The cost of noise from wind turbines in Vermont has remained mostly up in the air.
That could change this week: A price tag on infractions at the Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell will be negotiated at a hearing Thursday by the state Public Service Board.
The 21-turbine array went online last fall. Despite partial shut-downs to address maintenance and noise issues, its break-in period has been mostly smooth, according to the owner, Green Mountain Power.
Definitions of “smooth” vary greatly, as do penalty amounts sought for noise violations, according to written testimony filed with the board before the hearing. Estimates begin at $5,000 (the low end proposed by the Department of Public Service).
Groups and individuals who have long opposed industrial wind power on Lowell Mountain have petitioned the board to consider the maximum possible fine: listed variously as $140,000 to $367,000. They also are seeking a subsidy from Green Mountain Power for legal and technical expenses with which to make a more compelling case.
“We’re trying to be helpful, but we don’t have the resources to be helpful,” Steve Wright, who represents the neighboring town of Craftsbury in the hearing, said last week. “We can’t appropriately represent ourselves.”
The region-wide grassroots organization Lowell Mountains Group has made a similar request for money.
The utility, meanwhile, states that its additional investment this year of $100,000 in upgraded monitoring gear is a sufficient good-faith pledge.
Moving the needle
Dollar amounts aside, testimony from all sides indicates substantial areas of agreement.
For instance: Everyone for miles around agrees that, on several occasions, snow and ice buildup on Lowell’s wind turbine blades resulted in increased noise.
No one who testifies will dispute that turbine noise exceeded permitted limits – and that the state can impose a penalty for those infractions, according to the advance filings.
Green Mountain Power had no excessive sound-level incidents in May and June, according to reports from RSG, an independent monitor.
RSG determined its meters’ needles strayed above the allowable 45 decibels for a total of about four hours in early December, mid-January and early March.
How significant was the excess? Kenneth H. Kaliski, who manages sound compliance for Green Mountain Power, put a number to it.
Of the 6,099 hours monitored near the site, those documented infractions represent 0.07 percent of the total, he wrote to the Public Service Board.
During the same time span, background noise from weather, animals, traffic and other human activity exceeded the 45-decibel level for about 30 hours at one of the test locations, Kaliski added.
That location is the home of Shirley and Don Nelson, who have lived on Lowell Mountain since 1968. They dispute the utility’s ability to fairly measure turbine noise, as well as to assess health risks.
Foxes and hens
Attached to Shirley Nelson’s 13-page testimony to the public service board are several appendices – “noise diaries” – that trace her mounting irritability, sleep loss, ringing in the ears, headaches and lapses in memory, which she attributes to the turbines.
Nelson furnished no medical substantiation for those symptoms but noted she’s been on medication for high blood-pressure for nine years; a “cardiac incident” she reported in mid-February prompted her doctor to suggest further tests, which showed no irregularities.
Nelson hasn’t complained to the Public Service Board with any regularity, she states, because the protocol insists she sends copies to the other 26 parties on the docket – a process both “ridiculous and expensive.”
The reporting process established by the board, she adds, “puts the neighbors in the role of policing GMP.”
But she offers a concrete suggestion: Green Mountain Power should fund an independent, round-the-clock monitoring of the turbines to avoid the risk of “the fox guarding the hen house.”
The 21 turbines at Lowell Mountain are designed to reliably generate 63 megawatts of power, or enough electricity for the needs of about 24,000 Vermont homes.
Kingdom Community Wind’s infractions took place when the project was operating at a maximum of 7MW, according to Allan St. Peter, an electrical engineer at the Department of Public Service.
Might the forecast for the upcoming winter include more noise? By some measures, perhaps.
“It seems likely that violations are more likely to occur at higher production levels and with more turbines operating,” St. Peter writes.
Green Mountain Power’s director of generation and renewable innovation, Joshua Castonguay, counters that sound measurements taken earlier this summer – while the array ran at full capacity – offer a more accurate prediction.
With a new video surveillance and weather station in place this winter, he adds, select turbines will more promptly be shut down, before their blades’ snow-and-ice encrustations set the neighbors’ teeth on edge.
“We are focused on compliance,” Castonguay wrote.