MONTPELIER – Testimony before the Public Service Board last week suggests that the social benefits of a wind farm outweigh the cost if the area adversely affected is a lightly settled rural area.
On the stand, David Lamont, a cost analysis expert for the Department of Public Service – the state agency that serves as a public watchdog for energy costs – said he switched his mind on the impact the Lowell Wind project will have because of the limited number of people who will be adversely affected.
“How do you define a limited number of people?” asked attorney Jared Margolis, who represents the towns of Albany and Craftsbury.
“How do you go from a limited number of people to too many?”
Mr. Lamont said his conclusion was based on the aesthetic evaluation conducted by the department (DPS) that estimated 120 people would be adversely affected by the project.
A number that he admitted under cross-examination was the result of “a subjective analysis.”
Mr. Lamont also told the board (PSB) that wind was a low cost project when compared to other renewable energy sources; that the Lowell project would reduce carbon emissions, thought to be one of the leading causes of climate warming; offer a benefit to ratepayers at a cost to shareholders; and enjoy a long period of service.
But Mr. Margolis wanted to know if action by the Legislature to promote wind farms in Vermont should influence the board’s decision.
“It should influence those decisions,” Mr. Lamont replied, adding that once passed legislation becomes law.
As Mr. Lamont testified, the room quickly filled with people coming from an anti-wind rally across the street on the State House lawn. As people looked for space on the floor to sit, Board Chairman James Volz announced that safety concerns required him to bar any more people from entering the room. The door was propped open so people in the hall could hear the testimony.
Events last week outside the hearing room appeared to add fuel to mounting suspicions that the process to site wind farms has become increasing political under the new Shumlin administration, even down to the three members that make up the quasi-judicial Public Service Board.
Recently, Governor Peter Shumlin said in a press conference that he supports the Lowell Mountain project, a 63 MW project of up to 21 turbines with the capacity of powering 20,000 homes – according to Green Mountain Power, the utility asking the board for a certificate of public good to develop the mountain.
The Governor’s endorsement came up Friday, February 25, as a memorandum of understanding between the Agency of Natural Resources and Green Mountain Power was introduced to the board. Attorneys opposing the project objected, saying this was the first time they had seen the document – an agreement regarding an exchange of land to mitigate the environmental impact of the project.
As the board prepared to retire to deliberate in private over how the memorandum should be handled as evidence, Lowell resident Bonnie Day wondered why everyone was avoiding what she called “the elephant in the room.”
Ms. Day, whose home would be close to the turbines, said she was concerned about the impact the Governor’s endorsement would have on the board.
Her insinuation that the board is not politically neutral brought a rash of denials from its members.
“What he says in public doesn’t concern us,” said the board’s chairman James Volz.
“It’s the witnesses we listen to,” said John Burke, adding that he and other members were appointed to the board under different governors to serve six-year terms.
“We are independent from the Governor,” added board member David Coen, reiterating the view that members serve as judicial officers.
Members of the Department of Public Service, however, do not share the board’s independence.
The department has backtracked from an original finding that the project would have an undue adverse aesthetic impact that would be “shocking and offensive” to the average person.
When asked if the Governor had told the department to withdraw its objection, Geoffrey Commons, special counsel to the department, declined to answer a reporter’s question, citing attorney-client confidentiality. He noted, however, that the relationship between the Governor and the department is different than the board’s.
“The Governor has made his position perfectly clear,” he said. “And we answer to the Governor.”
Suspicions that politics were driving the project forward surfaced again when news circulated later in the day that the House Committee on Natural Resources had added new language to its energy bill.
The new provision would require the board to hear an appeal on a renewable energy project within six weeks after it was filed.
The fast track appeal would apply to projects that must meet the federal deadline for tax credits.
Committee Chairman Tony Klein, who led the successful effort last year to take appeals on renewable energy projects out of the hands of the Environmental Court and turn them over to the PSB, said a fast appeal track would improve the permit process.
“I don’t care if we build one turbine or a million,” he said in an interview Friday. “All I care that if a project is good and beneficial build it. If not, don’t.”
The bill could go to a vote before the House by the end of next week, according to Mr. Klein.
The board heard conflicting testimony February 23 and 24 over the impact of turbine noise on the area. Arguments, pro and con, centered on health affects.
“We really undervalue the importance of a good night sleep,” said Richard James who testified as an expert on noise for the town of Albany.
He argued that a turbine’s irregular, pulsating sounds interrupt deep sleep – REM or the healthiest sleep mode – and urged the board to adopt a nighttime standard of 30 decibels outside homes.
But GMP’s attorney Peter Zamar was skeptical of Mr. James’ recommendations.
“There is no sufficient evidence that a decibel below 40 is harmful,” he said. “Yours is ten decibels over the World Health Organization guidelines.”
Opponents also put on testimony from Dr. Teddi Lovko of Rutland who testified that an interior nighttime standard be set at 35 decibels. Agreeing with Mr. James, she testified that turbine noise would have a greater effect on rural areas where there is less background noise than in an urban setting.
Utility attorney Zamar cited studies that showed only 20 percent of the people living in a rural area were annoyed when levels reached 35 to 40 decibels, and “very close to zero” in a range between 30 and 35 decibels.
When an economic benefit was tied to the noise, he said that nearly none of the people were annoyed.
And when the turbines were not visible, he added there were no complaints between a range of 40 to 45 decibels.
Chairman Volz noted that for wind farms in Sheffield and Deerfield, the board has set an exterior standard of 45 decibels and an indoor one at 30.
But Dr. Lovko argued that turbine noise is unlike any other, and that the World Health Organization guidelines “do not mention turbines in any way, shape or form.”
She advised the board to look beyond the existing standards that measure the effects of noise on health.
“There’s a lot of information out there that there are issues going on,” she said.
Testimony from some noise experts has suggested that tests conducted over a year to measure noise are unreliable. Since turbines only operate when the wind is blowing – which on Lowell Mountain is estimated to be 26 to 28 percent of the time – the yearly average is skewed.
As a witness for the Department of Public Service, Dr. William Irwin testified that there would be days when the turbines would exceed a 40-decibel cap. But he also argued “policy is made on what is reasonable and applicable,” and that problems with noise could be addressed as they arose.
But attorney Margolis probed for more, asking that noise standards can be met even if levels are exceeded.
“That is correct,” said Dr. Irwin, who testified that noise levels above 40 decibels outside and 30 inside are “what create chronic levels for health.”
During his cross examination, board attorney John Cotter noted that the higher 45 decibel exterior standards for Deerfield and Sheffield were based on measurements taken over an hour, not a year. And he wondered if the witness thought there was any difference on the impact of health.
Dr. Irwin said the standards were “equally protective,” but suggested that model testing over a year would account for worse case scenarios.
Chairman Volz also thought he saw an economic benefit from a standard based on a year’s average.
Otherwise regulators, he said, “might be shutting down a project unnecessarily if a violation occurred over an hour.”
Overall, Dr. Irwin testified that an average of 40 decibels over a year’s worth of testing “is protective of human health.”
The hearing will continue into March as last week’s storm caused Friday’s testimony to be canceled.