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New sound rules could limit ridgeline wind energy in Vermont

In approving stricter sound limits for ridgeline wind turbines Thursday afternoon, the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules has managed to upset both sides on the wind energy debate.

The proposed sound standards have been in the works for more than a year, and they long ago set off a war of words between the various factions in the wind energy debate.

At the beginning of Thursday’s hearing, Orange County Sen. Mark MacDonald acknowledged the controversy.

“We’re not in any way shape or form going to make everybody here happy,” MacDonald says.

In fact, it’s not clear if anybody is happy with the committee’s decision Thursday. By a 5-2 vote, LCAR approved stricter decibel limits for utility scale wind projects.

Sarah Wolfe, a clean energy advocate at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says the tighter sound limits will make it extremely difficult to site new installations.

“That’s going to take wind off the table as a meaningful resource, and the justification that was provided, we still believe, does not meet the science and the facts in this case,” Wolfe says.

Supporters of stricter sound standards, meanwhile, say the new rule doesn’t go far enough.

“This rule is not protective of public health,” says Annette Smith, director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment. “And it’s going to create more victims.”

The Public Utility Commission drafted the new rule, and says the new limits will keep nighttime sound levels from wind turbines to no greater than 30 decibels inside people’s homes. That’s the standard they say is needed to protect public health.

The commission says utility-scale wind energy on Vermont’s ridgelines will still be viable under the new rules.

Smith says the decibel limits intended to ensure that 30-decibel standard in people’s home – it allows for turbine-related noise of up to 39 decibels, 100 feet away from a domicile – is too high. She says the commission has assumed that homes will dampen more the turbine noise than they will.

She also says the commission has jettisoned proposed setbacks that would have better protected neighbors of prospective win facilities.

Rep. Robin Chestnut-Tangerman, one of the two ‘no’ votes Thursday, says the Legislature has made clear in statute that it wants more wind energy in Vermont. He says he worries the new sound limits thwart that legislative intent.

“My concern is, despite the statements of the Public Utility Commission … is that it would have a constricting effect on wind in Vermont,” Chestnut-Tangerman says. “And to me the clear intent of the legislation … is continued viability of wind in Vermont.”