In the Legislature: Local control in wind siting unlikely

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David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage.  “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang.  Photo by Paul Lefebvre

David Mealiea and Anna Dirkse, both of Burlington, were two of four singing pickets who stood outside the State House last Thursday in support of raising the minimum wage. “We fight for human rights so all can be free,” they sang. Photo by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle March 26, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

MONTPELIER — Regional and local planners are expected to be the big losers in a bill to open up the siting process for ridgeline industrial wind projects.

Scheduled to appear on the Senate floor, the bill was rerouted to the Senate Committee on Appropriations Tuesday as negotiations continued behind the scenes to strike a compromise and keep it alive.

“Unfortunately, regional planning is one of those things we’re probably not going to wind up with,” said Senator John Rodgers of Glover during a telephone interview Tuesday.

One of the stated purposes of the bill was “to strengthen the role of planning commissions and local selectboard and planning commissions in the siting review process for energy facilities by giving greater weight to their recommendations and plans.”

But at the end of the day, that’s not likely what’s going to happen.

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UTG reject Seneca Wind

copyright the Chronicle January 15, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

FERDINAND — Community opposition in three of the most remote northern towns of the Northeast Kingdom have shut the door on hosting what would have been the third industrial wind project planned for the region’s ridgelines.

On Monday, the Unified Towns and Gores (UTG) joined Brighton and Newark in rejecting a proposal to build a ridgeline wind project on Seneca Mountain.

The decision came on the strength of a referendum mailed to property owners, whose ballots were counted in the UTG office in Ferdinand Monday night.

By a margin of 171 to 107, voters rejected the project and left little choice but for the UTG five-member board of governors to follow suit.

“The board has agreed to support the vote, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Chairman Barbara Nolan, after the results of the vote were announced.

There was also little room to maneuver for Eolian Renewable Energy, the company that had been spearheading a project that came to be known as Seneca Mountain Wind (SMW).  The company had repeatedly vowed that the project would rise or fall on the results of the vote.

“We are committed to abide by the local vote,” said a disappointed John Soininen, a company vice-president who was present during the counting of the ballots.

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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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News analysis — Power siting commission issues report

copyright the chronicle 05-08-13

by Chris Braithwaite

Type Writer by Anna Baker-pages

Opponents of big wind who have knocked heads with devel

opers in front of the state Public Service Board (PSB), and lost, will find no magic bullet in the final report of the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission, which was released Tuesday.
But they may find a few encouraging words.
Developers of big wind projects will be relieved, if hardly surprised, that the commission would leave the permitting process in the hands of the PSB.  It’s a process they’re familiar with, and appear to have mastered.
Developers may, however, feel that in its effort to fix a process that “lacks sufficient clarity, transparency and predictability,” the commission has made recommendations that would make their job more difficult.
One lobbying group, Renewable Energy Vermont, went public within an hour of the report’s release with a statement of “significant concern with some of the recommendations, which threaten to take Vermont’s energy progress backwards.”
Although the commission would probably deny it, its 103-page report is really about industrial scale wind projects.  Governor Peter Shumlin didn’t mention renewable energy — let alone wind energy — when he created the small commission with the very long name last October.
He asked it for “guidance and recommendations on best practices for the siting approval of electric generation projects larger than the net metering threshold, and for public participation and representation in the siting process.”
But it was created in the aftermath of some very bitter battles over two big wind projects in the Northeast Kingdom.  The Governor, an enthusiastic advocate of big wind, was taking some heat, and the Legislature was about to take up a bill that would impose a moratorium on such projects.
If the commission’s political purpose was to deflect any move against big wind, it seems to have succeeded.  As Paul Lefebvre reports elsewhere in this week’s paper, the wind moratorium bill is limping into a committee of conference as a study, which will give due consideration to the recommendations of the Governor’s Energy Siting Policy Commission.
The commission recommends that communities have a bigger say in the power siting process — but there’s a catch.
The communities involved are large, the collections of towns that make up each of the state’s 11 regional planning commissions (RPCs).  In this area, that would be the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.
The commission would set the 11 RPCs to work on “energy guidelines, policies, and land use suitability maps as part of their regional plans.”
And it would have the state give each RPC $40,000 to accomplish the task.
Properly drafted, the commission says, such plans should be “dispositive” before the PSB.  That would seem to mean that if a developer proposed a project that didn’t fit the regional plan, the PSB’s answer would be a firm “No.”
That recommendation was singled out by Renewable Energy Vermont.  Regional planning commissions, it said, “neither have the staffing resources nor the expertise to be energy siting experts.  They should not be put in that role.”
But here’s the catch:  The regional plans — individually and collectively — would have to pass muster with another state entity, the Public Service Department (PSD).
Here’s the language:  “Once updated, the elements of each regional plan affecting energy will need to be reviewed by the PSD, concurrently with other updated regional plans to determine both individual plan consistency and — in the aggregate — overall statewide consistency with the legislated energy goals and the CEP (Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Plan).”
The commission is careful to say that “for a region to simply opt out or construct a blanket prohibition against any particular technology does not constitute adequate planning….”
Only after satisfying the PSD would regional plans be “dispositive” before the PSB.
And the state’s renewable energy goals are extremely high.  Among them, 25 percent of all energy from in-state renewables by 2025, and 75 percent of all electricity sales from renewables by 2032.
The power this proposal would put in the hands of the Public Service Department led one commission member to issue a two-page dissent.
It comes from Louise McCarren, who was the first woman to head the PSB, under Governors Snelling and Kunin, and who also served as commissioner of the PSD.
She writes:  “A fair interpretation of the proposal is the that the PSD will have the authority, if it determines that in aggregate there has been insufficient land designated for the siting of electric generation, to specify regional and municipal land use obligations and locations for generation siting….
“This centralization of decision making regarding electric generation site selection reduces the role of municipalities, may relieve developers from working closely with municipalities, and enshrines the non-statutory CEP as the controlling land use document.”
If anyone should understand the levers of power in utility regulation it would be Ms. McCarren.  And her dissent suggests that, while appearing to put much more power in the hands of regional planning commissions, the proposal in fact would pass that power up to the commissioner of public service, who is an appointee of the Governor and serves at his or her pleasure.
Ms. McCarren, indeed, puts into simple English something critics of big wind have been struggling to articulate for years.  If renewable energy siting decisions are driven by the Legislature’s explicit renewable electric energy goals and by the administratively generated Comprehensive Energy Plan, these become the state’s “controlling land use document.”
That’s what happened to Lowell Mountain, and to Sheffield Heights.
And that realization is what recently led Senator John Rodgers to say that these very specific goals should be scrapped, and Vermont should start to plan its war on global warming all over again.
The commission, in fact, cites an alternative goal early in its report, straight out of Vermont statutes:  “by 2028: 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; 75 percent by 2050.”
That goal targets the real culprit, greenhouse gases, rather than a single source that is actually remarkably clean in Vermont, electric power.  And that would make possible a much more cost effective attack on the problem that could include the big greenhouse gas sources in Vermont, heating and transportation.
That’s what one of the Lowell Mountain project’s most articulate critics, Ron Holland, tried to tell the PSB in 2011.  The board could only reply that, given the Legislature’s specific commitment to in-state renewable electric power, wind was the most efficient alternative.  Thus the towers on Lowell Mountain would be in the public interest.
The commission made passing reference to Dr. Holland’s perspective on Tuesday.  In a section called “cross-cutting recommendations” its report calls for “consideration of economic efficiency and least environmental damage with particular attention to climate change.”
But that brief, rather obscure sentence, buried in a very long report, is unlikely to save a single ridgeline.
The full report is available at http://sitingcommission.vermont.gov/publications.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Lowell wind project nears completion amid noise complaints

