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Maine town stands firm on one-mile turbine setback

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Each time the residents of Frankfurt, Maine have been asked to weigh in on a proposed wind farm on Mount Waldo, the results have the same: “no thanks”—and by ever increasing margins.  In 2011, an ordinance establishing a one-mile setback passed by 22 votes; the ordinance also set noise limits of 45dB during the day and 32dB at night (a range that’s in line with what turbines would be expected to produce at that distance).  The town was sued by the landowners who were planning to host a six-turbine project; both sides agreed to put the question of allowing the project to go forward to a March 2013 town meeting vote, which fell 47 votes short.  This year, a measure to repeal the 2011 ordinance and revert to state standards (55dB day/42dB night noise limit) was on the election day ballot, and that proposal lost by 138 votes, or 62%-38%.

windagain090414.jpgThe citizens of Frankfurt have spoken clearly and repeatedly.  They have said that they want turbines to stay far enough away from neighboring properties that they will be rarely heard.  While the one-mile setback (and perhaps even moreso the 32dB night noise limit) make the proposed Mt. Waldo project unfeasible, standards such as these are not inherently unreasonable; indeed, several other Maine towns (including Woodstock, Sumner, Rumford, and Clifton) have adopted 4000-5260 foot standards, rather than outright bans.  [The photo simulation above, created by the wind developer, shows a view from about two miles away.] While such standards clearly aim for much smaller impacts on neighbors than more typical 1200-1700-foot setbacks, turbines in the range of a mile away are still a dominant visual presence and can be readily audible; the larger setback/lower noise standards are generally aiming to find a middle ground that allows wind development while minimizing impacts.

The Record Hill Wind Farm in Roxbury is over a mile and a quarter from most homes, and those who spoke up about noise issues early on have found that the turbines are only rarely audible—though they still dislike seeing the turbines over the pond and the string of lights at night.  A look at Google Maps seems to show more homes within a mile of Mt. Waldo than at Record Hill (a dozen or so, rather than a couple), so the option of getting agreements with all of the closer landowners may not be practical.  Across the country, many other towns have weighed the costs and benefits differently and adopted the standard, less restrictive setbacks; they’ve been more willing to accept that a small to moderate proportion of those within a half mile or mile will find the noise intrusive, leading to complaints and in some cases the need to move.  It’s altogether right for towns to make their own choices about how to navigate the grey area of how much visual or acoustic impact they’re willing to live with; Frankfurt and other towns like it are making a clear and reasonable decision.  It’s time for wind developers to accept such choices, choosing sites and designing projects that fit with local sentiments, rather than pushing towns to loosen siting standards simply to make it easier for particular projects to move forward.

UPDATE, 11/5/14: Another Maine town was considering a change in its wind ordinance this week, and that one went the other way, an apt illustration of the self-determination point I just made.  Dixfield had enacted a 2000-foot setback in 2012, but in 2013 the Planning Board was charged with revisiting that decision.  This past summer, a set of amendments were proposed that would have doubled the setback to 4000 feet, and applied more restrictive sound limits as well: 42dB during the day, 35dB at night (again, about what we’d expect at the greater distance).  On Tuesday, in a very high turnout election, the amendments were defeated in a nail-biter, 562 to 557.  So in Dixfield, a 20MW wind project that’s been conducting wind and environmental studies for the past few years still has a relatively amenable path toward approval and construction.

Seabed mining facing high hurdles from NZ EPA

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy Comments Off

In recent years, there’s been a growing sense of concern in the ocean noise community about the worldwide emergence of plans for mining the seabed for a wide range of minerals.  Some of these plans are moving toward completion, as mining companies have solved the cost and technical complications and begun submitting actual project plans to regulators.  An early glimpse of this process has just emerged from New Zealand, where the EPA is now evaluating a permit to mine rock phosphate offshore from the South Island.  See this article in Pundit (a tamer Kiwi version of Huffington) for a very good summary of the process going on there.

In particular, Pundit’s Claire Browning notes that the first seabed mining proposal to come before the EPA was turned down, and she details some of the extravagant non-acoustic impacts of the current project—the process involves scooping up masses of seabed and dumping most of the material back, creating plumes of debris (including uranium and other heavy metals) in the water column.  All this in a Benthic Protected Area where no bottom-trawling is allowed.  Meanwhile, a consortium of environmental groups is stressing the insufficient acoustic and population assessments included in the application:

…the company had carried out no visual or acoustic surveys to establish what whales were in the vicinity, and there was no empirical data on noise that would be generated by the mining. Instead, CRP contractors had constructed a model extrapolating noise from a shallow-water mining operation, a model that, for example, did not take into account noise from pipes taking sediment 450 metres up to the ship – or back down.

“There are a number of potentially serious impacts on marine mammals. More rigorous environmental impact assessment would be needed to assess the severity of the impacts of this development,” said Ms Slooten.

It’s especially good to see that local watchdogs are thinking broadly about the potential acoustic emissions, including the sounds of material being pumped through pipes; our colleagues at Ocean Noise Conservation have been raising questions about such largely-ignored subsea industrial noise around oil and gas sites for several years.  Also interesting in the Pundit piece is a moderately deep dive into the question of how much the Kiwi EPA is taking the precautionary principle into account; the lack of concrete direction to do so was a controversial element of the statutory directions to the newly-formed agency, but it appears that its decisions are indeed deferring activities that carry uncertain risks to sensitive areas.  It’s worth noting that seabed mining may not always be a bad thing; much terrestrial mining has high environmental and social impact, with the resulting raw material shipped large distances to its eventual markets.  Such pressure may be relieved at times by moving offshore; in this case, the company’s website highlights the benefits of mining rock phosphate domestically rather than importing it from Morocco, the primary current source.  But of course, offshore sites need to be thoroughly assessed, and any new activity directed toward areas that will create minimal impact on marine life.

 

MI turbine suit settled; another lesson in operating too close to already-generous noise limits

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 4 Comments »

MI Lake Winds under constructionFor the past couple of years the Lake Winds Energy Park in Mason County, Michigan has been embroiled in a contentious dispute about its noise levels (image to left is the “Park” under construction).  In April 2013, five months after the 56 turbines began operating, 17 neighbors filed suit, claiming that wind farm noise, vibrations and flickering lights were adversely affecting their health. A few months later, after commissioning an independent sound study, the Mason County Planning Commission formally declared the wind farm out of compliance and demanded a mitigation plan; the developer, Consumers Energy, disputed the findings yet lost two appeals, one at the Zoning Board of Appeals and one in Circuit Court. During that series of challenges, Consumers developed a plan to modify turbine operations for 7 turbines closest to the four sites where they were found to be marginally too loud.

