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Officials caution against comparisons between Fairhaven, Falmouth turbines

FAIRHAVEN – When Windwise member Ken Pottel heard that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection had shut down one of Falmouth’s turbines Tuesday, he was elated.

“It encourages us and it powers us more,” he said. “People are having adverse reactions to our own turbines, and this gives us hope that something can be done.”

That Windwise was encouraged by the decision in Falmouth is not surprising. Afraid that health conditions reportedly suffered on the Cape would be replicated in SouthCoast, the group has kept a watchful eye on the Cape Cod turbines since before construction in Fairhaven began last year.

But DEP and Fairhaven officials caution against drawing comparisons between the two towns, citing different types of turbines, differing topography and the relatively short period of time Fairhaven’s turbines have been operational.

According to Fairhaven Wind developer Sumul Shah, different kinds of turbines are louder than others depending on the type of mechanism that controls rotor speed and blade tilt. Both Fairhaven turbines are “pitch-regulated,” as is Falmouth’s Wind 2, also built and controlled by Shah.

Falmouth’s Wind 1, the turbine shut down by the DEP, is a “stall-regulated turbine,” which Shah said “are louder than pitch-regulated turbines.”

In stall-regulated turbines, the blades can be tilted backwards, away from the wind, like a flower opening, to help regulate the speed at which the rotor turns. In pitch-regulated turbines, rotor speed is regulated by rotating the blades of the turbines along their long axis, adjusting the surface area of the blade that faces into the wind.

“The noise has to do with the air flow over the blades and how it catches the wind,” Shah said. “Even if the turbines are running at the same speed, the stall-regulated turbine would be louder.”

DEP Commissioner Kenneth Kimmel confirmed that different types of turbines operate at different noise levels and that turbines from different manufacturers also differ in noise level.

Falmouth Town Meeting voted in April to cut the hours of operation for Wind 2, a pitch-regulated turbine built by Shah. Now that turbine is turned off between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

This week, the DEP and Falmouth decided to completely shut down Wind 1 after tests showed it was above acceptable noise levels.

In Massachusetts, a turbine is considered to be in violation if it is 10 decibels louder than the area’s ambient sound.

At 80 meters tall, Fairhaven and Falmouth’s turbines are the same height, but Fairhaven’s turbines are an average of 200 feet closer to the nearest residents. Fairhaven’s closest turbine neighbors, on Little Bay Road, are 900 feet from the turbines.

Kimmell said being in closer proximity to turbines does not necessarily make them louder.

“The location and the topography of the turbines in the two towns are very different, so you can’t use Falmouth as an example of the turbines in Fairhaven,” Kimmell said. “There are trees around the Fairhaven turbines that Falmouth doesn’t have and those could act as a buffer.”

“Each turbine needs to be judged on its own merits,” he said. “You can’t assume that just because one turbine is in violation, it would be in another location, too.”

The DEP tested the noise-levels of Falmouth’s Wind 1 in March after town officials asked for help in measuring the sound. Prior to the testing, Falmouth’s Health Department had received more than 200 complaints about the turbines. In less than one month of operation, the Fairhaven Board of Health has received 27 complaints.

Kimmell said the DEP does not need permission from a town to test its turbines, and that the department “has an obligation to apply the same standards regarding noise and wind turbines to any facility.”

“We can and will do that if needed,” he said.

Chairman of the Fairhaven Board of Health Peter DeTerra said the board is working on compiling a list of “hot spots” for noise complaints. Once the list is completed, the town will ask Shah to test the noise levels.

DeTerra said he did not see a conflict of interest in the turbines’ own developers testing for a violation, saying that “if the board directs him to do the testing, he will have to do it and he will have to share it.”

Shah said he had a vested interest in ensuring that the turbines were not in noise violation because their manufacturer guaranteed that they would not exceed a certain decibel rating. Shah would not release the decibel rating, saying the manufacturer considered it a private business practice, but that if the turbines did exceed the rating, the manufacturer would have to pay to fix it.

Overall, DeTerra said it was too soon to tell the fate of Fairhaven’s turbines.

“Falmouth’s have been up for more than a year, and we just put ours online,” he said. “We are only in the beginning stages, but the Board of Health is taking this seriously.”