Some questionable developments have occurred lately in Vermont relating to wind power development. Among them, a recent decision by the Public Service Board (PSB) to deny status on the issues of noise and health impacts to the Lowell Mountains Group, a group concerned about the impacts of the proposed Lowell Wind Project, while granting the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) such status, greatly undermines confidence in the PSB’s process in regulating wind power development in Vermont.
The Lowell Group, a group of citizens who live extremely close to the proposed project, and arguably the group that has the most at stake on these particular issues, has been trying desperately to scrape together funding to pay for legal fees and hire expert witnesses on these issues. This has been particularly difficult because the process has been basically fast-tracked due to soon-to-expire federal subsidies. Now the group has to find additional funds to pay the legal fees for a motion to reconsider.
VPIRG, on the other hand, a vehemently pro-wind group, has wind industry representatives amongst both its officers and its board, and so arguably has a severe conflict of interest when it comes to virtually any criteria related to the project. Moreover, this is a group that recently published a report on renewable energy development which reads like the business plan of the local wind energy interests represented associated with VPIRG (and who are explicitly thanked in the report).
The scenarios in the report assume a strong wind energy roll-out, but the roll-out of solar electricity, for example, a possible alternative to wind, assumes only a 15 percent share for photovoltaic by 2032. VPIRG calls this an “aggressive” scenario for photovoltaic.
But the year 2032 is a full 17 years after 2015, the year photovoltaic is widely projected to be directly cost competitive with retail rates. In other words, VPIRG’s report is rigged to imply that wind is essential, when in fact it is not.
Getting back to the Lowell Group, why would the PSB do this? Permitting of energy projects is conducted like a legal trial: Parties who are granted intervention status submit testimony, which along with public hearing testimony creates the official “record” upon which the PSB rules. The PSB is in fact required to rule strictly from this official record.
If only pro-wind testimony from VPIRG is present that asserts that noise and health impacts are not a concern, the PSB can more easily ignore these issues. If the record contains testimony to the contrary, however, then the PSB has to reason its decision more carefully, and that decision will likely be more vulnerable to appeal.
So what kind of facts might the Lowell Group cite? I personally have been skeptical about the issues of noise and health with wind turbines, especially the many claims that noise from wind turbines are creating health problems. But recent peer-reviewed research in the journal “Hearing Research” establishes clearly, for the first time to my knowledge, that wind turbines not only produce prodigiously high levels of very low-frequency noise, the inaudible portion of which is called “infrasonic noise,” but that this noise can in fact strongly affect the outer layers of the cochlea in the human ear. The paper is “Responses of the ear to low frequency sounds, infrasound and wind turbines,” Hearing Research, Volume 268, Issues 1-2, 1 September 2010.
NOT YET KNOWN
The researchers stress that it is not yet known whether these effects cause the claimed health problems, but they strongly assert that there is now a possible mechanism, and that the claims can no longer be dismissed until further research is done.
If the human cochlea is affected thus, what about wildlife? Besides all the known impacts of bulldozing and blasting roads for wind projects, and the obvious possible impacts to birds, bats and loss of bear habitat (beech trees), what else are we doing to Vermont’s environment by placing these massive machines in the heart of our wilderness? The truthful answer is, we have no idea.
Ben Luce is a Valley native who now works as an assistant professor of physics, sustainability studies at Lyndon State College.
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