Lowell wind: Neighbors sick and tired of turbine noise

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Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany.  The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany. The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

ALBANY — Jim and Kathy Goodrich have a nice home with a porch along the entire west side that overlooks acres of neatly trimmed lawn and, about a mile away, the long, sinuous ridgeline known as Lowell Mountain.

Now that view is dominated by the 21 towers of the Lowell wind project, their blades reaching 460 feet high.  And the house is for sale at a discounted price.

“What I came here for is gone,” said Ms. Goodrich, a Wolcott native who worked for IBM in Chittenden County and then spent ten years with her husband in a landscaping business.

“This was going to be where I spent the rest of my life — quiet, peaceful, relaxed,” Ms. Goodrich continued.  “But I can’t stay here.”

One of the features their home has lost is the quiet, the couple says.

“Sometimes they’re really loud,” Ms. Goodrich said.  In one hot spell, with the bedroom windows open and two fans running, she recalls, “I could hear them over everything.  It was some kind of roar.”

“It’s really hard to explain what it sounds like,” Mr. Goodrich said.  “To me, it’s mechanized gears, but mixed in with a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.”

He suspects that the turbines often exceed the limits imposed when the state Public Service Board (PSB) gave the project its certificate of public good.  Mr. Goodrich sounds unconvinced by Green Mountain Power’s claim that its turbines have remained within those limits — 45 decibels outside, 35 inside — 99 percent of the time since they began to spin in late 2012.

Ms. Goodrich thinks the noise limits miss the point.

“I don’t doubt that most of the time they’re in compliance,” she said Monday.  “But to me, those guidelines are too much for people to handle, hour after hour after hour.”

The couple is not sure whether the turbines are affecting their health.  Mr. Goodrich recently experienced blade flicker for the first time, as the sun set behind the turbines and cast their moving shadows into the house.

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

“That really irritated me,” he said.  As a young man, he said, he couldn’t go into a disco club because of the effect strobe lights had on him.  “That night it really freaked me,” he said of the flicker.

As for the noise, Mr. Goodrich said, “I’ve got an idea it’s affecting my health, but I don’t know.  I know it has an effect on our talking to each other.  I get cranky.  She gets cranky.”

“It’s frustrating,” Ms. Goodrich agreed.  “It’s beyond our control.  I can ask him to turn the TV down, but they don’t listen up there,” she added, gesturing to the turbines.

Underlying the couple’s personal concerns is their anger about the project’s environmental impact.

“For me it’s about what they did to the top of the mountain,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “I’m a Vermonter.  I respect what we have here.  Now that it’s there it’s the interrupted views, the noise, the stress it’s brought into our lives.  It’s everything.

“I wouldn’t have any problem in the world with green power,” she continued.  “But it seems that they took away more green than they’ll ever give back.”

The third member of the household, a small dog named Sophie, “gets really skittish when the turbines are noisy,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “At times I can’t get her to take a walk down the driveway.”

Molly Two lives just down the hill, where Goodrich Road meets the Eden Road.  The big dog sticks close to Paul Martin if he takes her outside when the turbines are running.  She has become gun shy, and she’s started going to the bathroom on the floor of the Martin house.

The Martins’ horses were spooked by the turbines at first, Mr. Martin said, but seem to have grown used to them now.

When the wind’s right they hear the turbines outside.  Mr. Martin described the noise as “just a big rumble like a jet.”

“With a lot of that thud, thud thud,” his wife, Rita, added.

When he goes outside, Mr. Martin said, “my ears will start ringing to beat hell.  They never did that before.”

As for Ms. Martin, he said, “She woke me up one night and said ‘My heart is pounding terrible.’  I could hear the thud thud from the towers.”

“For some reason my heart wanted to beat in that rhythm,” Ms. Martin recalled.

“We were told we wouldn’t hear them” by the people from Green Mountain Power, Mr. Martin said.

Since they’ve put an air conditioner in the bedroom the turbine noise doesn’t disturb their sleep, the Martins said, though they still hear them on some nights.