Marginal is indeed the word: the sound study found 4 locations where the sound level peaked at 0.3 to 1.2 decibels over the 45dBA noise limit (it takes 3dB for a difference between two sounds to be audible); when using 10-minute averages, there were no violations.  The various explanations by the consultant, Brian Howe, illustrated the fine line that the turbine operations were walking.  His report stressed “general compliance with sound level criteria,” and noted that the brief violations “do not represent a statistically significant portion of time and do not indicate a systemic exceedance.” In his initial testimony at an August Planning Commission meeting, he said that there are no recommendations to correct for these times because “there is not a situation where they are predictably going over 45.”  Later, in a November letter to the Commission, after learning that the county had previously decided NOT to allow for occasional exceedances, he stressed that “I can assure the County that competent, material and substantive evidence supports the conclusion that the turbines are not in compliance at certain residences on occasion” and elaborated:

Excursions over 45 dBA should have been anticipated since, as outlined in the acoustic study by Tech Environmental prepared in June 2011, the wind energy park was designed with sound levels identically equal to the 45 dBA criteria at some key receptors with no factor of safety to address the fact that the prediction methodology has a stated accuracy worse than +/- 3 dBA. If Tech Environmental was aware that achieving the criteria even 95% of the time was unacceptable to the County, it would have been prudent to incorporate a suitable safety margin to account for the statistical variation in sound levels.

And this is the first half of the central lesson here: it’s essential that enough of a safety factor is built in to the sound models to account for known variability in sound production (how loud the blades are in various unsteady wind conditions) and sound propagation (how far sound travels as it gradually loses power).  Regular readers will know that variability is indeed, as Howe mentioned, often more than the simplified 3dB margin of error that was neglected here (see AEI’s 2012 report). The second half the lesson is related: when noise limits—for the sound of the turbines when it reaches nearby homes—are set as high as 45dBA, they will be regularly audible at these homes, and likely well above night-time ambient sound levels.  As many acousticians have stressed for years, these situations are very apt to trigger a significant number of complaints, especially if there are dozens of homes in that nearby range.  Here, we had the worst of both worlds: turbine siting plans that pushed sound right at the limit into nearby homes, and a limit that was on the high end of tolerability for many neighbors.  Indeed, after one such cautionary report was presented to the Mason County Planning Board, it decided to lower the limit to 40dB, but that change was revoked after push-back from Consumers Energy.

With this backdrop, this week the 17 original plaintiffs in the noise nuisance lawsuit agreed to a settlement offer from Consumers;

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Ocean observatory audio streams: navies nix bits of data that scientists savor

Bioacoustics, News, Ocean, Science, shipping, Sonar Comments Off

For several years, AEI has been excited about the ever-expanding networks of ocean observatories coming online around the world.  A recent article on LiveScience detailed some of the benefits of the arrays of research stations deployed offshore by Ocean Network Canada, which collect all manner of data: physical, chemical, biological, geological, and acoustic.  Their two networks, the offshore NEPTUNE (left below) and the near-shore VENUS (right below), consist of permanent installations on the floor (“nodes,” shown as orange squares below) as well as mobile moored sensors that may take measurements higher in the water column (yellow dots). A similar US network, dubbed Regional Scale Nodes, is being planned off the coast of Washington and Oregon.

NEPTUNE VENUS

While the observatories are enabling in-depth study of complex process in ways not previously possible (click that link for a glimpse of the amazing topics being explored…yes, do it!), the audio feeds coming from some of the nodes hold special excitement for many researchers. “If you want to study what’s going on in the ocean, the best tool by far is sound,” said Tom Dakin, an acoustic specialist at ONC’s sensors technology development office.”There are all kinds of sounds being made in the ocean, and they all have a telltale signature. . . . If you start putting in a bunch of external man-made noise, [whales] are going to have a hard time communicating,” Dakin said. It’s like trying to have a conversation with somebody at a rock concert — you have to shout, you can’t hold a conversation for very long and you wouldn’t be able to detect different inflections that you would normally be able to hear.  He has been diving when a big ship has gone by, and “it feels like somebody’s whacking you in the chest with a two-by-four,” he said.

navy listeningBut while scientists are keen to hear what the new undersea recordings have to tell us, the US and Canadian Navies are far less enthusiastic.  They’re concerned that the audio feeds, which are freely available to scientists and the public as downloads and via live online feeds, will reveal sensitive information about submarine and ship movements, navy training activities, and even the sound signatures of individual vessels. The two navies have arranged with researchers to have an audio bypass switch that allows them to divert the audio streams into a secured military computer—sitting in a locked cage at the research facility where the data comes ashore—at times when their ships are nearby (and also at some random other times, so that their diversions don’t give away any secrets on their own!).  This article from The Atlantic dug into the way this system works, along with a quick look at naval concerns about sound from as far back as 1918.  The data diversions from Ocean Networks Canada’s system (often triggered by the US Navy) occur several times a month and last from hours to days. As noted by The Atlantic:

While the Canadian military has yet to return a request for comment, the U.S. Navy reminds me that naval ship movements are classified information, and the fact that those movements might potentially be broadcast on the internet is obviously of concern. “The value of having a cabled system is that it releases data live to the internet,” says U.S. Navy oceanographer Wayne Estabrooks. “But there are some times where we want to protect information, so we have to do diversions.”

“There’s a long tradition of the ocean being the exclusive domain of the militaries and the fishing community, and we’re more or less interlopers in this world,” says [Kim] Juniper, the microbiologist who showed me the photo of the computer in the cage. “The world is changing. . . It’s going to come to a point in the future where this is no longer going to be feasible for the navies to put resources into sorting all this data,” he later says. The hydrophones alone generate 200 gigabytes of raw data each day, and there are other, similar networks of Internet-connected sensors that already exist, or are soon to come online.

Dakin notes, though, that only 4% of the data is lost, and is returned to the science pipeline, often immediately and nearly always within a week.  The military filters out their ship noise, but leaves the rest of the data intact (at least, whatever data is not also in the frequency range of the navy ships or other sensitive sonic activities). “At end of the day, we hardly miss any data at all,” he says.  You can listen to live streams of ONC acoustic data here, and, since that’s rarely very exciting, to a collection of highlights of images and sounds here.

FAA adds insult to injury with new Grand Canyon flight permits

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Eighteen months after Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Harry Reid (D-NV) joined forces to undermine the National Park Service’s Grand Canyon air tour management plan just before it was set to go into effect, the Federal Aviation Administration apparently feels that the discounted per-flight fee for quiet aircraft is not incentive enough to encourage the air tour industry to invest in new-generation planes. Rather, the FAA has decided that the best way to do so is to allow 1721 additional flights to the annual parade of planes piercing the skies over the Grand Canyon, so long as these new flights utilize “quiet” aircraft.

