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Wind turbine blade icing danger cited in fine

The operator of several wind turbines near Georgia received a $7,500 for operating the turbines in 2016 during weather that could have led ice to form on the turbines’ blades.

The turbines’ owner won’t contest the fine, a representative said.

The case establishes important precedent that lets turbine operators know what they’re expected to do during certain types of bad weather, said Andy Raubvogel, an attorney with Burlington law firm Dunkiel Saunders Elliott Raubvogel & Hand, representing Georgia Mountain Community Wind.

The fine falls short of the $20,000 that the Department of Public Service sought to have the PUC impose. Representatives from DPS say they’d have preferred a higher fine for its deterrent effect, but said they won’t pursue the case any further.

Two issues with the turbines surfaced as a result of the icy conditions: ice accumulation and excessive sound.

The turbines’ unusually loud sound in mid-March, 2016 led neighbor Melodie McLane to write the Public Utility Commission several times, complaining that the turbines were operating in violation of their permits.

The loud sound was a consequence of ice that had built up on the turbines’ blades, Department of Public Service representatives believed at the time.

Georgia Mountain Community Wind representatives, also in 2016, said they believed they hadn’t violated the turbines’ icing rules, which they said forbade operating the machines while the blades were iced and while bad weather conditions also persisted.

But the Public Utility Commission has since made it clear that weather conditions alone – if those conditions are conducive to ice build-up on the blades of a wind turbine – are sufficient to require a turbine operator to turn the machines off, Raubvogel said.

His client would prefer for the fine to have ended up being the same $2,000 fine that the PUC recommended in January 2017, Raubvogel said.

Georgia Mountain Community Wind paid the recommended $2,000 fine in January when the commission first proposed it.

But both McLane and the Department of Public Service appealed that fine, leading the PUC to order in November that GMCW pay a $7,500 fine.

The department sought the larger penalty amount because the case involved a potential threat to Vermonters’ health and safety, said James Porter, Director of Public Advocacy with the DPS.

That potential safety threat arose from the possibility that the wind turbines could throw ice through the air that had built up on their blades, Porter said.

Although there aren’t residences located within the few-hundred-yard radius that ice-throw from the blades might be expected to land, the turbines are near enough to neighboring property that the flying ice could have endangered someone in the woods nearby, said Ed McNamara, Planning and Energy Resources Director at DPS.

The DPS takes even potential threats to health and safety very seriously, Porter said.

This wasn’t the first time that Georgia Mountain Community Wind has received sanctions for violating safety protocols, the PUC noted in its most recent order.

The company committed three previous violations, in 2012, while erecting the machines – all stemming from unsafe practices during blasting that leveled the site where the turbines now stand.

The company ought to have been particularly attentive to public safety, in light of the $20,000 GMCW was forced to pay for the 2012 violations, PUC commissioners said in the order.

At the same time, this was the first violation of its kind (“the first known icing violation … at a wind-powered electric generation facility”) in the state of Vermont, the PUC wrote in its November order, and GMCW appears to have acted quickly to shut the machines down on at least one of the occasions when its turbines developed ice on the blades.

These factors weighed against imposing the full $20,000 sought by the McLanes and the DPS, according to the PUC order.

McNamara said his department has no plans to appeal the order.

“We’d have preferred something higher for the deterrent value,” but given the department’s limited available resources it’s “highly unlikely” he and his colleagues will pursue the case further, McNamara said.