When they moved onto the Eden Road in 1974, their place was at the end of the road.  Now, the Martins say, people wanting to view the turbines generate considerable traffic past their home.

They say they’ve thought about moving, but are not sure they could sell their homestead.

“Who’d buy it?” Ms. Martin asked with a shrug.

“What most bothers me is the destruction it’s done on top of the mountain,” Mr. Martin said.

“Paul’s taken both our kids up the mountain,” before the turbines arrived, his wife said.  “Thank God he did, too.  It will never be the same.”

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A bit closer to the turbines, at her home on the Bailey-Hazen Road, Shirley Nelson has a list of symptoms that have arrived since the wind project started spinning.  She has a ringing in her ears, and sometimes worse.

“This morning it felt like a pin sticking in my ear,” she said Monday.  “I have headaches, usually around my temples but sometimes like a band wrapped right around my head.

“One of my daughters gets migraines within an hour of visiting our house,” Ms. Nelson added.

“Both Donny and I wake up in the middle of the night because it sounds like something coming out of the pillow,” she said, referring to her husband, Don.  “I never said much about it, because I thought I was crazy.”

Then she found a research paper by Alec Salt, Ph.D., from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, entitled “Wind Turbines can be Hazardous to Human Health.”

He writes about very low frequency sound and infrasound, which wind turbines generate in turbulent winds.  “Our measurements show the ear is most sensitive to infrasound when other, audible sounds are at low levels or absent,” Dr. Salt writes.

Thus infrasound can be most troublesome when other sounds are blocked by house walls or even a pillow, he continues.  “In either case, the infrasound will be strongly stimulating the ear even though you will not be able to hear it.”

That can cause sleep disturbance, panic, and chronic sleep deprivation leading to high blood pressure, the paper says.

“Some days I am very tired,” Ms. Nelson wrote in an e-mail Monday.  It is hard to stay awake on such days, she added, and “it is hard to concentrate and I find I am unable to do simple things like balancing a checkbook.”

The Nelsons routinely see turbine flicker in their home as the sun goes behind the towers.  It sends shadows spinning slowly across their refrigerator, their floors and across the lawns outside.

“It’s just really annoying,” Ms. Nelson said.

Dislike of the turbines and their effects is not universal in the neighborhood.  Albert and Esther Weber live a little west of the Martins on the Eden Road, just across the Lowell town line.

“I hear them, but they’re not offensive to me,” Mr. Weber said.  “I figure the wind should do some good for a change.  The wind ripped the roof off my house.  It should make some electricity, and it should make our taxes go down.

“I love the windmills,” Ms. Weber said.  “I’ve always loved windmills since I was a girl in school, and learned about Holland.  When they said they were going to put some up here, I was thrilled.”

She likes to see the towers glowing on the mountain in the early morning light, and finds that the afternoon shadows flickering in the backyard “look kind of neat.”

Further down the road Carl Cowles said he hears the turbines almost all the time, and they bother him.  “I think I hear them more at night than in the daytime,” Mr. Cowles added.  “I do wake up, and I hear them.  I don’t know exactly what woke me up.”

When he’s not traveling around the world on business, Kevin McGrath lives on the other side of the mountain on the Farm Road in Lowell.  He recalls a visit from a friend, another Lowell resident who had voted in favor of the wind project.  Mr. McGrath was complaining about the turbine noise.

“He said, ‘We’ll listen for the noise as soon as the jet plane goes away.’  I said, ‘That is the noise.’”

“It sounds like a plane that never lands,” he said.  He measures the sound with a hand-held meter.

“At times it is under 45 decibels outside,” he reports.  “You don’t have anything to say.  This is the way it is.”

“People like myself, who have had the land for 20 or 25 years, aren’t used to this new intrusion into their lives.  If you have a leaky faucet in your sink, is it below 35 decibels?  Yes it is.  But not being able to turn it off will drive you crazy.  It’s an intrusion.”