Grand Canyon view from air tour500

 

“The so-called quiet technology is not quiet,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “It’s less noisy, but it’s not quiet.” Flagstaff resident Jim McCarthy, who did a master’s thesis at Arizona State University on noise pollution in the Grand Canyon, said air tour companies are “gaming the park.” Because the quiet technology is defined by noise per seat, aircraft can be noisier as long as they hold more people, he said. “It can be completely counterproductive.” (above image is the view from an air tour)

A park spokesperson notes that the additional flights only add about 3% to the flights already occurring; at peak times, planes take off every 90 seconds, heading for the two most popular air tour corridors.  As with snowmobiles in Yellowstone, the annual cap on allowed flights is far higher than the number of flights that have been occurring in recent years: the FAA authorized about 90,000 flights in 2012, the most recent year for which numbers were available, though only (!) 55,185 commercial air tours were actually flown that year.

See earlier AEI coverage of this fiasco here

Oregon project aims for floating offshore turbine future

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After nearly five years of floating offshore wind farm planning off the coast of Maine, a project in Oregon may leapfrog those efforts.  An initial go-ahead from federal ocean regulators marks the starting line for a pilot project off Coos Bay, which will need to clear several more regulatory and financial hurdles before being built.  

Perhaps optimistically, Principle Power (the developer) is holding a target date of 2017 to have its initial five turbines operational.  These will be huge, 6MW, 600-foot turbines, similar in design to a model that’s already being tested in the water in Portugal.  The project is expected to cost $200 million, which would build around 100MW of capacity on land, as compared to the 30MW this pilot project will construct; Principle Power expects that steadier, stronger offshore winds will let these turbines operate at a higher capacity factor than onshore projects, partially making up that difference. Of course, experimental pilot projects are always far more expensive than later, full-scale build-outs; still, the financial feasibility of projects like this is a work in progress.

Virginia offshore wind developer agrees to avoid right whales for evaluation, but not for construction

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Last fall, Dominion Virginia Power won the first federal lease for developing wind power off the coast of Virginia.  As with all offshore energy and Naval activity on the east coast, one of the first environmental concerns to be raised was what measures would be taken to minimize impact on the critically endangered North Atlantic Right whale. While their population has been more or less steadily rising since 1990, with only about 400 individuals, they remain vulnerable to any negative impacts, from ship strikes to increased stress levels, which may reduce reproductive rates and success. (See NOAA’s most recent stock assessment report for details; it notes lower reproductive rates than other Right whale stocks, and concludes that the population will be negatively affected if it loses more than 0.9 whales per year to human impact.)

Turbine being boated offshoreWith all this in mind, Dominion Virginia Power’s first commitments to the Virginia Offshore Wind Development Authority fell far short of what many had hoped.  The company agreed to limit installation activity of test platforms (meteorological towers and preliminary test turbines) during the period when whales are most apt to be migrating past the Virginia coast, but made no such commitments about later, and much more extensive, pile-driving for hundreds of turbines in the eventual wind farm.

“We’re happy to talk” with environmental groups, said Mary C. Doswell, Dominion Resources Inc.’s senior vice president for alternative energy solutions, though she noted, “we can’t overlook the costs of compliance.”

The company said they’d minimize their first-phase activities from late November to late March.  The whales spend the summers in a large area off the coast of New England and the Canadian Maritimes, and concentrate at birthing grounds off the coast of northern Florida in winter. NOAA maintains a reduced speed zone along the mid-Atlantic coast, to protect migrating Right whales, from Nov.1 to April 30, close to two months longer than the company set aside as their cautionary season; even the speed restriction is seen by some as a potential obstacle to offshore wind data collection.

UPDATE: See also this article from last fall, which suggests that Dominion plans only to erect a 2-turbine test platform, with full-scae development of 200 or more turbines on hold until costs come down for offshore wind construction.  Some wind advocates suggest that Dominion, which has fought renewable energy initiatives in the state, secured the lease largely to prevent others from developing a large offshore capacity.

Vermont PSB asking for input on turbine noise standards

Human impacts, News, Wind turbines 1 Comment »

The state Public Service Board has initiated a public process for re-examining the noise standards used at wind and natural gas energy facilities in Vermont.  Geoff Commons, the PSB’s public advocate, notes that neighbor complaints from wind projects operating in compliance with a 45dB standard are part of the driver for this review.

VT SheffieldWEB“Even with these restrictions placed on several recently constructed facilities, the board has received complaints regarding sounds produced by the operation of some facilities. These complaints have raised questions about whether the limitations that the board has previously adopted are adequate,” the PSB stated in December.  “As a result, the board has determined that it is appropriate to commence a general investigation into the issue of appropriate sound standards for facilities that are subject to the board’s jurisdiction.”

The PSB has established a website to track this process.  A pre-hearing conference was held on January 8, and based on discussions there, a scoping document outlining initial ideas about procedures and key questions for the process have were released on January 29, and can be downloaded here.  Public comments are being accepted through March 3, after which the final scope of the process will be determined, followed by a series of public workshops to address specific issues.  The outcome of this process will be a determination as to whether a new set of binding sound-related standards is needed; if so, that will occur during a separate formal process.

From my first reading of the preliminary scoping document, it appears that the focus may be strongly oriented toward health effects, and the standard effort to determine “state of the art” scientific information; the initial list of questions doesn’t appear to consider quality of life impacts.  However, the final scope may change, based on comments during this scoping phase.

Aussie wind farms moving forward with 2km setbacks

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Despite much gnashing of teeth among wind developers and some wind advocates, it appears that the Australian wind industry is adjusting to larger setback requirements.  In the past two months, two large wind farms have cleared key approval hurdles in New South Wales, with both incorporating the 2km setback requirement from non-participating homes that is included in draft NSW wind planning guidelines.

The 33-turbine Bodangora Wind Project received approval from the NSW Planning Assessment Commission in late August, which noted that while “noise emissions from the turbines will be audible from some surrounding dwellings,” sound models suggest that sound at non-participating neighbors will be 30dBA or less (and 52dBC or less), noting that “the 2km buffer provided in this instance is highly precautionary.”

CollectorMeanwhile, the 63-turbine Collector Wind Farm has been received a recommendation for approval by the NSW Department of Planning this week, and now awaits final approval from the Planning Assessment Commission.  Despite the recommendation, Tony Hodgson of Friends of Collector said strong opposition remained in the community, which would be enthusiastically voiced at a community meeting with the PAC at the end of October. “We spent a lot of time and a lot of energy putting in our submission, and nobody from the department ever talked to us,” Mr Hodgson said. “We feel very, very hard done by. We think it’s an outrage, and the whole thing’s been a complete waste of our time.”  The Collector project includes one home just inside the 2km buffer, and a couple more just outside it, as seen on the most recent site map (above; yellow line is 2km; red turbine sites have been removed). The project’s Sound Assessment found that the three closest non-participating homes would remain just under the 35dBA noise limit (10-minute average), as well being well below the 60dBC limit.

