A $50,000 line item in this year’s capital budget to support research into wind turbine noise is drawing scrutiny because of the involvement of wind energy critics.
Advocates of renewable energy suggest the money was allocated to further a legislator’s anti-wind agenda.
The researcher expected to receive the grant – who has opposed ridgeline wind development in Vermont – said he’s interested foremost in good science.
Accounts also differ as to how the money came to be awarded. But the legislators behind the provision say they inserted it into the budget to spur job growth in an underrepresented profession.
What it’s for
The capital bill says only that $50,000 will be available to Lyndon State College for the “purchase of sound monitoring equipment.”
The appropriation was inserted while the bill was before the Senate Institutions Committee. Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, is the chair.
Constituents have complained about the lack of trained sound technicians in the state, Flory said in an interview, and the $50,000 appropriation is meant to address that.
“Listening to testimony from folks who were unable to get wind measurement and sound measurement gave credence to the idea that there’s a demand out there, and schools willing to meet that demand,” Flory said. “When the school came to us about this program on sound measurement, it fit, to us, along the same lines with what we were trying to do to assist schools, to offer education in areas where there’s demand.”
Flory said the money’s purpose is to train students, not to gather data.
“This is intended for those kids, not to meet somebody’s private agenda,” she said.
Who asked whom?
Although Flory said she inserted the provision in response to a Lyndon State instructor’s request to fund his program, the professor said he was approached first by legislators.
Ben Luce is an associate professor who teaches science at Lyndon State College. He’s a physicist, and he has a degree in sound recording. He has also spoken out regularly against putting wind turbines on ridgelines and is a member of the board of Energize Vermont, a group opposing industrial-scale wind power.
Luce said he was actually approached about the funding by Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans – a vocal opponent of Vermont’s wind energy industry and sponsor of a bill that sought to ban industrial wind development.
“We did not approach the Legislature. The Legislature contacted us,” said Luce. “I was skeptical because the proposal requires us to raise another $50,000 (in matching funds). I was actually skeptical about the idea, because I didn’t know how we could do that.”
Rodgers said Flory actually asked him whether he could think of any way to spend the money, which remained after other state college requests had been funded. Rodgers said he knew of Luce and pitched the idea to him.
‘Turbine impact’ center
The college may house at least some of the equipment in an abandoned house where anti-wind groups hope to establish a sound monitoring laboratory, according to Lyndon State’s executive director of communications, Sylvia Plumb.
That would be only one of many locations researchers will need, Plumb said.
Energize Vermont has said it plans to establish the Vermont Center for Turbine Impact Studies near the Sheffield wind project in what had been the Therrien family’s home.
The group is looking for researchers to set up sound monitoring equipment in the house less than a mile from the turbines, said Executive Director Mark Whitworth.
Energize Vermont paid off the home’s delinquent taxes on behalf of the owners.
His group will try to raise at least part of the needed $50,000 in matching funds for the grant, Whitworth said.
“Should the match be raised, and should the program go ahead, I’d certainly invite (Lyndon State) to look at the property … but we did not enter into the agreement with (the homeowners) solely on the idea it would house Lyndon State” researchers and equipment, Whitworth said.
The group will “consider research projects” from other schools as well, he said.
Just the numbers
Plumb said Lyndon State would not do research into subjects such as adverse health effects that some opponents blame on turbines. Such studies lie outside its researchers’ area of expertise, she said.
“Students will be trained in acoustics for sound measurement and analysis,” she said.
Luce said the program is meant only to collect and analyze data.
“We’re not trying to produce any definite conclusions about the data. The goal is to gather data and to train students,” he said.
He and Plumb said the college will make public all the data produced.
Luce said he’s “100 percent” in favor of renewable energy but has taken positions against certain wind projects. Those positions will in no way affect the results of his research, Luce said.
But the chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, said the source of the data matters, even though it might be worth collecting.
“When someone’s already been publicly, explicitly in opposition to … wind, and then they’re going to collect data on that,” Bray said, “there could be a legitimate question of, ‘Could there be a conflict of interest on that?’”
Environmental advocates decried the allocation as a present to special interests and said it should have undergone a more public selection process.
“This taxpayer gift to the extreme opponents of renewable energy in Vermont was essentially hidden in the budget,” said Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “At a time when so many Vermonters are struggling, it’s outrageous to see taxpayers’ dollars wasted on a pet project like this, especially one where the outcome has already been so tainted.”
Bray said the $50,000 seems to have been considered only by Flory’s Institutions Committee before hitting the Senate floor. And he said it’s unclear whether that committee vetted any other potential recipients.
None were considered, Rodgers said, because the money’s purpose was to spur growth in a field with few Vermont practitioners. Wind turbines exist around the world, Rodgers said, and consequently there’s a demand for trained sound technicians.
Furthermore, Rodgers said, the $50,000 item wasn’t hidden.
“It was discussed in committee multiple times, and it was supported by the entire committee,” Rodgers said. Any legislator could have seen it contained within the budget as well, he said.
The budget item didn’t go to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee or Finance Committee or any other, Rodgers said. But he said that’s true of countless other legislative actions.
Looking for a match
Lyndon State representatives said they’re looking to raise the $50,000 needed to free up the money legislators set aside.
Whitworth has said he intends to raise the matching funds through Energize Vermont.
But Plumb said the college will not accept money for the match from advocacy groups. There’s no policy that spurred that stance, she said, but rather the college evaluates funding opportunities on a case-by-case basis.
Nothing’s been pledged yet, she said.