Mr. McGrath has bombarded the Department of Public Service with complaints that the turbines have kept him and his guests awake at night.  He’s currently asking Green Mountain Power (GMP) for detailed data about wind speed and other weather conditions, which he wants to pass on to his own, independent noise expert.

“They’re kind of waffling on that,” he said of GMP in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“We’re talking to Kevin,” GMP spokesman Dorothy Schnure said Tuesday.  “We’re going to continue to talk with Kevin.”

But Ms. Schnure didn’t say GMP would provide the data he’s seeking.  Instead, she emphasized that the utility stands ready to test any home near the project, to see how much its structure reduces outside noise.  Then the utility would put an outside meter near the house, to provide an approximation of turbine noise inside the home.

So far, she said, “no one has taken us up on the offer.”

GMP announced last week that in a test period from May 22 to June 5 its project did not exceed the PSB noise limits.

However, in two earlier test periods noise exceeded the limits for a total of just over four hours, the release said.

The PSB has scheduled a hearing for August 8 to decide what sanctions should be imposed on GMP for the violations.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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In Greensboro: Cow power produced from a medium-size herd

Peter Gebbie checks the readings on his new methane generator. Although he admits to being slow with computers, his wife, Sandra, said Mr. Gebbie turns out to be very good with the high-tech system. Photos by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle July 25, 2012

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — On Sunday morning Peter Gebbie had finished milking.  The truck from the St. Albans co-op was loading and his hands were moving out to get the second cut of hay in.

But there was more for him to do.  He and his wife, Sandra, headed toward a new building behind one of his barns.  A sign on the door wisely warned against entering without hearing protection.  Inside an engine roared.

Mr. Gebbie grabbed a clipboard and walked around the room checking readouts at various points along a complicated series of pipes.

He looked pleased at the results.  “Eighty kilowatts,” he said.  When they first started the generator about two weeks ago, it produced only 20 kilowatts.

When it is running at full speed the methane generator will produce 150 kilowatts of power.

Switching the generator on was the culmination of a process that began in Newport a little more than five years ago at a meeting sponsored by the state Agency of Agriculture.  That meeting at the East Side Restaurant brought together dairy farmers who were interested in the process of turning manure and other organic matter into methane and eventually electricity.

At the time the Gebbies were milking 200 cows at Maplehurst Farm.  The farmers who were getting into the electricity business had herds ten times the size of his.

On Sunday, Mr. Gebbie recalled that when he first started calling firms that design and install methane digesters he was turned away.

“The guys who sold digesters laughed at you,” he said, “unless you were at least a 1,000-cow farm.”

Mr. Gebbie persisted and eventually his calls started getting returned.  He said that it seemed to him that the digester builders had worked their way through the big farmers and were ready to deal with someone his size.

While they were investigating the possibility of building a methane digester, the Gebbies doubled the size of their herd to 400 cows.

They were fortunate in having long before set up their barns with slatted floors through which the cows tread their manure and bedding.  Gravity was enough to move this fuel into the digester, a round tank with a flexible cover.

Manure will produce methane with or without special equipment, but left to nature the volatile hydrocarbon will go into the atmosphere where it is a potent greenhouse gas.

Mr. Gebbie said he has heard it has a 24 to 25 times greater effect than carbon dioxide.

The Gebbies knew that things were going well when they saw the cover on the digester begin to balloon upwards.  That indicated that gas was beginning to build up a head of pressure.

From the digester the gas goes into a scrubber which removes impurities to protect the engine of the generator.  Mr. Gebbie said he is lucky because the gas produced by his manure is low in sulfur.

From the scrubber the gas goes to the generator or, if for some reason the generator is down for a while, through an upright pipe which is set up to burn extra gas to keep it from going into the atmosphere.

Once the manure is run through the digester, it could be spread on fields.  The Gebbies have chosen to separate the liquids from the solids, spread the former and use the latter as bedding.

Levels need to be checked throughout the system. Peter Gebbie stands in front of the tank that cleans the methane before it is fed into the generator.

