About a year and a half after towns in Vermont began signing the “Rutland Resolution” for better renewable energy siting, lawmakers responded by passing S.230. Critics of the bill are divided over what the legislation means for Vermonters, especially those affected by wind turbine noise.
“It’s a disingenuous bill and it was crafted to be that way,” said Don Chioffi, a Rutland Town selectboard member and lead proponent of the resolution.
“It was crafted so that it would look like it did something for the 160 towns that came up there demanding some action when in fact it does nothing.”
S.230 requires towns and regional planning commissions to create plans that identify acceptable sites for renewable energy projects. For town plans to receive “substantial deference” in hearings before the Public Service Board, they must adhere to the state’s long-term renewable energy goals, such as producing 25 percent of energy from renewables by 2025.
Critics such as state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, have called this approval process “circular,” leaving the state to dictate energy policy as before. Chioffi echoed that sentiment.
“Who does it have to be approved by? The regional commissions. … Who elects the regional commissions? Nobody, they are an appointed body. Again, it takes responsible development of the town away from the elected officials and puts it into the hands of appointees.”
Rutland Town’s plan is up for renewal and has been updated for energy siting. According to Chioffi, it was modeled after the Bennington town plan, which was successful in getting the PSB to deny a certificate of public good for a solar project earlier this year.
For many critics, the usefulness of S.230 depended on rewriting the sound decibel limits for industrial wind turbines. Proposed new limits, which were to be written by July 2017 but applied retroactively to April 2016, were stripped out in the final days of the legislative session.
But Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said the wind regulation that remains in S.230 might improve life for many Vermonters.
“What they came up with instead, if you read the language, is actually very serious. It may in some respects be better,” she said.
In absence of the retroactive wind standards, the PSB must adopt temporary rules on sound levels for new wind facilities on a case-by-case basis. The board must do so according to 3 V.S.A. section 844, which states an agency must adopt emergency rules if the public health is threatened.
“In my interpretation, what Vermont’s Legislature has just done is they have declared that there exists an ‘imminent peril to public health, safety and welfare from wind turbine noise,’” Smith said, quoting from the statute.
Moreover, the emergency rule sound standards must not exceed an average 45 decibels outside a home and average 30 decibels inside. Smith claims those limits are not currently being met by many wind projects, including Sheffield Wind, a 40-megawatt, 16-turbine project in Sheffield.
According to a PSB sound level study conducted by noise consultant Acentech, Sheffield has been operating in excess of the limits:
“During the winter, when windows are more likely to be closed, the percentage of time exceeding 30 dBA (average decibels) ranged from less than 6 to 8 percent (windows partially open) to about 10 to 12 percent (windows fully open). And during the seasons of spring and fall, when windows are likely to be open at times, the percentage of time exceeding 30 dBA ranged from about 2 to 6 percent (windows partially open) and about 10 to 14 percent (windows fully open).”
Smith said this means the Sheffield wind project has been out of compliance with interior noise standards between 9 percent and 14 percent of the time during its five years of operation.
“The Sheffield case has really blown out the noise standards for all the wind projects,” Smith said. “None of them can be in compliance if they assume a 15 dBA inside to outside attenuation through the home, which doesn’t happen. The evidence is before the board from at least two different experts over three different studies and the information is all the same.”
Smith said the sound decibel issue has been a thorn in the side of the wind industry and its supporters in the Legislature.
“This is a hot potato that nobody will touch,” said Smith. “We wanted the Legislature in this session to do something because they are the ones that dropped the ball and now everyone is just kicking this ball around. … Now the Legislature just kicked us back to the PSB.”
S.230 will be delivered to the governor’s office by June 1, after which Gov. Peter Shumlin has five days to sign it, veto it or let it become law without a signature.
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