Of all the issues surrounding large-scale wind projects, perhaps the most personal and difficult one to resolve is the impact of the sound produced by the turbines.
In Sheffield, a family says they have to move because the noise from nearby turbines has become unbearable.
The state paid for testing last winter that showed the project operates within limits. But the state says the study was flawed and that it’s difficult to draw definitive conclusions from the report.
Steven and Luann Therrien live high on a ridgeline in Sheffield. Steve Therrien walks through their 50 acres of forest and shows off the area he’s cleared under sugar maples he hoped to tap one day.
“I’ve gone far as your eye can see here, and far as your eye can see there,” he said. “This has all been cut, all by hand, got rid of all the brush all the way around.”
The family lives off the grid in a renovated hunting camp. They had plans for a bigger home near a spot where Luann says the view is spectacular when the leaves fall. But it’s a view she said they will soon be forced to leave behind.
"We were going to clear out back there and we were going to put a double wide in. That was what we were going to do,” she said. “But now, even if we wanted to, we can’t do that, because we can’t stay.”
The Therriens said the sound of 16 large turbines located on a nearby ridge is driving them away. The closest of the machines is about three-quarters of a mile away.
“At its worst, I mean all you’re hearing is just a loud whoosh, whoosh or a large humming,” Steve Therrien said. “It kind of compounds itself the longer it goes on. If it comes in and out in a day, that’s not too bad. But after five days, it affects you, appetite, behavior, health-wise.”
On a recent July morning, a slight, cool breeze from the northwest stirred the air and the turbines were barely audible above the hum of nearby Interstate 91. The Therriens, who have two young children, said the turbine sound is worse when the wind blows from the south and east. They said the sound disrupts their sleep, causes dizziness and ringing in their ears, and has elevated Steve’s high blood pressure.
The Therriens did not oppose the First Wind project when it was being reviewed by the town and state regulators. They said wanted to give their new neighbors the benefit of the doubt. But now they think the project is too close. They said the sound has become intolerable.
“It’s wore us down, it’s wore us out,” Steve Therrien said. “And I think the worst part is we know we have to leave, so it’s disheartened us at the same time.”
In response to the family’s concerns, the state hired a consultant last winter to monitor the sound near the Therrien’s house.
But the technician got stuck on the dirt road and called the project developer, First Wind, to pull him out. The Therriens believe the company knew in advance about the testing and as a result scaled back the turbine operations. Steve Therrien said the sound unexpectedly subsided the second night of the three-day testing period despite a strong southeast wind. He said the data in the sound consultants report shows the power output dropped that night.
“Conditions were optimal to run at full power, they were not generating at full power. They were at one-fifth full power,” he said. “Why the sabotage of a test if there’s no problems?”
First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne said the company did not do anything to influence the test results.
“At no point did we do anything than run the project at full speed. And so some folks may be disappointed in those facts,” he said. “But the report shows clearly that the testing done during those three days provide further evidence that the project was in compliance.”
The state Department of Public Service spent about $20,000 on the study. But Geoff Commons, the department’s lead lawyer, said the results were not fully definitive.
He said the consultant couldn’t distinguish between the background noise of the wind itself and the turbine sound. And it was difficult to schedule the monitoring when the wind direction makes the sound worse at the Therriens’ place. Finally, there’s the fact the developer knew the testing was taking place. Commons said that wasn’t part of the plan. He said he doesn’t know if First Wind dialed back the turbines to reduce the sound.
“The possibility certainly does concern me, absolutely. I should say it concerns the department, that that could happen. And going forward we are going to try to control for that in any future testing,” he said.
The Therriens had hoped the study would validate their concerns, and they’re bitter about how it came out. They have their place for sale. They say their health demands it.