The NSW Draft Planning Guidelines, which were released in December 2011 and have yet to be finalized, included a requirement that projects receive permission from all homeowners within 2km.  NSW’s southern neighbor Victoria has been operating under a 2km setback requirement for two years now; over 20 wind projects are in the planning stages, with one in the midst of the approval process.  NSW’s other neighbors, South Australia and Queensland, are also charting cautionary paths, though without absolute 2km limits on the table so far (both have 35dBA noise limits, which generally requires setbacks of 1.5km or more).  As in Australia, the US state of Oregon appears to have a robust wind development environment, despite the widespread use of a 36dBA noise limit, which similarly pushes turbines significantly further away from neighboring homes than is typical in much of the US and Canada.

First ruling in new sonar challenges fails to limit huge take numbers

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The first ruling is in from the latest round of legal challenges to Naval training permits, and it’s a split decision.  You’ll need to click through to read the full post to get all the details, but here’s a preview of the conclusion you’ll find at the end:

It appears that the places that the court found NMFS falling short are in the details of how they prepare and analyze information, while the end results of the Navy activities and NMFS analysis and permits were upheld as valid. The court did not accept the plaintiff’s core concerns about the huge numbers of animals authorized to be affected (as litigated on the questions of protected habitats, mitigation measures, and cumulative impacts), deferring to the NMFS analysis that deemed even these large numbers to be acceptable, largely because most impacts are minor and temporary. The rulings that went against NMFS each appear to require simply more data analysis, which will then be fed into the same decision-making process that has been upheld as valid. 

In 2012, Earthjustice, NRDC, and others challenged both the 2010 Northwest Training Range Complex permits authorizing five years of mid-frequency active sonar and explosions at sea, and permits authorizing global deployment of low-frequency active sonar through August 2017. While earlier challenges targeted the Navy’s environmental analysisor originally, the lack thereof—and ran aground when the Supreme Court ruled the Navy has broad discretion to weigh environmental safety against national security interests, this new round of lawsuits is directed at the National Marine Fisheries Service’s regulations and permits for the activities. 

In both cases, the primary focus of the challenges, at least as described in press releases, was insufficient protection of biologically important areas.  For several years, NRDC and others have stressed that Navy training ranges, which stretch along nearly the entire east and west coasts of the US, contain enough area for diverse training while setting aside some seasonal or year-round exclusion zones where training is avoided due to concentrations of marine animals.  Navy estimates of the numbers of animals likely to hear sonar or explosions, leading to either behavioral changes or injury, are alarmingly high, and the plaintiffs suggest that these numbers could be reduced significantly by setting some areas off limits, at least at key times. Unlike in previous challenges directed at the Navy itself, the plaintiffs did not seek any sort of injunction to halt the training exercises; rather, they asked that the court require the NMFS to revisit and revise their previous rules or authorizations in light of any deficiencies the court determined to be present.

As the NWTRC case moved into the argument phase, several specific challenges to NMFS procedures, analysis, and conclusions were raised and addressed. In a ruling issued by US Magistrate Judge Nandor Vadas in late September, the plaintiffs came away with at least a temporary win on several points, while the NMFS prevailed on several other fronts, including on the fundamental arguments about habitat protection and long-term impacts.  As in previous rounds of this legal battle, it appears that the end result will be Navy training continuing pretty much as it was before any of the legal challenges began—though with detailed analysis of potential impacts continuing to be pushed into new realms by the legal challenges.

The court ruled that the NMFS had improperly failed to include some relevant studies from 2010 and 2011 when issuing a 2012 Letter of Authorization and Incidental Take Statement, two years after the initial Five-Year Regulations were issued, and so did not rely on the “best available evidence” and likely underestimated the number of animals affected by Navy activity in its 2012 permitting documents.  In addition, the court ruled that the NMFS should analyze impacts not just over the five years of each planning cycle, but for a longer (unspecified) time period, because Navy training is considered to be a permanent, long-term activity.  Over the next month, NMFS will file a brief describing what they see as an appropriate scope and duration of any order to change their previous documents, and the plaintiffs will file a reply; presumably, the Court will rule shortly thereafter on specific remedies.

However, the NMFS prevailed on several substantial issues, including the primary one and two important related challenges.  On the central question of setting aside exclusion zones to better protect essential habitats, the court ruled that the NMFS had given such exclusions due consideration, and lawfully concluded that such exclusions would not be likely to reduce take numbers significantly.  Likewise, the court ruled that NMFS determination of no significant impact did not rely on insufficient mitigation measures (primarily visual observers) in making its assessment of likely harm; rather, NMFS determined that even before mitigation measures were implemented, the numbers of animals affected and the degree of impact did not pose long-term risks to local populations.  

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Ontario towns flock to declare themselves “unwilling hosts” for wind farms

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In the wake of several years of heated wind farm resistance in Ontario, premier Kathleen Wynne said several months ago that the province would aim to site new projects in “willing communities.”  In response, 71 southern Ontario communities have formally passed resolutions declaring their towns “unwilling” (red on map; interactive version here) and another 33 have expressed some measure of concern about local siting (yellow); together, this represents a bit over half of the 197 municipalities in the southern part of Ontario where wind development has been concentrated.   A coalition of these towns formed at an August meeting of the Association of Municipalities Ontario. It remains to be seen whether provincial officials will alter siting decision based on these declarations; provisions of an altered wind strategy appear to focus on “consultations” with localities (rather than requiring local approval of projects) and incentives to encourage local support for wind development.

UPDATE, 12/2/13: The Dufferin County Council has voted to declare the county an unwilling host, become the first county to do so; several town within the county are among the over 90 Ontario towns that have made similar declarations.

Unwilling 500

In a statement issued this week, the coalition of “unwilling” towns said: “Municipalities are seeing the impact of existing turbines on their communities or their neighbours and do not want the same things to happen in their municipality.  The government’s proposals for community benefit programs and community sponsorship do not address the core problems being created when wind turbines are located too close to people.”  Added Wainfleet mayor April Jeffs, “Municipalities are looking for solutions to the real problems, not public relations gimmicks.” 

“The government has indicated that an announcement regarding the guidelines for new large-scale FIT projects is planned for the end of October or in early November,” said Kevin Marriott, mayor of Enniskillen. “Municipalities are looking for real planning authority for wind turbines to be returned to local governments.  Municipalities are better placed than Queen’s Park civil servants to identify local issues that need to be addressed in reviewing wind turbine projects. They also have processes in place to review and approve other complex or controversial building projects within their jurisdiction.”

Earlier, Marriott had noted that while the Premier has spoken about wanting to locate projects in willing host communities, no concrete plans have been proposed to give municipalities substantial input in the siting process, and wind turbine projects have continued to get provincial approval without consideration of municipal concerns. 

UPDATE, 10/10/13: This week, a wind project received provincial approval in Kincardine, one of the towns that has declared itself an unwilling host.  One local council member noted with dismay that the province had embarked on an expensive change of siting for two gas-fired electric plants because the initial communities had not welcomed them, while similar concerns about wind farms are ignored.