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The Lowell Mountain wind towers as seen from Irish Hill. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 11-28-2012

LOWELL — All 21 turbines of the Kingdom Community Wind project have generated power, a spokesman for Green Mountain Power said Tuesday.  And with the project making power, it has beaten the December 31 deadline to qualify for federal production tax credits that should total between $40-million and $48-million over the next ten years, said the spokesman, Dorothy Schnure.

She emphasized that “every penny” of the tax credits “goes to lower the cost of power for our customers.”

Ms. Schnure stopped short of saying the project is complete.  “We still have some fine tuning work to do on them,” she said of the turbines.

Meanwhile complaints about noise continue to be heard from the project’s neighbors.  And the distances the turbines’ sound can travel continues to surprise people.

Mary Davis, who lives about four miles east in Albany, across the valley of the Black River and a little east of Page Pond, said she heard them early Monday morning.

“I was taking the old dog out for a three o’clock stroll,” Ms. Davis said.  “She’s almost 15, and when she’s got to go, she’s got to go.”

Ms. Davis found the sound novel, but hard to describe.  “It was just something different,” she said.

“It must be awful” for the project’s close neighbors, Ms. Davis commented, “if you can hear it this far back.”

On the other side of Lowell Mountain, on the Farm Road, one such neighbor arrived home from his overseas job late last week.

“At approximately 3 on the morning of November 25 I along with four of my house guests were woken by thumping noise that lasted for over two hours coming from the wind turbines behind my home,” Kevin McGrath wrote in an e-mail to Susan Paruch, a consumer affairs specialist at the state Department of Public Service.

“The noise was similar to a heavy object rotating in a clothes dryer,” Mr. McGrath wrote.  “Later on that morning at about 10 the noise levels penetrated my home and sounded like a waterfall gushing directly behind my home.”

Mr. McGrath lives in one of about 50 structures that sit inside a “1.5 mile buffer” drawn around the project by RSG, Inc., the White River Junction firm that drafted the final sound monitoring protocol for Green Mountain Power.  His home is also one of about 19 structures within a smaller zone where, RSG estimates, turbine sound will reach between 40 and 45 decibels outside the home.

In granting the project a certificate of public good, the state Public Service Board set sound limits at 45 decibels outside neighboring homes, and 30 decibels in their bedrooms.

The extended family of Don and Shirley Nelson celebrated Thanksgiving in their farmhouse, which also sits well inside the 40-to-45-decibel zone.

Among the 19 people present, Mr. Nelson said Monday, two suffered migraine headaches, and some thought their ears were going to pop.  “Some of their stomachs didn’t feel right,” Mr. Nelson said, “and I don’t think it was Shirley’s cooking.”

“Shirley can hear it in the house,” he said of the turbine sound.  “Her ears are ringing all the time now.  They never did before.  If we go away two or three hours, it stops.”

Mr. Nelson, who was one of the migraine sufferers, said it’s impossible to know what causes such a headache.  He added that he expects complaints from his household to be discounted by Green Mountain Power and state officials, because the couple has fought to stop the project since it was proposed.

At Green Mountain Power, Ms. Schnure said the utility has received two more noise complaints since a particularly noisy weekend surprised many Albany residents in early November.  Both of the recent complaints came from hunters, she said.

“If people have concerns about undue noise they should talk to us,” Ms. Schnure said.

The Public Service Board imposed strict noise limits on the project, she said, “and we will meet those standards.”

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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