The state says Green Mountain Power could be fined $54,000 for violating sound standards at its Lowell wind project.
But the state agency that represents ratepayers says that instead of a fine, GMP should use the money to look into additional sound monitoring at the site.
The Public Service Board opened an investigation after it learned that sound from GMP’s wind turbines exceeded the board-imposed limits last winter.
GMP says it complied with the standards 99.9 percent of the time. But the Department of Public Service, which represents ratepayers says the problems were serious enough to justify a fine of $9,000 for each of the six violations. But instead of the fines, the department says GMP should be ordered to consider more aggressive sound monitoring.
Geoff Commons is the department’s public advocate. He said the board heard credible testimony from Shirley Nelson, a neighbor of the Lowell project, that the turbine sound was harming her health, even at levels produced below the state standard.
“It appeared that her complaints were not limited to the periods that there were violations,” he said. “We do get complaints about turbine noise, more or less regularly. And we think it would be appropriate to just basically get more information on the sounds that these are producing on a regular basis.”
For its part, GMP is arguing against any fine or additional monitoring. Dorothy Schnure is the company’s spokeswoman.
“Our goal is to be 100 percent compliant. We have been 99.9 percent complaint. And we’re investing $100,000 in weather monitoring equipment that will help us be 100 percent compliant,” she said.
Schnure said the state standard of 45 decibels – averaged over an hour and measured outside a neighbor’s home – is a fairly low level of noise.
“Forty-five decibels is considered not as loud as a car idling at 50 feet away. So it’s softer than that,” she said.
But some of the project’s critics say it’s not the volume of sound alone that can cause problems. Annette Smith is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which has helped neighbors fight wind projects. She says wind turbine sound has different characteristics than traffic noise or other background sounds.
“It’s very different. It’s a very complex set of noise, so you have the ‘whump whump whump,’ you have it sounds like a jet engine, you have the sneakers in a drier, or a plane that doesn’t land (sound),” she said. “Those are all very complicated noises. And regularly the people who live around the mountains who have monitors think, ‘god that’s loud’ and it’s 42 or 43 (decibels).”
Shirley Nelson, whose farm is below the Lowell ridgeline, has kept a diary listing headaches, disrupted sleep and other health issues that she says correlates to the turbine sound.
Geoff Commons, the state’s lawyer, said the state needs to learn more about the issue.
“Mrs. Nelson is reporting accurately reporting what she is feeling, and it’s something as a public advocate we need to take seriously and try to address,” he said. “And first we need to understand it better. So we are reaching out the Department of Health, for example.”
The weather condition that led to the sound violation was snow that built up on the turbine blades. Commons said it’s hard to understand how GMP and the turbine manufacturer failed to foresee that snow could be an issue in northern Vermont.