outcome is the status quo, assuming they continue to go with 45 decibels average as an acceptable sound limit,” he said.
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans, remains concerned about constituents despite voting for the bill.
“Right now there’s nothing stopping the interim rules from being the status quo, which we know from current projects it isn’t working,” he said. “There needs to be some floor that is better than the current standard.”
Rodgers had suggested adopting New Hampshire’s standard as an interim standard, which are 45 decibels maximum, not average, for the day and 40 maximum at night. Klein and Ram argued there was not enough time to make those changes.
“I don’t know that we have the time to include the New Hampshire standards,” said Ram. “We want to make sure that this isn’t the death of the bill.”
Tate suggested the potential veto from Gov. Shumlin, which he thinks was an empty threat in the face of all the support for the bill in the House, was used to pry the retroactive wind component away in the final days of the session.
Klein argued the PSB can still choose tougher standards without being prodded.
“It’s a little unfair to predict exactly what the PSB may do,” he said. “There are other possibilities that they could do also, and at some point like it or not we need to delegate that responsibility.”
Still other lawmakers suggested that concerned citizens need to show up at the Public Service Board hearings to influence the next steps on wind noise regulations. Even if they can’t speak at the hearing, by sheer numbers they can sway the PSB to take their concerns more seriously.