The Cape Cod Commission is expecting another packed house next week as it continues a public hearing on a set of revised regulations for siting land-based wind turbines.
The Commission met last Thursday to review the regulations, which in November had been rejected by the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates as lacking specificity on certain key issues. The new regs, presented to the full Commission by CCC Planner Ryan Christenberry, address those issues – but not, it seemed, to the satisfaction of several members of the public who spoke at the hearing.
The hearing will resume at 3 PM next Thursday, February 3, in the chamber of the Assembly in the First District Courthouse in Barnstable.
The proposed regulations would amend the energy section of the county’s Regional Policy Plan (RPP) and create region-wide standards for onshore wind turbine siting. The original language established broad minimum performance standards for safety, noise from the turbine’s operation, and “shadow flicker” from a turbine’s spinning blades.
The original draft safety standard called for “a clear area of 1.5 times the tip height” of the turbine “from any structure outside the applicant’s development site.” Example: a turbine that measures 200 feet from ground to the tip of its blade at the peak of their rotation would require a 300 foot minimum clear area.
The new draft calls for a clear area of 1.5 times the overall height of the turbine or the turbine manufacturer’s recommended minimum clear area, whichever is greater.
The original noise standard would have required all projects involving a turbine of one megawatt (MW) capacity or greater to conduct a noise study, the results of which would be verified by a consultant hired by the Cape Cod Commission. New language clarifies that point: project applicants would perform a noisy study and fund a Cape Cod Commission review of the study, the specifics of which would be detailed in an as-yet unwritten technical bulletin.
The larger change is the addition of a minimum required setback for noise mitigation. Turbines with a maximum generation capacity equal to or greater than one megawatt would be required to maintain a 3,000-foot minimum setback from the nearest receptor (person living within visual or audible range) or residential parcel.
The exception: if the noise study shows to the Commission’s satisfaction minimal noise impacts to residents, the CCC may approve a reduced setback.
Project applicants would also have to submit a noise mitigation plan that details reduced operating procedures to address noise complaints.
The original shadow flicker standard simply required developers to prove “no adverse shadow flicker impacts” to nearby residential properties. The new standard calls for a shadow flicker study on anyone who could be impacted, and in cases where a receptor would be affected by shadow flicker for more than 10 hours per year (.11 percent of a turbine’s total potential operation time in a calendar year), the applicant would have to file a mitigation plan to reduce shadow flicker to less than 10 hours per year.
On a related topic, the current draft directs wind turbine projects to minimize aesthetic impacts in visually sensitive areas such as historical districts and scenic roads and vistas, issues that were not addressed in the first draft.
Paul J. Niedzwiecki, director of the Cape Cod Commission, said the various standards in the new draft were based on multiple sources, including a number of studies on sound and shadow flicker.
The Commission added a new provision requiring a decommissioning plan for all turbines, which would be implemented automatically should a turbine become inactive for more than 120 consecutive days (unless a waiver is granted). The project applicant would also have to set up a fund to cover the cost of decommissioning.
Other new language added a threshold that would trigger an automatic Development of Regional Impact (DRI) review by the CCC, something that was lacking from the original regulations. Construction of any land-based turbine in excess of 65 feet in height, as measured from the natural grade of the site to tip of the blades at the highest point in their rotation, would trigger a review.
This standard would also apply to meteorological towers, which are often erected to measure wind in an area sited for turbine development.
The review standards would not apply to a municipal project consisting of one turbine of 100 kilowatt capacity or less on a single parcel.
Mr. Niedzwiecki said the regulations, if approved, would not affect any existing turbines or projects that are already underway.
He noted that town officials’ initial input indicated that there was little appetite for the Commission’s involvement in the thorny onshore wind turbine debate, but the CCC believed “when you’re talking about structures that can be 500-plus feet tall, it’s hard to imagine that a structure of that size doesn’t inherently have a regional impact and should be examined by the regional planning agency.”
That said, Mr. Niedzwiecki regarded the current draft regulations as honoring the wishes of the Assembly to have more stringent regs, whereas he called the original draft was more restrained and discreet.
Excessive Or Inadequate?
Speakers at last week’s hearing fell into two clear factions: public officials who feared the stricter regulations would be too restrictive and effectively bar onshore wind turbine development, and residents who felt the regs were still too generous did not go far enough in protecting landowners’ rights.