Indeed, Wynne made her commitment to continued wind development clear even as she attempted to outline a more responsive relationship with communities, stressing that the province needs to find a way to ensure green energy projects are “going to willing communities.” In a draft of the new FIT structure released in September, there was no mention of communities being able to opt-out, though there are provisions for “local consultations.”  

Her Energy Minister, Bob Chiarelli, has been overseeing the revamping of the FIT, including a new requirement that companies consult with local authorities before going to the province for approval.  “They will have a much stronger voice in all of the significant energy projects,” said Chiarelli “Communities spoke, mayors spoke, and we listened.”  Since localities do not seem likely to get veto power, the formal “unwilling hosts” designations appear to be more of a public statement than marking the establishment of wind-free zones.  The revamped FIT program will include incentives including new funding for municipalities who want to do energy planning; Chiarelli said, “We believe that process will result in a much higher level of buy-in and participation by municipalities.”

Well, maybe not, if the summer and fall rush to declare themselves “unwilling hosts” is any indication; it appears that the Ontario wind wars will be continuing. 

NPS to study how soundscape quality affects park visitors

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Equipment GRSA squareWEBFor over a decade, the National Park Service has been on the forefront of public lands agencies in addressing the role of sound and noise on both wildlife and park visitors.  NPS’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division has catalyzed baseline acoustic monitoring in seventeen parks, and carried out groundbreaking research on the effects of noise on wildlife.

Now, NPS is planning a national survey on how the quality of park soundscapes affects visitation at national parks, and the economies of gateway communities.  An August 9 Federal Register notice is seeking public comment on the value such a study, with the hope of doing a small-scale pilot survey in 2014, in preparation for the full study in 2015.  The last time NPS sought comments on a similar proposal, they received no public comments and did not proceed.  Now’s the time to chime in, as comments close on September 9.  (Go here, and be sure to note the topics they want input on, and send your comments to both email addresses listed.)

“In addition to parsing out the extent to which visitors value being able to hear the sounds of nature, the study will provide other useful information such as how acoustic conditions affect the likelihood of repeat visitation to national parks,” the agency said in a summary of the survey.  

At a daylong public outreach workshop on Noise in Communities and Natural Areas earlier this month (which I was fortunate to attend), Kurt Fristrup and Frank Turina outlined some of the ongoing soundscape work in parks. Turina described a pilot project at Rocky Mountain National park that uses flashing signs to notify motorcyclists of the noise levels of their bikes (much like instantaneous speed-tracking signs), with the goal of encouraging riders to moderate their noise while enjoying park roads.  Fristrup shared some fascinating research revealing that hikers on the Hermit Trail at the Grand Canyon nearly universally reported lower levels of overall satisfaction with their visitor experience after overflight helicopters start flying each morning. Hikers were asked to rate their experience on a 7-point scale, from Very Pleasant to Very Unpleasant.  Prior to the start of flights, Very Pleasant (7) received was the most chosen rating, with no one choosing the lower Unpleasant to Very Unpleasant ratings of 3, 2, or 1.  After flights began, the graph of responses shifted distinctly toward the less pleasant ratings: the number of people rating their experience at 7 dropped dramatically and the lower ratings, all the way down to 1, joined the mix.

Indiana wind developer sues over 1500ft setback, says zoning chair shouldn’t consider experience with existing wind farm

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Over the past several months, I’ve been watching with interest an apparently growing concern in farm country about wind farm setbacks.  Several counties in Indiana and Illinois have been moving toward somewhat larger setback requirements after living with a first round of large-scale wind development.

This week, juwi Wind filed a suit challenging recent decisions by the Tipton County Board of Zoning Appeals, which in March approved a conditional use permit for the proposed Prairie Breeze Wind Farm, while requiring a 1500ft setback from non-participating property lines.  The county zoning ordinance requires just 1000ft from non-participating homes, and in July, juwi requested that the permit conditions be changed to 1400ft from non-participating homes and 750ft from non-participating property lines.  juwi claims that their request for this change was summarily rejected by the BZA without the required public hearing at which they could make their case.  (Ed. note: It appears that the conditional use permit has no provisions for easements from landowners willing to live with turbines closer to their homes; the vast majority of turbine locations planned by juwi are closer than 1500ft from neighboring property lines.)

Wildcat 1 SmallIn addition, juwi is making provocative claims that BZA chair Jerry Acres is no longer capable of making an unbiased decision, thanks to comments he’s made suggesting regrets about his support of the Wildcat Wind Farm (left), which began operating early this year and has generated complaints from at least 20 homeowners.  At the March hearing at which the Prairie Breeze conditional use permit was approved, Acres said, “On the E.ON vote (approving the Wildcat Wind Farm), I looked more at the financial gains than probably the long-term losses. I probably didn’t do my homework on E.ON and that’s what I’m saying.”  Acres also said at that meeting that he’s had some personal experience with siting issues, after visiting a friend who lives near Wildcat.  This apparently straightforward response from a public official who is charged with understanding the consequences of his decisions is attacked by juwi; the complaint alleges that “these comments from the Board’s President, Acres, demonstrate that he was not unbiased and objective, and that he improperly injected his personal feelings into the matter, for whatever reason.”

Neighboring Howard County has settled on an increase from 1050ft to 1500ft from non-participating homes, along with a decrease in the noise limit from 55dB to 50dB, as Wildcat Wind Farm moves into Phase 2 and 3. Two other counties have enacted formal or informal bans on wind development; Marshall County formally banned wind farms, and Clinton County passed a non-binding motion to stay windfarm free. “I tell you, it’s not about money, it’s about people with me,” County Commission President Skip Evans said. “It’s about quality of life. It’s about all the citizens of Clinton County, not just those who stand to profit.”  

Meanwhile, Delaware County has paused for two years, waiting to see how recent wind farm developments in the region work out before settling on a development plan.  Tom Green, chair of the city-county plan commission, said in his proposal to pause, “I have noted many changes in policies around the country regarding this issue, some of those changes are a complete reversal of existing policy. Let us not make the same mistakes or reactions in providing guidance for our community.” 

Global industry council forms new ocean noise working group

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The World Ocean Council, an “international, cross-sectoral alliance for private sector leadership and collaboration in Corporate Ocean Responsibility,” has launched a new initiative to address ocean noise issues.  Planned to complement the ongoing efforts of the oil and gas industry’s Sound and Marine Life program and the International Maritime Organization’s ocean noise policy work addressing shipping noise, the WOO’s Marine Sound Working Group will be especially helpful in raising awareness of ocean noise issues among ocean industries—including ocean mining and port construction—that have been less involved in the issue over the past decade or so of intensive study.  

