Whether a wind turbine is ugly, beautiful or somewhere in between is a matter of opinion. But its loudness, measured in decibels, is pretty objective.
How to balance those two factors is a big part of the ongoing debate over how that dull-sounding but wildly controversial body, the Site Evaluation Committee, should proceed.
The SEC, which dates back to Aristotle Onassis’s attempt to build an oil refinery on the Isles of Shoals four decades ago, is the state’s oversight group for large energy projects. It is made up of a variety of commissioners of state agencies covering energy, economy, environmental and cultural matters, and two members of the public, and its overarching goal is to ensure that projects are in the “public good.”
In greater Concord, the committee’s big impact involves Northern Pass, since it must approve any route for that electric transmission line from Quebec, but it has a lot of other things on its plate, too.
The committee is involved in the second go-around of a wind farm in Antrim as well as two other proposed power lines, one on the Seacoast and one in southern New Hampshire, and it will soon be part of the debate over the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline, although its role in that last one is a little uncertain because the federal government oversees pipelines. The one thing the Site Evaluation Committee hasn’t handled is solar power, because nobody in New Hampshire has tried to build any of them big enough to merit its attention.
This gatekeeper role has drawn a lot of attention to the Site Evaluation Committee, but it’s not clear to the public exactly how they do their evaluations. And for good reason: It’s complicated.
The current rules, which have been tweaked a few times, are covered by a law called Energy Facility Evaluation, Siting, Construction and Operation (RSA 162:H), and are quite general.
The law uses the phrase “in reasonable detail” frequently when describing what information the committee must get from projects before deciding on the public-good target: “Describe in reasonable detail the applicant’s financial, technical, and managerial capability for construction and operation of the proposed facility,” it says in one place, and “Describe in reasonable detail the impact of each major part of the proposed facility on the environment for each site proposed” in another.
“Reasonable” is a common word in contracts but not very satisfying to those looking for guidance about whether, say, the committee will require Eversource to bury Northern Pass power lines along Concord’s Brookwood Drive.
Making the guidance more explicit, although not quite that explicit, was the thinking behind a host of new rules proposed for the SEC at the urging of lawmakers. However, the proposed changes were turned down by the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules in mid-October, partly due to concerns from businesses that they were too detailed and onerous.
The SEC has until the end of November to revise the proposed rules, and the committee will then have a couple of months to decide whether to accept them. As a further twist, it’s not entirely clear whether any changes will even apply to Northern Pass, since that seems to depend on whether what is known as the “adjudicative process” has begun before the rules are adopted by the legislative committee.
Still, the rejected rules reflect more detail than current ones and, depending on the outcome, any changes could affect future energy projects in the state.
For example, under the proposed changes, to help judge the visual impact of a transmission line, the applicant must include “computer-based visibility analysis to determine the area of potential visual impact” that must extend half a mile “within any urbanized area,” 2 miles “within any urban cluster,” and, in a rural area, must extend either 3 or 10 miles on all sides, depending on whether it’s a new transmission corridor or towers get taller.
The new rules also required “photosimulations from representative key observation points, from other scenic resources for which the potential visual impacts are characterized as ‘high’ . . . and, to the extent feasible, from a sample of private property observation points within the area of potential visual impact,” designed to show “the potential change in the landscape that would result from construction of the proposed facility and associated infrastructure, including land clearing and grading and road construction.”
Wind farms, which in many ways spurred the rule revision, get even more detail. For example, the proposed rules said the maximum amount of “shadow flicker” – caused when spinning blades pass between you and the sun – can be eight hours per year at any location. The rules also had detailed descriptions of how to measure wind farms’ noise impact, not just by listing loudness levels in decibels, but by noting that measurements must be made “using microphone placement at least 7.5 meters from any surface where reflections may influence measured sound pressure levels.”
Despite all these details, the SEC rules are just a small part of what Northern Pass or any other energy applicant must put forward. There are many other requirements that must be given a thumbs up or thumbs down by other government or quasi-government bodies, from wetlands permits to road-crossing permits to interconnection agreements with the grid.
That may partly explain why the official Northern Pass application was 20,000 pages long, give or take a few (Northern Pass got permission to submit most copies in digital form rather than on paper). As the process matures, both supporters and opponents delve deeper into the details.
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