Tensions ran high Thursday as the Vermont Public Service Board held a hearing to determine whether Green Mountain Power should be sanctioned for operating the 21-turbine Lowell Mountain wind project at above permitted sound levels.
The quasi-judicial board called the hearing after GMP reported the wind project produced noise above 45 decibels outside neighboring residences. This is the threshold that the project is not permitted to exceed.
During 4,756 hours of sound testing this past winter, GMP reported the Lowell project surpassed 45 decibels for a total of 4.16 hours.
The Public Service Department submitted testimony to the board calling for a penalty as high as $60,000, or between $1,000 and $10,000 per violation. Depending on how noise data are calculated, the department says, there were five or six separate instances when the project exceeded sound levels.
“The Department would like to see those funds put toward a meaningful improvement in the monitoring of noise at the site,” wrote Allan St. Peter, senior electrical engineer for the department. “Perhaps continuous monitoring and automated telepathy (sic) would be a useful response to the nature of the potential ongoing issues.”
But GMP says continuous monitoring would be expensive and cumbersome.
The sound and the snow
Kenneth Kaliski is the director of environment, energy and acoustics for Resource Systems Group, Inc., which monitors sound levels at the Lowell project.
“I think it would be extremely difficult to (continuously monitor sound) according to the protocol. It would be very expensive,” he said. “It would require seven continuous monitors to be located where the monitors are now. There would be continuous audio recording, when there have been concerns expressed about the monitoring we do currently.”
At a minimum, he said, it would cost GMP $600,000 over two years just for the monitoring. GMP spokesman Robert Dostis says that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
When GMP tests sound levels, it turns off the plant and then turns it back on. This loss of power and associated renewable energy credits and federal power production tax credits would cost the utility much more, Dostis said.
Snow buildup is what caused the higher sound levels in winter, he and other utility representatives said, and GMP is installing monitoring equipment to detect when certain types of snow build up.
“We have been compliant 99.9 percent of the time,” Dostis said. “We know what the issue is, and we’re addressing what got us out of compliance. What’s the benefit of spending a lot of money to do continued monitoring when the amount of exceedances was very, very small?”
The board, however, was indignant that GMP was not aware snow build up could cause higher sound levels before installing the plant. And they were incredulous that Josh Castonguay, GMP’s director of generation, could not answer many of the questions asked of him at the witness stand.
“We try to balance the good of the state citizenry,” board member John Burke told Castonguay. “Every time we do something like this there will be somebody who bears some burden as a result of that. And we’re trying to take that into account and set a fair baseline for those people, to try to say that those people shouldn’t have to bear more than this for the good of everybody. I want to make sure that in fact you and Green Mountain are viewing it the same way.”
The unhappy neighbors
Two of the Lowell residents who say they are bearing more than their fair share of the burden for this project are Don and Shirley Nelson, abutting landowners to the project.
They opposed the project before it was erected, and Shirley Nelson says she gets headaches from the turbine noise. On Thursday, Don Nelson cross-examined GMP’s witnesses.
“I’d like to see the project shut down, torn down and taken away and get a little bit of intelligence back into our energy policy,” he said in a separate interview. “The state energy plan is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of. We’re going to have 90 percent renewables in 2050?”
Kevin McGrath is another abutting landowner, who was present at the hearing. He spent the last month in Angola working as an engineer for Seadrill, the offshore deep-water drilling company, and said he wasn’t able to submit prefiled testimony. He says wind power cannot replace fossil fuel generators with more constant generation, and he says the project would have never been built without the more-than $500,000 a year GMP pays to the town of Lowell.
“The real carrot here is the money,” he said in an interview. “Green Mountain Power came into a small town and bought the vote. You can do that in a place like Lowell, but you can’t do that in a place like Stowe or South Burlington or the Burlington waterfront.”