In an interview after the initial meeting of the Marine Sound Working Group, co-chair Brandon Southall noted efforts to find alternatives or noise-masking techniques for some noisy activities in which the noise is a by-product, rather than a necessary component of the work; he also stressed ongoing efforts to better understand the widespread effects of chronic moderate noise, in contrast to researchers’ earlier focus on localized, acute effects of specific loud noise sources.  See the full 6-minute interview with Brandon here.

Brief turbine noise monitoring in Vermont fails to capture useful data

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Noise complaints around the Sheffield Wind facility in Vermont began soon after the turbines began turning; combined with complaints from other wind farms, the Vermont Department of Public Service initiated investigations.  This week, a report was released summarizing the results from three days of noise monitoring outside the home of a family that has been especially affected by turbine noise.  Unfortunately, the conditions on these days were not similar to those that cause the residents problems; and more generally, on none of the three days were investigators able to document the turbine sound levels (on one day there was virtually no wind and they weren’t operating; on the other two, wind was too strong to hear turbines, and not from a direction that brings turbine noise to the house).

As reported on VtDigger:

Chris Recchia, commissioner for the Vermont Public Service Department, said that while the noise testing may help his department better understand how to evaluate wind noise in the future, he cannot draw conclusions from it.  “The testing is not helpful in terms of determining wind noise,” he said. “It really is not particularly useful in making conclusions about the compliance of the turbines.”

“This was our first attempt at trying to do independent noise testing, but it brings up more issues than it probably answers,” he said. “One of them is having a standard inside someone’s house.” 

The acousticians on site found daylong average noise levels of 30dBA on the relatively windless day, and 45dBA and 47dBA on the windy days; at no time were the turbines audible through the wind, leading the investigators to conclude that the turbines’ contributions to these levels were lower than the state limit of 45dBA.  The inability to isolate turbine noise in their monitoring left them unable to predict the inside noise level, which by state regs should remain below 30dB; they had assumed they could capture outside turbine noise, so had not arranged to make recordings in the house itself.  However, as the report says:

…it should be noted that in conversations with the Therriens, the three-day measurement period was not representative of the worst-case noise conditions that they experience. They are most impacted by the wind turbine noise when the winds are from the east and the south, and their residence is directly downwind of the wind turbines. If measurements are to be made that demonstrate these worst-case noise conditions, it may be necessary to greatly extend the time of measurement period to catch the particular operating and atmospheric conditions that cause the level of annoyance claimed by the Therriens.

UPDATE, 7/15/13: The Therriens and Vermonters for a Clean Environment have raised questions about the reported power output on one of the two windy nights.  According to a letter filed with the PSB, conditions were actually similar to previous high-noise periods on one of the testing nights, but the power output charts in the noise monitoring report show surprisingly low power output during some high wind times in the wee hours of the 2nd day of testing. Luann Therrien noted, “Up now at 2am.  Imagine our surprise we are not being rocked out of the house by turbine whoosh and jet sound.  First time in a long time that we are hearing mostly normal wind sounds (during a time when the wind speed and direction were optimal for loud turbine noise).” It’s possible that the wind project was under some curtailment from local grid operators who didn’t need the power at that time; VCE wonders whether the wind farm operator knowingly feathered the blades to reduce sound during the testing, though a spokeman for First Wind said, “Of course, we don’t make any adjustments when testing is going on.” For more, see the VCE letter to the PSB.

Some larger issues are also spotlighted by this study.  Charts included in the report offer a clear representation of the variability in wind noise over the course of the day—the daylong average levels, especially on the windy days, were far exceeded for much of the day.  While in this case, the noise was wind, similar variability is commonly also found in wind turbine sound (often 5-10dB above a daylong average, and at times 15-20dB higher, though generally with lower peaks than this blustery day produced); daylong average figures, while useful in many ways, rarely reflect the actual noise experience of neighbors.

The difficulties encountered in this study highlight the need for noise monitoring—especially at homes with repeated complaints—to be planned with enough flexibility to be on site on days when weather forecasts predict the conditions that residents have stated to be the most troublesome, and to be sure turbines are operating at full power at times when conditions are ripe for issues.  As noted in the comment section of the VtDigger piece (which features a lively, respectful discussion), those who are upset about turbine noise rarely say the turbines are always a problem; rather, there are often certain conditions that are significantly worse. To thus spend limited resources doing sound studies at randomly chosen times is likely to be of little practical use. The more troublesome conditions may occur more, or less, commonly in different locations, and may easily be missed by any brief monitoring period, unless spot monitoring is carefully and flexibly planned.

It should be stressed that even if the difficult conditions occur a relatively small proportion of hours per month, they can still create a chronic, hard to live with experience.  For example, one study suggested peak turbine noise levels may occur as little as 4% of the hours in a year; but, doing the math on 4% of the time shows that this could mean 116 days—a third of the year—with peak sound for three hours a day, or 58 days—nearly two months worth of days—with peak sound for 6 hours;  for more on this, and turbine sound variability in general, see this recent AEI presentation. (Note that this analysis is looking only at generalized yearly variability in wind-speed-driven turbine sound levels and some propagation factors, and does not incorporate any turbulence-induced increases in turbine sound levels; thus the 4% number is illustrative only, and not meant to represent actual rates of troublesome noise at any particular location. Few studies have looked at the effects of air turbulence or turbine wakes on turbine source levels, and none that I know of have actually tracked long-term patterns of sound variability around wind farms.)

RELATED, 7/23/13: More extended noise monitoring at another Vermont wind farm on Lowell Mountain has found no violations of the 45dB limit, including at times when turbines were operating at full capacity.  Turbines were monitored continuously for two weeks in May and June, according to a local news report on the testing.  Two earlier monitoring periods found a total of four hours in which turbines exceeded the noise limits; Green Mountain Power says this was due to snow build-up, and new equipment will allow them to shut down turbines if that happens again; a hearing in early August will determine whether Green Mountain Power will be penalized for the violations.

Biologically rich areas off limits while Gulf seismic EIS is conducted

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Thirty months after environmental groups sued to force ongoing seismic survey programs in the Gulf of Mexico to be subject to more robust compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, a settlement announced this week requires full EIS’s to be completed within thirty months from now.  In the meantime, surveys will be kept out of three key biologically important areas, as well as from nearshore waters during the spring calving season of bottlenose dolphins.  In addition, the oil and gas industry committed to continue working on alternatives that may affect sea life less widely, particularly vibroseismic techniques that would vibrate the seafloor directly (similar to a technique widely used for onshore oil and gas exploration), rather than via loud explosive sounds from airguns.  

3D seismicWEBAnd, the Bureau of Ocean Energy and Management will develop new standards to assure that airgun surveys are not unnecessarily duplicative.  Dozens of surveys take place every year in the Gulf, with repeat surveys sometimes needed to assess reservoir depletion, and as new and improved imaging capabilities are developed; often, survey results are considered proprietary, especially prior to bidding on leases.

