The Public Service Board has relaxed its proposed limits on wind turbine noise, and a key senator says lawmakers could order further changes if the rules prove too strict.
Wind energy supporters say Vermont is unlikely to see turbines put up under the new sound standards the board sent to legislators Tuesday for a final review.
If that turns out to be true, the standards could be replaced, according to the chair of the Senate committee on energy, Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison. He wrote the bill directing the PSB to develop the limits on noise from future wind projects.
Wind energy opponents say the standards won’t protect Vermonters against a host of ailments they allege turbines cause.
The new limits for sound measured 100 feet from nearby homes would be 39 decibels at night and 42 during the day. Originally the Public Service Board proposed a nighttime limit of 35 decibels.
At 39 decibels, the turbines would be quieter than “sound levels in a library, or those produced by a stream or a refrigerator,” board members wrote in documents submitted with the rules.
The rules can’t go into effect unless the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules believes they will allow future wind development, said Bray. That’s because both the state’s comprehensive energy plan and the law that called for the new PSB standards – Act 174 of 2016 – reflect an intention for wind development to continue.
LCAR largely deals with technical matters – such as whether the rules are arbitrary – but also looks at whether they follow legislators’ intent.
Bray said he trusts at this point that board members arrived at defensible sound limits, expressing confidence that the three-person PSB has the knowledge to come up with reasonable standards that also protect turbine neighbors from unreasonable harm.
Beyond that, it will be lawmakers’ job to make sure the dire predictions of some wind energy supporters don’t come true, Bray said.
“It’ll be up to us as legislators to keep an eye on the real-world implications of that rule,” he said. If the rules institute a de facto moratorium, legislators would have a variety of options, Bray said. The Legislature could rewrite the rules entirely or specify different sound limits, or ask some other entity such as the Department of Health to write a different set of rules, he said.
But Bray said a similar furor was raised over recently adopted rules governing net-metered renewable energy production, with opponents of the rules predicting they “would kill the solar industry in Vermont.”
Since those rules went into effect, Bray said, Vermont has seen a near-record number of applications for net-metered energy projects. They’ve largely been located in just the sort of places – brownfields, disused landfills and parking lots, for instance – that legislators hoped they’d be.
“I think that’s good news,” Bray said. “Maybe two years from now we’ll look at the [wind turbine sound] rules and say, ‘This represents good news.’”
Industry supporters not satisfied
Rules substantially similar to the PSB’s are already in effect in several European countries, which Bray said leads him to believe the rules submitted to LCAR “are probably appropriate standards and probably achievable.”
A recently closed case in which a neighbor accused the four-turbine Georgia Mountain Community Wind project of exceeding the 45-decibel limit in its permit found that the project hadn’t exceeded 40 decibels outside the neighbor’s home 3,800 feet away.
But wind energy advocates say the new 39-decibel limit won’t be achievable.
“I’m pretty disappointed,” said Sarah Wolfe, a clean energy advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. “This is a clear ban on wind. The board chose to ignore the evidence and take this important resource off the table.”
Currently Vermont has a very limited number of areas where it’s feasible to install wind turbines, Wolfe said. Appropriate sites require a confluence of technical, meteorological, topographical and other conditions that aren’t common.
The new standard “constricts that [number] dramatically,” she said. “There are maybe a handful of sites that could have one or two turbines.”
“With this [set of standards], I’m going to be shocked if anybody comes in and proposes wind [projects] in the future,” Wolfe said.
Wind power is likely essential to meeting the state’s goal of producing 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050, Wolfe said.
The board states in documents submitted with the rules that its first priority in devising them was to protect public health. Second among the board’s priorities was reducing annoyance experienced by neighbors.
“Lastly, the board sought to balance those two goals with the state’s policy, as evidenced by several legislative actions, to encourage renewable energy development and to significantly reduce the state’s reliance on fossil fuels,” the board wrote. “The board believes the two new [sound] levels strike the right balance between these competing interests.”
At sufficient levels, sound can harm public health, Wolfe said, adding that it’s appropriate for public health to be the board’s foremost concern.
But while wind turbines’ ability to annoy some people is documented, health officials say the same isn’t true of harm to public health. Wolfe said the board overstepped its charge in putting the annoyance of neighbors ahead of the state’s policy of getting away from fossil fuels.
“That’s a huge policy shift, and it’s highly concerning from a state agency that’s supposed to be looking out for the public good of the entire state,” Wolfe said.
Other wind energy advocates said the board should have given greater weight to the significant majority of people who testified in favor of wind turbines at the PSB’s recent hearings.
Around 80 percent of the roughly 700 people who testified to the board spoke in favor of sound standards that would let the industry grow, said Austin Davis, communications and operations associate for the industry group Renewable Energy Vermont.
Davis took issue with another provision in the standards requiring that turbines be no closer to neighboring homes than 10 times the turbines’ height, unless those neighbors agree. Most large-scale wind turbines in the state measure around 500 feet to the tip of their highest blade.
Requiring a setback of that distance will kill Vermont’s wind industry, Davis said.
“Under the proposed rule, regardless of community support, a single person’s objection within 1 mile of a potential wind site would prevent any project going forward,” Davis said.
‘People are being harmed’
One of the most vocal critics of Vermont’s wind industry said the new standards are “certainly an improvement over what we had,” but that she’s “disappointed” the sound from turbines will be allowed to reach 39 decibels outside neighbors’ homes.
Annette Smith, executive director of the anti-wind-energy group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, said the Public Service Board erred in failing to account for illnesses some people blame on turbines.
Smith said the sound of wind turbines causes a variety of ailments, including cardiac disease.
However, then-Health Commissioner Harry Chen told legislators last year that no such connection has been found.
“To date, no scientific research has been able to demonstrate a direct cause‐and‐effect link between living near wind turbines, the noise they emit, and physiological health effects,” Chen said.
When asked for evidence of the link between sound from wind turbines and illnesses, Smith said plenty of it is available through the internet.
Smith also said the most commonly accepted method of evaluating scientific research is of limited value in her cause.
“I don’t need any peer-reviewed study to tell me people are being harmed,” Smith said. She has “real-world, anecdotal, on the ground” evidence of these harms, Smith said, “and I don’t need an industry-sponsored study that says there are problems.”
Smith accused the Canadian government of falsifying a 2012 report that found no causal connection between human ailments and wind turbine noise.
“This is a corrupt industry, and it has corrupted our governments, and it’s very sad,” Smith said.
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