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In New Hampshire, time hasn’t healed rift over wind turbines in wildlife area

Almost a year after nine wind turbines began spinning atop the Tuttle Hill ridgeline in the small town of Antrim, New Hampshire, few area residents appear to have changed their minds about the hotly debated project.

Those who supported it – a majority of Antrim residents, according to Select Board Chair Mike Genest – continue to do so.

“Most people looked at it as being a green thing, and I think that’s still the general consensus in town,” Genest said.

At the same time, those who were vocally opposed say the noise and visual disturbances are as bad as they expected.

“Everything that we expressed as a concern has come to fruition,” said Geoffrey T. Jones, chair of the conservation commission in neighboring Stoddard. “The number of places that you can see these towers, and the way they kind of ambush you when you come around a corner on a road you haven’t been down for awhile – I’ll never get used to it.”

The continued polarization around the Antrim Wind Energy project is illustrative of the regional tensions over the siting of commercial-scale renewable energy generators in largely unspoiled and scenic areas. In this case, the development site for the 28.8-megawatt project stretches across the Tuttle Hill ridgeline for about two miles to Willard Mountain within a large, unfragmented block of forest.

In the protracted runup to the project’s approval, opponents railed against the siting of turbines in a prime wildlife habitat area, while supporters argued that the state’s need for renewable energy outweighed what they viewed as largely aesthetic impacts.

“There can never be a commercial energy project that has no impact on the immediate area involved,” wrote longtime Antrim resident Wesley Enman in a letter urging the state’s Site Evaluation Committee to approve the project in 2013. “After the installation, this project will provide clean sustainable power for 13,500 homes for up to 50 years.”

As of 2019, about 17% of New Hampshire’s electricity generation came from renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Antrim Wind is the state’s fourth large wind farm.

The project, now owned by TransAlta Corp., a large electric power generator based in the Canadian city of Calgary, was first proposed in 2012. The original application (under different ownership) called for a 30-megawatt development with 10 turbines, each about 500 feet tall.

After heated public debate, the Site Evaluation Committee denied the application, saying the project was “out of scale in context of its setting and adversely impacts the aesthetics of the region in an unreasonable way.”

In 2015, the applicants returned with a modified proposal. In order to reduce the visual impacts, they had removed one of the turbines and lowered the height of another. They also proposed to set aside a larger share of the site as conservation land.

After hearing extensive testimony from both sides, the committee voted in 2017 to approve the modified application. Opponents appealed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld the committee’s decision. The project began operating in December 2019, with Antrim now receiving an annual $324,000 payment in lieu of taxes.

Several residents from the northern end of town who live closest to the turbines – and opposed it from the start – say their lives haven’t been the same since.

“To have these gigantic industrial turbines has totally changed the nature of living in the middle of nowhere,” said Janice Longgood, a recent retiree who lives on 55 acres abutting the project site. She can see five of the turbines from her kitchen window.

Noise from the turbines is intermittent and “not too bad” much of the time, she said. But sometimes, she added, “it’s horrendous. It’s like a jet engine.”

Bruce Berwick, whose home is about 3,000 feet from the closest turbine, said the noise is so loud some nights that he can hear it even after he’s removed his hearing aids. He equated it to the sound of “a jet airplane in the distance.”

And Amanda Buco, Berwick’s next-door neighbor, said the noise sometimes keeps her three young children up at night. While her husband, Josh, was wary of the project from the start, she said she “honestly didn’t think they would be this disturbing.”

All three households are among the handful of neighbors who complained to the Site Evaluation Committee over the summer.

But Jean-Francois Latour, an environment specialist in TransAlta’s Wind & Solar division, said in an email that “based on our sound studies to date, Antrim Wind Energy is in compliance with its certificate and the applicable rules.”

That was confirmed last summer, he said, after a consultant hired to conduct sound measurements during conditions similar to those described in residents’ complaints concluded that, based on his measurements, the wind turbine sounds were below the state limits.

Selectman Genest said he and his wife have hiked up near the turbines, but hadn’t been able to hear much beyond wind.

“I’ve heard from some residents that when the wind’s right they can hear them, and I’ve heard from others that they don’t hear anything,” Genest said. “It’s really kind of a mixed bag.”

That is not atypical, according to Professor Jeremy M. Firestone, director of the Center for Research in Wind at the University of Delaware. Firestone has done considerable research on wind turbines and sound.

“People have different sound-hearing abilities, and among those who can hear, they are differentially annoyed,” Firestone said. “And the distance at which people can hear varies.”

Being on a ridge with no obstructions might allow the sound to carry more, he said. The time at which people are most likely to hear the turbines is early evening, when the ambient sound decreases and the wind is blowing moderately, he said. In higher winds, the ambient background sound increases.

Jones, who is also a professional forester, said the Stoddard Conservation Commission opposed the project more out of concern for its impact on the conservation value of surrounding lands.

“This project was sited right next to 40,000 acres of contiguously protected land that numerous groups and agencies have been working on protecting over 40 years,” he said. The linear fragmentation of ridgetops is detrimental to habitats, he said, adding that he viewed ridges away from protected lands as more appropriate for wind turbines.

“I view this as a failure of our energy policy and our environmental policy,” Jones said. “I’m an ardent believer in having to get off of fossil fuels, but we need to make sure we site these properly.”