The Vermont Public Service Board this week ordered Green Mountain Power to pay to continuously monitor sound of the Lowell wind turbines as part of a penalty for noise violations last year.
Continuous sound monitoring is expected to cost GMP $109,000 or more. The board also ordered that GMP pay a $1,000 financial penalty.
GMP cannot recover those costs from ratepayers, the board ordered Thursday.
GMP accepted the penalty, while ridgeline wind opponents weren’t happy.
The board warned that a financial penalty alone could have been larger, but said that there are benefits of continuous sound monitoring and other mitigating factors.
Initial monitoring of selected wind turbines on Lowell Mountain in the late fall of 2012, when the turbines were first online, and early 2013 revealed that in a handful of occasions, the sound exceeded the levels allowed by the PSB.
There have been no violations recorded since then during the intermittent monitoring periods.
The violations prompted a year-long investigation by the board, leading to Thursday’s order and penalty.
The board called the violations “a serious concern,” given that GMP knew as the turbines were being put up in November 2012 that snow on the blades could cause extra noise.
The board “was prepared to impose a significant penalty,” noting that GMP had said throughout its application for permission to build and operate the wind project that it would obey the sound standards. “This turned out not to be the case,” the board noted.
The Department of Public Service, acting as consumer advocate, will conduct the monitoring and then bill GMP. The department had offered this as an alternative to a financial penalty last year, with GMP agreeing to the idea.
The board at the time asked that the department, GMP and intervenors representing neighbors of the project work together on finding a team of consultants and a monitoring method that all parties could agree to.
That effort failed, leading to Thursday’s order.
The Lowell Mountain Group, the Town of Albany and neighbor Kevin McGrath wanted a method that would provide real-time information about noise and real-time corrections. They did not support the department’s plan.
The board accepted the department’s plan, noting that the neighbors and their representatives did not show reasons why it would not work.
The decision to go with the department’s plan does not set a precedent for future sound monitoring of wind projects, the board stated.
The acceptance of the department’s plan was made “in lieu of imposing a larger monetary penalty,” the board stated.
The board also said that there were mitigating factors in GMP’s favor, including the installation of video monitoring equipment to identify why snow is building up and a weather station. And there have been no further violations, the board noted.
The board could have imposed a penalty as large as $100,000 for each of the four sound violations.
The board reserves the right to revisit the civil penalty if the monitoring is not fully implemented and paid for by GMP.
GMP accepted the decision of the board.
“We have supported continuous monitoring and remain confident that we will continue to operate within state standards, as we have done since the first few months of operation,” GMP spokesman Dorothy Schnure said Friday.
“Kingdom Community Wind is a great resource that is helping to lower costs for customers. We respect the board’s decision and look forward to working with the department on the specifics of implementing the plan.”
But Energize Vermont executive director Mark Whitworth, speaking on behalf of the neighbors that have fought the Lowell wind project, was not pleased with the order.
“PSB’s order is vague. It establishes no deadlines for compliance. The board is trying to evade its responsibilities by asserting that the ruling cannot be used to establish precedence,” Whitworth said Friday.
“There is nothing in the board’s order that is protective of human health,” Whitworth stated.
“The order relates only to audible sound and does not require GMP to monitor infrasound. Infrasound is the likely cause of most of the adverse health impacts that turbine neighbors are experiencing.
“The PSB has ignored every issue raised by the intervenors. It is now apparent that the board has wasted public money on a lengthy public process whose purpose was largely theatrical – to give the illusion of public participation. The people of Vermont are permitted to speak to the board, but the board ignores them,” Whitworth concluded.
The investigation and penalty is unrelated to an ongoing investigation by the board into whether existing sound standards for wind and other energy generation projects are sufficient and protect human health.