Sawmills used to give away sawdust, Mr. Gebbie noted.  Today they use everything, and the price of bedding is a major cost of doing business.  By producing his own bedding, Mr. Gebbie said, he can save as much as $20,000 a year.

Studies show the bedding produced by digesters reduces the incidence of mastitis and results in a lower somatic cell count, an indicator of a healthy cow, Mr. Gebbie said.

Of course, electricity is the main product of the system.  The Gebbies have a contract to supply 150 kilowatts of power to the Hardwick Electric Company through the state’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program.

They are guaranteed a price of 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, well above the current market price of four cents.  In addition they can sell Renewable Energy Credits (REC) through the Cow Power program started by Central Vermont Public Service and now under the auspices of Green Mountain Power.

Mr. Gebbie said the REC credits bring in an additional three to four cents a kilowatt-hour, less a small brokerage fee.

The system cannot operate at full capacity with only the manure produced on his farm, Mr. Gebbie said.  To get to the full 150 kilowatts, he will need to find an outside source of carbon.

Typically that means a liquid such as whey, he said.

The 150-kilowatt limit is convenient in one regard.  Power from the system can be moved on a simple single-phase line, the sort that typically serves a home.

Large scale generators on the farms in Franklin and Addison counties may generate more than a megawatt of power and require a very expensive three-phase service to move electricity off the farm.

In addition to power and bedding, the generator can also provide heat for the Gebbies’ home and milking parlor, and hot water, Mr. Gebbie said.  The potential savings could be as great as those from the bedding, but they will require substantial investment in underground pipes, he added.

The digester cost “$1.5-million and climbing,” Mr. Gebbie said.  Grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Department of Energy and the state Department of Public Service’s Clean Energy Development Fund helped pay between half and three-quarters of the cost, he added.

“Most people would like to see things paid in five years,” Mr. Gebbie said.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Why aren’t there more hydro projects?

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle, May 30, 2012

This is part one of a series of articles about hydropower.

MONTPELIER — The Legislature gave a nudge this session to a renewable source of energy that roughly 70 years ago dominated Vermont’s rivers and ponds. As recently as 1940, hydropower supplied the state with 90 percent of its power needs.

But today hydropower is seldom mentioned in the push to acquire 20 percent of Vermont’s energy needs from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2017.

“Hydropower is the forgotten stepchild of the renewable energy movement,” says Lori Barg, who owns a business in Plainfield that designs and installs small hydro systems for towns and farms, and who gave testimony for the hydro bill that was signed into law recently by Governor Peter Shumlin.

One of the co-sponsors of the bill was Northeast Kingdom Senator Vince Illuzzi of Derby. Nearly ten years ago Senator Illuzzi spearheaded a failed attempt to get the state to buy hydroelectric dams on the Connecticut River.

He has been pushing hydro ever since and, except for this year, striking out.

“It’s been a constant fight with ANR and water quality people,” he says. And in the Legislature there has been no middle ground with hydro projects, he adds: “Either you authorize them or you don’t.”

The bill that made it into law this year, S.148, intends to expedite the permit process for small and micro hydro developers. A small hydro is defined as a project that generates up to five megawatts (MW) of power, while a micro is one that is 100 kilowatts (KW) or less. There are 1,000 KW in a MW.

Estimates of Vermont potential for hydro projects are all over the map. According to the bill’s findings, they range from 25 MW to 434 MW. In a 2008 study, the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) estimated there were 25 MW at 44 sites; whereas a year earlier the Department of Public Service (DPS) estimated there were 90 MW developable at 300 of the 1,200 existing dams, according to the bill’s findings.

In testimony on the bill before the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, Ms. Barg testified that Vermont has 400 MW of potential hydropower without building a single new dam.

So, the elephant in the room or the whale in the river is the question: Why isn’t hydro playing a larger, more important role in the renewable energy mix?

The reason, say a variety of sources, is the cost of permitting — a process that involves both state and federal agencies.

