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February 27, 2013

First Sound Study at Lowell Shows Wind Project Noise (Mostly) Within Required Standards

LowellThe first round of noise studies is in from Kingdom Community Wind, the contentious wind-energy development straddling a ridgeline between Lowell and Albany.

The verdict?

For the most part, the 21 Vestas turbines strung along the spine of the Lowell Mountains did not generate enough noise to violate the conditions under which the Public Service Board approved the Green Mountain Power project. But in a few instances, noise at the remote Northeast Kingdom wind project did spike high enough to violate GMP's permit. 

That’s according to a report GMP filed yesterday (PDF) with the PSB. Wind opponents and neighbors, however, aren’t satisfied with the study, and say the noise generated by the 400-foot-tall turbines is still loud enough to disrupt the quality of life for nearby residents.

“I don’t call it that we have a quality of life anymore,” says Shirley Nelson, who along with her husband, Don, lives on more than 580 acres on the eastern slope of the Lowell Mountains. Their property borders the Lowell project, and the Nelsons have been vocal opponents of it. The Nelsons and GMP are entangled in a lawsuit over disputed ownership along a section of the ridgeline.

“I sometimes wake up with headaches, and can’t sleep the night through anymore. My ears ring almost constantly when the turbines are going,” says Shirley Nelson.

Don Nelson likened the noise inside the couple’s farmhouse to the sound of rushing water. Outside, he says, the turbines sound like “a jet plane on the horizon.” The noise isn’t steady, the Nelsons say, but pulses in and out. Nearby neighbors, they say, have to run a fan at night in order to block out the turbine noise and get to sleep.

One condition of GMP's permit to operate the wind farm is that sound levels not exceed 45 decibels outside of any existing homes near the project and 30 decibels in interior bedrooms. (GMP equates 45 decibels to the ambient noise level inside a library.) The utility must collect noise measurements from the project for at least two weeks, four times a year, for the first two years of operation. GMP hired White River Junction-based Resource Systems Group, Inc., to collect and analyze the first round of noise data, and submitted the data to a third party for confirmation that it was sufficient for a thorough analysis.

RSG placed noise-monitoring equipment at four locations around the wind project, including the Nelson property, and collected data over a five-week period, from December 6 to January 15. The company then used two different methods to analyze the data. The first method showed that GMP was always in compliance with the PSB-approved noise standards. The second indicated two instances of noncompliance, in which noise levels spiked above 45 decibels — by 0.3 decibels — at the Nelson farm. The noise levels exceeded the 45-decibel standard for less than two hours out of 703 total hours tested.

The testing also picked up a few instances of so-called “prominent discrete tones,” or louder-than-usual discernable noises, which GMP’s permit prohibits. In both the case of the higher-decibel readings and the discrete tones, a GMP spokesperson says the company is evaluating what conditions might have led to the increased noise, with an aim to prevent any spikes in the future.

GMP started its second round of noise testing at Lowell earlier this month. Representatives from the PSB and Vermont's Public Service Department did not immediately return messages to comment on the report or the noise violations. 

“We’re really pleased that the actual sound measurements, except for a couple of very short periods of time, were within the range permitted by the Public Service Board,” says GMP spokesperson Dorothy Schnure. “We’re also really pleased that it is consistent with what we modeled and what we expected.”

That response smarts, according to Annette Smith, the director of Vermonter for a Clean Environment. "Green Mountain Power can spin this all they want, but they violated their [Certificate of Public Good], and they don't offer any solutions," says Smith.

Meanwhile, the Nelsons are using an inexpensive, handheld noise-monitoring unit to track the noise themselves, and say they’ve collected readings greater than 50 decibels outside, and at 45 decibels inside their home. “This is normally a very quiet place, and that’s gone now,” says Shirley Nelson. Schnure counters that less-sophisticated, handheld monitors can’t filter turbine noise from other ambient noise, and can’t necessarily be relied upon to give accurate readings.

For her part, Schnure says she’s visited the Lowell project and had to strain to hear the noise of the turbines over the crunch of boots on snow, the hum of fluorescent lights in a nearby garage, or the sound of nearby vehicle traffic. “We will meet the requirements of our permit,” she says. “We will operate this plant so that it does not exceed the 45-decibel limit.”

But even abiding by that standard rankles some opponents of the project. Smith says the 45-decibel level is way too high. "Wind turbine noise is more annoying at a lower decibel level than any other noise," she says. "It's like Chinese water torture. ... We have created an intolerable situation for the neighbors, and then we have Green Mountain Power saying, 'Oh, look. We almost made the standards.'"

Seven families have contacted GMP to complain about noise from the Lowell project. Meanwhile, as of the end of January, the Public Service Department had heard from 10 consumers with various complaints about the Lowell project, and also received a petition in November signed by 33 nearby residents complaining about noise. DPS has fielded complaints from two consumers living near the Georgia Mountain Wind project in Chittenden County, and two with noise concerns about the First Wind development in Sheffield. Comments to DPS have included complaints about noise, aesthetics, the flicker caused by the shadows of turbine blades as they spin, and various health effects that consumers attribute to the turbines, including: headaches, loss or lack of sleep, ringing in the ears, high blood pressure, anxiety, nausea, motion sickness, pressure around the head and face, exhaustion, depression and rage.

The noise report hit on the same day that the Castleton Polling Institute released new polling data showing that 66 percent of Vermonters support wind turbine development on the state's ridgelines. Castleton conducted a similar poll of registered voters last May for WCAX, WDEV and Vermont Business Magazine, and found that 69 percent of Vermonters polled at that time supported ridgeline wind.

Support was strongest among younger voters; 73 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds included in the poll said they support ridgeline wind development. Support dropped off slightly among older voters, down to 68 percent among those between the ages of 35 and 54, and 61 percent among voters older 55 and older.

“I think it substantiates that Vermonters are generally predisposed to developing wind energy,” says Rich Clark, the director of the Castleton Polling Institute. “It’s not a partisan issue. It’s not a generational issue. It’s something that the majority of Vermonters are behind, regardless of demographic differences.”

Still, the polling results sparked competing narratives — and press releases — from Vermont activists on either side of the issue. For Lukas Snelling, the director of Energize Vermont, the numbers signaled eroding support for ridgeline wind. "The more Vermonters know about these projects and their impacts, the fewer people support them," said Snelling in a press release issued yesterday.

Snelling and Smith have both criticized previous polls for failing, they say, to ask meaningful questions. Digging into the latest Castleton poll, Smith points out that no information is given about where the participants live in the state, and doubts that those who live far from areas directly impacted by wind development know enough about the turbines to make informed decisions. "I'm disappointed in the questions they asked, and it doesn't really help us," says Smith. "It doesn't tell us anything useful." 

The takeaway for the Vermont Public Interest Group couldn't have been more different: VPIRG interpreted the poll as showing "massive public support" for wind development in Vermont. "This really should put an end to the question of where Vermonters stand on wind," said Paul Burns, VPIRG's director, in the organization's own press release. "They absolutely, unequivocally want more wind built in Vermont."

File photo of Lowell wind project by Kerrie Pughe. 

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