3D seismic imagery, above; airguns firing, below.

Airguns firingWEB“Today’s agreement is a landmark for marine mammal protection in the Gulf,” said Michael Jasny, director of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “For years this problem has languished, even as the threat posed by the industry’s widespread, disruptive activity has become clearer and clearer.”

Of particular concern are several populations of whales that are relatively few in number, and thus vulnerable to any disruption—in particular, the Gulf’s small population of sperm whales, whose nursery in Mississippi Canyon was ground zero for the spill. In 2009 an Interior Department study found that Gulf sperm whales subjected to even moderate amounts of airgun noise appeared to lose almost 20 percent of their foraging ability, which may help explain why the population hasn’t recovered from whaling.

International Association of Geophysical Contractors (IAGC) President Chip Gill stated, “Under the settlement agreement, permitting of seismic surveys in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico will continue. (The exclusion zones) are all areas where no lease sales are scheduled and where the prospective areas have recently been surveyed using modern surveying technology. . . . Some of the mitigation measures in the settlement agreement are voluntarily employed by industry around the world. Many of the others have been employed by industry in the GOM for the last several years.”

One of the new requirements that may not have been widely used in the Gulf is the employment of listening devices to help identify whales that may be nearby but unseen by observers scanning for surfacing whales.  As with the controversy over Navy noise-making, much of the nitty gritty of the new EIS process will focus on subtle behavioral impacts, and the difficult question of how much such disruption is tolerable while maintaining the health of animal populations.  A recent scoping hearing in Florida, marking the beginning of the long EIS development process in one zone of the Gulf, included some back and forth on this question.

For a full list of the settlement requirements, see this CBD press release.
Previous AEI coverage here and here.

RELATED: Australian environmentalists are upset about seismic surveys OK’d in an area important to blue whales.  According to an article in The Standard, “Government guidelines are clear that seismic surveys should avoid places and time of year when whales are highly likely to be present,” said Michael Collis of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “We can’t think of a clearer example of this than Australia’s largest ever sighting of blue whales. People should view noise pollution the same way they view chemical pollution. The scientific community is slowly waking up to what a problem this is.” Collis said the fear was the giant mammals could be displaced from their feeding grounds, causing unknown repercussions, and knocked back suggestions that environmentalists opposed all off-shore gas mining exploration. “In Australia there are over 300 oil and gas reserves. We are talking about five areas that are special to whales,” Mr Collis said.

 

“Demographic shift” begins as people move from turbines in Falmouth, Fairhaven

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Planners have long recognized what they call a “demographic shift” in areas near new or expanded airports and highways: in the years after construction of the new noise source, some proportion of nearby residents move away, seeking a return of the quiet they desire.  Since about half the population is very noise tolerant, buyers who don’t mind the moderate noise are usually found. Sometimes homes must sell at a discount, and in other cases, the price isn’t significantly affected; rarely, homes with especially severe noise exposures cannot find a buyer at all.

An article in South Coast Today gives a sense of how this is playing out in Falmouth and Fairhaven, where dozens of families within a half mile or so of turbines have been struggling with noise.  As is often the case, the takeaways are ambiguous.  Two residents near the Fairhaven turbines are quoted, both of whom are reluctantly moving from their homes.  One, who’s been sleeping in his living room because the noise in the bedroom keeps him awake, has found a buyer who’s paying just 7% below his asking price.  The other, whose kids and their mom have already moved away because their 8-year old was having trouble sleeping, had his house on the market at a low-end price, and after “watching buyers come by, look at the turbines and drive away” for several months, he’s now hoping to find renters.  Likewise, a local realtor speaks of a house around a half mile from the turbines that’s been on the market for two years: “They ask about the noise, they ask about the flicker, and then they don’t put in an offer,” she says, noting that the asking price has dropped from $389,000 to $244,900.

In Falmouth, realtors speak about similar troubles finding buyers, with some homes being passed from realtor to realtor as they attempt to sell.  However, the director of Falmouth’s Assessor’s Office says that homes near the turbines have sold at “close to or more than” the assessed value.  At the end of last year, a couple that was one of the closest neighbors to the one privately-owned turbine in Falmouth abandoned the home they designed and built, and started over with a cheap fixer-upper; I have not heard whether it has been sold or not.

Falmouth turbines to stay, Fairhaven turbines too loud

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FalmouthVoteIn the first town-wide vote on the question of what to do about noise issues around two town-owned turbines, Falmouth voters overwhelmingly defeated a measure that would have authorized the Selectmen to continue on their preferred path of dismantling the turbines.  The proposal carried a likely pricetag of about $800 per household, spread over ten years, largely to pay back loans and renewable energy credits that the town received in advance in order to buy and install the turbines.  The measure fell by a 2-1 margin, with about 40% of the town’s registered voters turning out.

Board of Selectmen Chairman Kevin Murphy said that the board will now begin looking at other ways to try to address the long-simmering dispute.  About 40 households have formally filed complaints, representing 15-20% of the homes within about a half mile. Since noise monitoring showed some violations of state noise limits, the two turbines do not run at night, so operate at a loss to the town, though they still produce carbon-free electricity for use at the town’s wastewater treatment plant.

For more on the Falmouth vote, see coverage in the Cape Cod Times and from the AP.
UPDATE, 5/25/13: Three neighbors respond to the vote in this local article.
UPDATE, 6/5/13: Neighbors emphasize that the vote was about funding the previous decision of the Selectmen to take the turbines down (not about whether the turbines should operate), and that the problems will need to be addressed by the incoming Board of Selectmen and/or the Board of Health.  They also say the state should step up with some financial help or forgiveness to lessen the burden on town taxpayers.
UPDATE, 7/5/13: The Board of Selectmen have begun discussing their options for resolving the turbine issue.  See local coverage of their first public discussion here and here

Across the bay in Fairhaven, the first results of noise testing were announced at a Board of Health meeting, marking a turning point not unlike one Falmouth encountered about a year ago.  Monitoring by the state Department of Environmental Protection has found that the two turbines in Fairhaven exceeded state noise limits in 5 of the 24 testing periods analyzed so far (more testing in varying wind conditions is ongoing).  All of the violations ranged from 0.7-1.5dB over the limit of 10dB above background ambient conditions.  Two to three decibels is considered the threshold of the human ear being able to hear an audible difference, so these noise levels are not perceptibly louder than sound just below the 10dB threshold; however, we once again see evidence that the 10dB-over-ambient standard is pushing the tolerance of neighbors.  As Fairhaven board of Selectman Chairman Charlie Murphy said, “Before, people didn’t believe the turbines were that loud at night, but now the study shows it,” adding that the results leave him more determined to “give our residents a good night’s sleep.”