William Doherty, chairman of the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners – who was speaking for himself and not on behalf of the board – was among the public officials who believed the new regulations would hinder turbine development.
Richard Elrick of Mashpee, energy coordinator for Barnstable and Bourne, called the regulations “excessive and draconian,” and would create “the most substantial impediment yet to the installation of new wind turbines on Cape Cod.”
“You might as well say goodbye to the towns’ ability to erect turbines” under the proposed setback standard, Mr. Elrick said.
Mr. Doherty specifically criticized the clear area setback, stating it was “not practical and is not supported by scientific or industrial standards.” He noted that existing large-scale turbines on Cape Cod, such as the turbine at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, have structures within the clear area range as defined by the Commission.
Malcolm Donald of Falmouth regarded the setback as inadequate, quoting documentation from turbine manufacturer Vestas, which made the Falmouth turbine, calling for a 1,640-foot setback.
Mr. Donald also said the Massachusetts Department of Transportation should be involved in any turbine siting decisions for projects within the 797-foot “ice throw” range (General Electric’s recommended minimum safe distance to safeguard people from ice that could be thrown off the spinning blades during cold weather).
Members of the public who testified last week most often referred to the noise impacts as their major headache, figuratively and often literally. Several speakers were Falmouth residents living within several hundred feet of the town-owned turbine on Blacksmith Shop Road, who claim to be experiencing various health issues due to the noise of the turbine in operation, ranging from chronic sleeplessness and persistent headaches.
Mr. Elrick called these claims “anecdotal” evidence of ill effects from turbine noise, a comment that drew groans from some audience members. “We have example after example of residents who have lived much closer than [the recommended setback] distance to turbines who have expressed no annoyance, no opposition, and no concern,” he said.
Mr. Doherty argued that the “subjective nature of hearing makes it difficult if not impossible to determine a threshold of irritation as a minimal impact in an absolutely objective way,” and for that reason the Cape should observe the state noise standard for turbines of 10 decibels above a particular location’s ambient noise levels as measured from a receptor’s property line.
He added that during a field trip to visit the municipal wind turbines in Hull, he spoke to a resident living “within the shadow” of one turbine who reported that it “did not cause any significant problems.”
Residents living near the Falmouth turbine maintained that both audible and low-frequency sound generated by the turbine, as well as a phenomenon dubbed “aerodynamic/amplitude modulation” – essentially, audible turbulence – were negatively impacting their quality of life.
“This [aerodynamic/amplitude modulation] is very, very distressing,” said Neil Anderson of Falmouth, who lives near the town turbine. “I cannot describe the feeling. I know that it does exist and that it is harmful,” but the renewable energy industry is turning a blind eye to the issue.
There have been few studies of aerodynamic/amplitude modulation. One study conducted in the United Kingdom by the University of Salford stated that “the incidence of [aerodynamic/amplitude modulation] resulting from wind turbines in the UK is low. Out of the 133 wind turbines in operation at the time of the study, there were four cases where [aerodynamic/amplitude modulation] appeared to be a factor. Complaints have subsided for three out of these four sites, in one case as a result of remedial treatment in the form of a wind turbine control system.”
Dr. Robert J. McCunney, a medical doctor and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the health effects of wind turbine noise, spoke on the topic in Bourne last year. He stated that there was no body of peer-reviewed scientific research supporting claims that ultra low-frequency sound (“infrasound”) caused physical or psychological reactions in humans.
He said any measurable health effects, referred to in some circles as “wind turbine syndrome,” are in fact the result of stress reactions to a sound an individual finds objectionable or annoying. For that reason, he noted, some communities in the US observe a noise mitigation setback standard of five times the height of the turbine – more than three times the distance recommended by the CCC.
Mr. Anderson called for a moratorium on onshore wind turbine development until the various surrounding issues could be thoroughly studied. The Falmouth Planning Board last month submitted to county commissioners a formal request to have the Upper Cape declared a District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC), but that request has not yet been reviewed by the commissioners (the proposal was discussed by the Assembly on December 1 and December 15).
The proposed RPP revisions are available for viewing online at www.capecodcommission.org/RPP/WECF_thresholdMPS_011011.pdf.
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