Ellen Andrew-Kasper says she struggles to stay awake when she drives because of lack of sleep; David Kennedy leaves home to avoid headaches caused by the flicker of light and shadow through his windows, and Valerie Vitali thought she was having neurological problems from the same light and shadow flicker.
The three South Shore residents have only one thing in common: they live within a mile of a wind turbine.
“I’ve complained about it from the very beginning,” Andrew-Kasper said of the Scituate turbine 3,200 feet from her home. “I want them to understand that we aren’t against wind turbines… but it’s really affecting our lives. When you open the windows, sometimes it’s unbearable at night, the noise.”
There are five municipal wind turbines on the South Shore, all constructed between 2001 and 2013 when the state encouraged cities and towns to invest in renewable energy. They were expected to reduce the cost of powering municipal buildings, protect the environment and generate revenue for the town through the sale of unused kilowatts to energy companies.
But three of the turbines have come at a cost. Residents living near the wind turbines in Scituate and Kingston have complained from the beginning about noise and the flicker of light and shadow when the sun is behind the turbine. A wind turbine in Hanover has had costly maintenance issues that have forced it to shut down frequently.
In addition to the municipal turbine in Kingston, known to residents as KWI, there are three that are privately owned by developer Mary O’Donnell and a fifth, smaller turbine owned by the state at the Kingston train station. Privately owned and operated turbines aren’t subject to the same level of scrutiny as public turbines.
The South Shore’s first two wind turbines were built in 2001 and 2006 by Hull’s municipal light plant. There was little opposition to the structures, and they generated enough electricity to meet 10 percent of the town’s needs. Kingston, Scituate and Hanover followed suit, but with less success.
“Suddenly there was a bandwagon. A lot of things happened very suddenly – then it stopped,” James Manwell, director of the Wind Energy Center at University of Massachusetts Amherst, said. “Hull was unique and maybe nobody knew then how unique it was.”
The push for wind turbines as a renewable energy source has now moved offshore. Three companies are competing to build wind farms off Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod. Gov. Charlie Baker wants offshore turbines to produce 800 megawatts of energy in the short-term, eventually producing 1,600 megawatts, enough to power 1.5 million homes.
Cape Cod residents and some environmentalists have opposed the project, and a bill to study the health effects of wind turbines is before the Legislature.
Scituate residents who live near the wind turbine have been logging seven or eight complaint calls to the town each month for the past six years. Most relate to noise and light flicker, the town’s special projects director Al Bangert said. In Kingston, board of health chairman Jack Breen said the town receives one to three complaints per month.
Vitali, of Scituate, the resident who thought she was having neurological problems, said it’s not only the the light flicker and whooshing noise that are disturbing. “It’s the rumbling of a turbine engine, and it vibrates. The walls of the house vibrate.”
She and her family have lived in the home for 37 years. Vitali, an artist, said she used to find comfort there, but those days are gone.
“This house has always meant to me peace and happiness and my garden … it’s always been about coming home to a situation that calms you down at the end of the day,” she said. “We have this beautiful screened-in porch where my husband is recuperating from a heart attack, where we sat and rocked our grandchildren, and now we’re sitting on that porch and it faces (the turbine).”
Former Kingston Town Planner Thomas Bott, who oversaw much of the turbine project there before leaving the job last month, said complaints began as soon as the first turbine, located off Route 3, went online. Within a few days, Bott and other town officials visited the home of a woman who was complaining about the turbine noise. He said they couldn’t hear anything over the significant noise of the highway.
The state Office of Environmental Affairs says sound produced from wind turbines cannot be more than 10 decibels louder than the area’s ambient, or surrounding, noise level. Multiple independent studies in Scituate have said its turbine is in line with regulations, but resident David Dardi says the numbers mean nothing.
“It doesn’t matter – you have 23 families who regularly have complaints,” he said. “If there are complaints of any magnitude, it means there is something wrong. You can’t just go by the noise regulations.”
There were comparatively few complaints about the wind turbines in Hull. Manwell, the Umass-Amherst professor, said one reason for that is their smaller size. The two turbines in Hull are 164 and 219 feet tall, smaller than the 262-foot ones in Scituate and Kingston. When a blade is facing straight up, the taller turbines can reach as high as 400 feet.
Manwell also said Hull did a better job with public campaigns for turbines.
“Starting small when you don’t have anything really helps people to get used to change,” he said. “In Massachusetts we went from no turbines at all to something that was huge, quite honestly… When you’re putting things close to people, you have to go through a whole process and get people used to it. If you don’t talk, I think history shows it can unravel.”
A study by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection says there is little evidence that noise and light flicker cause significant health problems. Even so, Scituate and Kingston have responded to residents’ complaints by regulating turbine operations, shutting them off at night when wind speed and direction meet certain conditions.
But residents say that isn’t enough.
Scituate residents were recently able to convince town officials to commission a wind turbine noise study, the town’s third.
In Kingston, Kennedy, the resident who said he sometimes has to leave his house because of light flicker, wants the town to follow the lead of the Falmouth zoning board, which ruled a wind turbine a nuisance and shut it down. The ruling was upheld in superior court.
“There is a place for industrial turbines, it’s just not in neighborhoods,” Kennedy, who is also a member of the town health board, said.
Few if any Hanover residents have complained about the town’s wind turbine, which is smaller than the ones in Scituate and Kingston and located in a commercial district on Route 53, but it has produced a different set of problems.
Built in 2011, a series of mechanical and software related issues prevented the turbine from generating power until 2013. Problems have continued to plague the turbine, including a fire last month and an accident that sent a 53-year-old construction worker plummeting 24 feet when he fell while working inside the turbine.
The turbine didn’t run for more than 90 continuous days until 2014. Because the turbine was not operational, the Wilmington-based energy company that installed the turbine, Lumus Construction, defaulted and Hanover Insurance, which held its surety bond, became involved.
The town entered a contract with Lumus that stated the town is eligible for liquidated damages of $1,000 per day for every day that the turbine is not operational. Those damages were estimated at $1.6 million by August 2015. Public works director Victor Diniak said the town has since settled with the bonding company, and that the total amount of lost revenue is hard to quantify.
The turbine cost taxpayers $750,000 to install and was meant to save the town $50,000 a year on energy costs. As of now, the turbine has saved the town between $30,000 and $60,000 in total, Diniak said. The turbine has been offline since the electrical fire on March 9.
As wind turbines encounter growing opposition, towns have been looking toward solar power. Scituate’s 3-megawatt solar farm at its capped landfill began generating electricity in 2013, and Kingston’s got the OK in 2015.
In the meantime, residents say they’ve grown tired of what feels like a constant battle over wind turbines. Some, like Dardi, say nothing will change if complaints don’t persist. Others say it’s just not worth the time and emotional strain.
“I don’t want to be a warrior,” Vitali said. “I just want to be a person who has lived here for 37 years and has a right to some peace and quiet.”
Information from WickedLocal Kingston and Hanover was used in this report.
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