Lawmakers Struggle With New Sound Limits For Ridgeline Wind Projects

Oct 13, 2017

The future of ridgeline wind energy in Vermont hinges in part on proposed sound standards for large turbines, but a special legislative committee is struggling to decide whether or not to accept the new rules.

Last year, lawmakers instructed state regulators to come up with new sound standards for mountaintop wind projects. The Public Utility Commission has since delivered its recommendation, but legislators fear the proposed new decibel limits are so restrictive that they will effectively kill the commercial wind industry in Vermont.

“And I have concerns about hampering, unduly hampering wind development in Vermont,” said Middletown Springs Rep. Robin Chestnut-Tangerman.

Chestnut-Tangerman is a member of the Legislative Committee on Administration Rules, which held its latest meeting on the proposed sound standards Thursday. The panel postponed a final decision, saying it needs more time to consider the plan.

About halfway through the four-hour meeting, Orange County Sen. Mark MacDonald tried to analogize the committee’s dilemma.

MacDonald says he wasn’t at all happy when he discovered that Interstate 89 would be carving a path near his home in Williamstown. Now, when the leaves are off the trees especially, MacDonald says he deals with the steady thrum of passing automobiles.

"I'm not being disrespectful, I'm simply saying that it's not clear that there was a rational decision on the proposed sound levels." — Sen. Ginny Lyons

“But it was in the public good for Interstate 89 to go by my home, and I was just obliged to deal with the annoyance, because of the benefit to my neighbors, and the benefit to the state,” MacDonald says.

His point was clear: people might not like the sound of wind turbines, just like he doesn’t like the sound of cars racing by his house at 70 miles per hour. But when a project benefits the greater public good, sometimes the neighbors have to accommodate nuisance.  And he says the state can’t allow a critical renewable energy option to die off simply it annoys a relatively small number of landowners.

The Public Utility Commission though says these new standards are about something far more substantial than mere annoyance.

“The primary objective was the health and safety objective, and protecting against sleep disturbance,” says John Cotter, a staff attorney at the Public Utility Commission. And Cotter says ensuring that health and safety objective means wind projects can’t register any louder than 30 decibels inside people’s homes.

Cotter says the proposed decibel limits are designed to adhere to that standard, which is recognized by the World Health Organization.

“We get the added benefit, hopefully, of lower levels of annoyance, which would then in turn, hopefully, reduce opposition to well-sited projects,” Cotter says.

The issue of sound and wind has gone hand in hand since projects began proliferating in Vermont. And a small but very well organized group of wind activists, many of whom live nearby existing projects, have prevailed upon lawmakers to quiet their whoosh.

"[W]hat the commission has done is looked at the literature that's out there and weighed it in light of the evidence and the considerations that it is charged with, and selected the number that it felt struck the right balance." — Kevin Fink, Public Utility Commission

The Public Utility Commission says the decibel limits it’s proposing would protect neighbors from adverse health impacts. But lawmakers like Chittenden County Sen. Ginny Lyons question the scientific foundation on which the new sound standards were constructed.

“I’m not being disrespectful, I’m simply saying that it’s not clear that there was a rational decision on the proposed sound levels,” Lyons says.

Lawmakers aren’t the only ones questioning the scientific rigor of the Public Utility Commission’s deliberations. Ben Walsh, with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, says the World Health Organization’s 30-decibel standard is based on an eight-hour average time interval, which would allow for louder peaks, since they’d average out over a longer time valley.

But he says the commission’s proposal uses a far shorter time interval to measure the sound average, and would make for impossibly tight restrictions on turbine sound.   

“That’s apples and oranges - that’s apples and pancakes,” Walsh says. “And they have not squared that circle in their attempts to cite the science.”

Kevin Fink, a policy analyst at the Public Utility Commission, says he agrees that the agency’s decision should be grounded in science.

“And I think that’s essentially what the commission has done, is looked at the literature that’s out there and weighed it in light of the evidence and the considerations that it is charged with, and selected the number that it felt struck the right balance,” Fink says.

Margaret Cheney, one of the three members of the Public Utility Commission, says concerns about the proposed new limits sounding the death knell for wind generally are unfounded.

“If we thought this rule would be in effect a moratorium, we would not have offered it,” Cheney says.

Caledonia County Sen. Joe Benning, who favors an outright ban on ridgeline wind energy in Vermont, says the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules doesn’t have anywhere near the resources or expertise the commission has at its disposal.

He says the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules exists primarily to ensure that a proposed rule isn’t arbitrary.

“And I am very concerned … that as we continue to march down this path of nitpicking the rule, we are in a sense going away from our responsibility, and moving into the area of policy,” Benning says.

The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules is scheduled to issue a final decision on the proposed rule in two weeks.