“Most hydroelectric projects require approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The length and cost of the process of obtaining a FERC approval do not vary significantly with the capacity of the hydroelectric project,” says the bill’s findings. “However, the ability of a hydroelectric project to absorb this cost decreases as the capacity of the project grows smaller.”

To ease the permitting cost, S.148 authorizes the DPS commissioner to enter into an agreement, or what is known as a “memorandum of understanding” (MOU) with FERC that would enable Vermont agencies to prescreen proposed hydroelectric projects in the state.

The MOU would be comparable to one recently signed between Colorado and FERC “to streamline and simplify the authorization of small-scale hydropower projects.” But whereas the Colorado MOU focused mainly on agricultural irrigation canals, Vermont’s will deal with small dams and conduits.

The state must initiate negotiations with FERC by July 15, and recently the DPS assigned a staff person to the project, according to Andy Perchlik, who is the department’s director of Clean Energy Development Fund.

It may be too early to estimate how much money the new law will save those who develop small hydro projects, says Mr. Perchlik. The bill says the state will review the MOU once five projects have been permitted and are up and running.

For its part, says Mr. Perchlik, the state is expected to do “more hand holding” with developers and coordinate permit work among agencies. The department and ANR will put together a list of criteria that a project will have to meet and, once all the agencies have signed off, he adds, FERC will be able to move ahead.

Though some may see the legislation as a step forward, no one is saying it will stimulate hydro development or increase applications for small or micro hydro projects.

Since S.148 went into effect the phone hasn’t been ringing off the hook at the Department of Environmental Conservation, says Brian Fitzgerald, the department’s Streamflow Protection Coordinator.

“Realistically, there aren’t that many good projects out there,” he says.

If the MOU succeeds, Mr. Fitzgerald says the state will be able to offer “a new service” to small hydro projects. He says that by pre-screening environment issues, the state will be able to speed up the FERC review.

Still, he adds, when licensing a hydro project, the state is “allocating a public resource.” And that requires a permitting process “to be thorough and thoughtful.”

Mr. Fitzgerald says operating costs and the need to maintain minimum stream flows are the biggest obstacle for hydro developers. And while legislation to allow hydro owners to sell or net meter power back to utilities has improved the economic picture, he expects the new law will only help a few small hydro developers.

A 5 MW hydro is “a big project for Vermont,” he says.

Hydro projects are licensed for 30 years and, according to Mr. Fitzgerald, between three and five have been certified in the state during the last couple of years. But some say that the permitting process in Vermont takes so long that would-be developers get discouraged.

There are no tax credits but the state does offer grants for micro projects. Mr. Perchlik says the grants only kick in when the permits are nearly in hand.

“You need to prove you’ve got the permit,” he says.

When it comes to hydros, he adds, applications for financial aid are rare.

As the woman who founded the Plainfield business, Community Hydro, Ms. Barg believes projects should be rated initially by the impact they will have on the environment. That would enable those projects with low impact to clear the permit hurdle quicker.

She also believes there should be something like the IRS 1040 EZ form for hydro projects, which she says would make life easier for both the regulated and regulators. In her ideal list, developers would be required to go through a standard form and check off the statements that characterize their projects.

For example:

• “Utilizes for electric power generation only the water power potential of an existing dam”; or

• “Utilizes only a dam at which there is no significant existing upstream or downstream passage of fish.”

In testimony before the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, she characterized the federal licensing process as onerous and expensive, regardless of size.

Still, she notes, that the MOU signed between Colorado and FERC has expedited the permit process in the Rocky Mountain state by licensing ten projects in a year and a half.

Big hydro projects like the one at James Bay in Quebec may have given hydro an indelible black eye. Senator Illuzzi says it alienated the public opinion by displacing native people and flooding thousands of acres of land. But local hydros, he argues, are viewed more benignly.

Still, when it comes to permitting, he says developers are caught between a “chicken-egg type of thing” as to who comes first, the state or FERC?

“It’s a colossal circuit that advances nothing,” he says.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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