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Turbine foes seize on window issue in temporary sound rules

Opponents of large-scale wind generation are challenging proposed interim sound standards for turbines on the grounds that state law forbids the temporary rules from being less strict than those in place already.

The Public Service Board recently released standards that will apply until it writes permanent ones within a year. The Legislature passed a law this year requiring both steps.

The new standards borrow from those already in place for various projects and in large part preserve the limits of 30 decibels as measured inside neighboring structures and 45 decibels outdoors that apply to most turbines in the state.

The standards stipulate that interior sound be measured with windows open in the summer, closed in the winter and partly open during October and April. Opponents of large-scale wind power say allowing measurements with windows closed is a departure that violates lawmakers’ intention.

The Public Service Board reserved the prerogative to require still lower sound levels from wind turbines on a case-by-case basis.

Applicants for most wind turbine permits must also submit results from sound modeling showing anticipated sound levels at a distance of 1 mile, for turbines producing 50 to 500 kilowatts, to 3 miles, for turbines producing more than 500 kilowatts.

Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau said it’s important that the “spillover effects” of renewable energy be addressed as Vermont moves forward with plans to bolster the state’s home-grown generation.

Other states such as Wisconsin, Massachusetts and New York appear to have found effective means of monitoring and enforcing sound standards for wind turbines, he said. Even though doing so might be tricky for technical reasons, including those relating to sound measurement, Vermont must follow suit and protect its residents from renewable energy generation’s unintended effects, he said. Parenteau is a former director of the school’s Environmental Law Center and its Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic.

But Andrew Savage, of Williston-based AllEarth Renewables, said Vermonters should also be wary of those who portray wind generation as a public health risk and be aware that only a few people say they suffer from the turbines’ effects.

“I think the opponents of wind want the public to believe there’s a major sound and health crisis regarding wind right now, and that’s not the case,” said Savage, who is chief strategy officer for the company.

For context, he described a well-known set of four wind turbines near Milton that has prompted well over 100 sound-related complaints since completion in 2012.

Those complaints came from only two households out of hundreds in the vicinity, Savage said.

An occupant of one of those homes, Melodie McLane, said she’s disappointed by the temporary standards. The interim standards appear to actually relax requirements by allowing developers to measure sound from inside nearby homes with the windows closed, McLane said.

“It was a clear message to us, to everyone, that they don’t believe us, they don’t care about us, they don’t care about (wind projects’) future neighbors,” McLane said.

Currently, sound standards for most wind turbines in the state require the structures to produce no more than 30 decibels in a neighbor’s home when the windows are open, said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

By allowing measurements with windows closed in winter months, the interim standards are less restrictive than at least two existing permits, Smith said.

Legislators directed the Public Service Board to adopt interim standards no less restrictive than the most restrictive existing permit on large wind projects.

“We’re looking into whether it’s appealable,” she said. “We’ve heard it may be, in Superior Court.”

Smith plans to testify against the temporary standards when the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules meets Aug. 11. The panel vets proposed rules through a public hearing process.

“We’re going in there with the evidence we have, that this violates legislative intent,” she said.