Barely has the ink dried on a Public Service Commission order dismissing a complaint about noise from the Pinnacle wind plant at Keyser than another complaint has been filed.
Gary Ray Braithwaite filed a complaint June 27 seeking to have the Pinnacle Wind Farm at New Page shut down until the noise from it can be stopped.
It was just June 1 when the commission dismissed the case in which Richard Braithwaite – Gary’s brother – complained about noise from the plant.
The 55.2-megawatt Pinnacle wind plant, 23 turbines stretched in a line on several miles of Green Mountain ridge alongside Keyser, was commissioned in January 2012.
In February, Richard Braithwaite filed his complaint with the PSC.
“The constant noise of the wind turbines makes it impossible to rest or sleep,” according to the complaint filed by Richard Braithwaite, who lives about three-quarters of a mile from the plant.
He compared the sound, at its minimum, to a train coming through his yard. But when the wind blows from the east, it’s like a large airplane circling his home.
The sound reaches a level of 60 decibels, or dB, inside his house, he said, according to his own tests, and exceeds 80 outside.
And the light flickering through the moving blades gives him a migraine, he wrote.
It wasn’t just him. Included with the complaint was a copy of a petition signed by 47 local residents asking Mineral County’s commission and the area’s state delegation to, among other things, request the PSC to require the turbines to be shut down at night.
Plant operator Pinnacle Wind Force moved to dismiss the complaint. Braithwaite had not identified violations of any condition in the January 2010 siting certificate, the company argued – the commission had placed no conditions on sound or flickering.
The PSC Staff argued that Braithwaite’s complaint did, however, allege violations of representations Pinnacle had made about sound, and also of the commission’s findings of fact and conclusions of law in the siting certificate order. Among them was the assertion that the maximum operational noise level for the most affected landowner would be 56 dBA – a measure not just of noise, but of how the human ear perceives it.
That 56 dBA figure came from a computer-modeled sound study conducted by acoustic consultants Acentech during the certificate case, according to Charles Parnell, vice president of public affairs for plant owner Edison Mission Group.
“They take everything into account – weather, humidity, distance from different receptors, which are traditionally homes,” Parnell said. “They also take into account topography, because noise moves differently into a ravine or if the wind is coming from a different direction. All of those components are put into the model to figure out what the noise impacts will be.”
Filing in response to Braithwaite’s complaint, Pinnacle said that a follow-up study it had conducted showed the sound level at his home to be 45 dBA.
PSC Staff visited the site in April. It found that, while Braithwaite’s sound measurements were not taken under controlled scientific conditions, the sound was “very prominent” when the exhaust was facing his home.
In dismissing the complaint on June 1, the commission found that, because it had not placed sound conditions in the siting certificate, it did not have jurisdiction.
Sound and siting
The provisions on sound in the commission’s July 2005 Rules Governing Siting Certificates for Exempt Wholesale Generators – essentially, non-utility power generators – go no further than to require applicants to submit studies predicting noise levels during construction and during operation.
On establishing its rules, the commission said it would form a task force to further consider the issue of sound.
The Noise Rules Task Force, chaired by a PSC Staff member and made up of then-Cong. Alan Mollohan along with several power producers, representatives of a number of citizens’ and environmental groups, someone from the PSC’s Consumer Advocate Division and a handful of interested individuals, met once in November 2005 and filed a progress report as mandated in January 2006.
Citizen and environmental interests on the task force felt the commission “should have known and measurable standards codified in its siting rules,” the report explained, while representatives of generator interests disagreed.
The task force members disagreed on much, but agreed on one point: That the services of an acoustics expert were needed.
That is as far as that exploration went. The commission accepted the progress report as final and closed the case.
The rules issued in July 2005 had been used in the Liberty Gap Wind Force and Beech Ridge Energy cases, the commission wrote in its June 8, 2006, final order on sound, and had “provided sufficient guidance to applicants and other parties and resulted in sufficient information regarding project noise predictions to allow the commission to become informed and make reasonable public interest analyses in siting applications.”
The commission has written that its sound rules are flexible, providing it with “the opportunity to consider projected noise levels and to consider conditioned siting certificates and/or remedial action if projected noise levels are determined to be unacceptable.”
Morgantown lawyer Brad Stephens, who has represented community and environmental organizations in transmission and generation cases and represented a group in the Pinnacle certificate case, said he has learned in conversations with sound experts that predicting sound is very difficult.
“At the end of the day, it may be just about impossible to very accurately predict how noise will be propagated around the site, based on the rolling terrain,” Stephens said.
“Neither the siting rules nor the sound prediction studies that have been performed in connection with wind energy applications in West Virginia sufficiently captures what the reality will likely be once a project is in operation, or how the sounds are heard at various reference points in the vicinity of the project,” he continued.
He’d like to see the siting rules address the way noise works in the real world, but he’s not sure that could be achieved adequately – and he said he can’t imagine what remedy the commission could prescribe for an already-operating wind plant.
What happens now
For Gary Braithwaite, the sound of the Pinnacle plant is like “somebody’s car sitting out in your front yard with the bass turned up.” It’s generally worst, he said, around 1 or 2 a.m.
Richard Braithwaite wanted it shut down at night – Gary just wants it shut down.
Back in the spring, Edison Mission Group tested a possible solution.
“The cooling fans were making an unexpected noise,” Parnell acknowledged. “It was a noticeable noise coming off the cooling fans so we contacted the manufacturer, Mitsubishi, and made them aware of this noise, and they came up with what they call a ‘louver’ system that is designed to dampen the noise.”
One test louver installed in the spring seemed to help. So, although the commission did not order Pinnacle to install louvers on all of the turbines, the company has decided on its own to do that in July at a cost of about $500,000.
“We like to build a relationship with our neighbors,” Parnell said. “When you hear your neighbors complaining about unexpected noise, I think it’s your responsibility to investigate and take proactive measures if you can and that’s exactly what we did here. … I think we have a good solution.”
Whether the Braithwaites will agree remains to be seen. Parnell said Pinnacle found that its test louver gave about a 50 percent reduction in the noise; in a filing with the PSC, the company said the louvers would reduce sound at Richard Braithwaite’s home by about 7 dBA.
In its June 1 order dismissing his complaint, the commission suggested that Richard Braithwaite could file a nuisance claim in circuit court for recourse.
That seems to Stephens the likeliest solution.
“I see no solution other than the adversely affected residents filing suit for damages,” he said.
Gary Braithwaite said 26 families in the area have hired a lawyer and are talking now about just that.
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