As in Falmouth, where violations were also found in only some conditions and just over the limits, dozens of neighbors are complaining of lost sleep and other related health issues.  EPA standards developed in the 1970’s suggested that noise sources are fairly well tolerated when they remain within 5dB of existing ambient levels, and that at 10dB above ambient, “widespread complaints” are likely.  The detailed results from Fairhaven were not released, but the Falmouth report showed all locations exceeding 5dB, and most exceeding 7dB.  Some states still use 5-6dB thresholds, though many have moved to the 10dB used in Massachusetts, or refrain from the difficult task of regulating noise based on ambient conditions.  The Massachusetts measurement protocol has elements that may in part compensate for the larger 10dB threshold, and other elements that could counter that compensation: the standard compares the L90 sound level (quietest times) of ambient conditions with the absolute peak sound levels of noise from the turbines, rather than the average of each, which may somewhat increase the dB difference; however, the use of “slow” five-second time averaging, rather than “fast” one-second samples (closer to how the human ear perceives sound) likely results in lower peak measurements. Again, though, quibbling over exactly how the measurements take place can obscure the larger issue, which is that current standards appear to be insufficient to keep complaints to a minimum.

Vermont DPS investigating wind farm noise complaints

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The three large wind farms currently operating in Vermont have spurred enough noise complaints to trigger an investigation by the state Department of Public Service.  DPS Commissioner Chris Recchia said “I want to get to the bottom of this….It’s not what was expected.”  Recchia suggested that he’s considering asking the Public Service Board to reconsider their existing noise standards.

LowellSince last fall, 105 formal complaints have been filed, by 23 different individuals living near the Sheffield, Lowell, or Georgia Mountain wind projects.  Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment is also collecting confidential complaints, some from people who have filed formal complaints, and some from neighbors who have felt it to be futile to complain to the turbine operators and/or state.  

The DPS is hiring a noise expert to analyze the complaints, and comparing them to quarterly noise measurements made near each wind project.  After this analysis, the DPS has three options, and could recommend one or more: enforce standards if they find violations, create a more effective system for operators to respond to complaints, or ask the PSB to change the noise standards if necessary.

See this recent local news article for more, including details of a recent bad night for neighbor Kevin McGrath, whose house is pictured above.

In Round 2, Falmouth turbine dismantling fails to gain town meeting support

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A month after Falmouth’s Board of Selectmen voted to recommend dismantling of the two town-owned wind turbines, a Town Meeting vote fell seven votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary to authorize borrowing money to do so.  A follow-up measure authorizing $100,000 to develop proposals for decommissioning will be discussed as the Town Meeting continues tonight; since that measure won’t require borrowing money, it will need a simple majority.  The Selectmen plan to put the question of decommissioning before the entire town during a May 21 town election. (In Falmouth the Town Meeting is a representative body of about 300 residents.)

UPDATE, 4/11/13: On the final night of Town Meeting, a 90 minute discussion resulted in a measure that will put the $100,000 question before the full town in the May 21 election, rather than authorizing that money to begin to be spent immediately; in addition, this money may only be spent if the town as a whole votes to dismantle the turbines. At its April 11 meeting, the Board of Selectmen agreed to put a binding referendum on the May 21 ballot, approving additional tax levies to cover deconstruction of the turbines.  Coverage of this discussion and vote is here.  Also, the town meeting in nearby Scituate voted down a non-binding citizens proposal to urge revocation of the local permits for a single turbine that has also spurred complaints from its nearby neighbors; coverage here and here.

Last week, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center said that it would consider forgiving the town $2 million in Renewable Energy Credits already paid and due to be delivered in the future, but only if the turbines were not dismantled, and the town did not impose any noise restrictions more stringent than state regulations.  This represents a small part of the estimated $12-15 million total necessary for decommissioning; over $10 million of this is outstanding loans, which the town hopes will be reduced via debt forgiveness by the state for one turbine, and possible state financial assistance for the other.  In the recent vote, though, the Town Meeting was considering a measures that would authorize the town to spend up to $14 million, since state support is uncertain.  The proposed borrowing would raise average property taxes by $48 per year, or a total per household of about $800.

FalmouthWEBThe two town-owned turbines had been projected to create a net revenue of several hundred thousand dollars a year, in electricity saved at the town Wastewater Treatment Plant, electricity sold on the open market, and Renewable Energy Credits.  However, for the past year, since state DEP noise monitoring found noise levels exceeding state limits in the nearby neighborhood at night, the turbines have been shut down at night, and so operating at a deficit of about $100,000 a year due to the significantly diminished output. This recent article in Cape Cod Times provides a history of the turbine project in Falmouth, the emergence of impacts among neighbors, and the town’s efforts to decide how to respond.

At the town meeting, local green energy advocates urged a “no” vote, saying that it would be more  cost-effective to buy houses from those most upset with the turbine noise, while two Selectmen spoke in favor of the measure, because of the current annual losses, the need to heal the split in the town, and the fact that a town Wind Turbine Options Process group that met for several months came to the conclusion that, among several final options, decommissioning was the best choice.  

If the May 21 town-wide vote agrees to dismantle the turbines, the matter of borrowing funds to complete that process will return to the Town Meeting at another of its biannual sessions.  Meanwhile, town officials will continue to develop plans to navigate the “considerable complexity” of arranging all the necessary financing, contract revisions, and special legislation that will be needed to complete the process.

Recent psychological papers may impact participation in Ontario wind farm survey

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A surge of widely-publicized papers purporting to show that those complaining about wind farm noise are being unduly influenced by expectations of harm, or have personalities that are easily upset, may be fostering distrust among residents of Ontario who are randomly selected to participate in an upcoming large-scale survey funded by the provincial government and an ongoing 5-year study by University of Waterloo researchers.

This post, for example, notes that “mischaracterizations are coming out from all around,” and encourages residents to beware of any new surveys that appear to be asking questions about one’s overall quality of life or any annoyances other than wind farms.  The concern seems to be that general quality of life or attitudinal/psychological questions can contribute to the sorts of extreme claims that have filled the press recently, suggesting that “nocebo” type effects are the primary cause of health symptoms and annoyance complaints.  A detailed comment in the post includes a letter sent by one resident who returned a recent University of Waterloo survey without completing it, noting that “questions appear to be constructed in a manner that can be manipulated to achieve any desired result.” Here’s another site that similarly characterizes the UW survey as a political and wind industry sham.

All of these surveys, in order to be representative, need to have responses from a representative sample of both people being bothered and those who are not bothered.  Here, as in some previous research local efforts, distrust has grown to the point that those most affected may not participate.  While for many of those being kept awake or otherwise affected by nearby turbines, the question at hand appears very simple—the turbines are the issue, and they affect me—a useful survey will need to do more than simply ask about turbine health effects.  There are a lot of contributing factors, and it can be useful to consider many of them.  

While such surveys may be subject to misleading interpretations at times, the fact is that surveys and studies are always interpreted differently by those on opposite sides of the issue—where one side sees proof of their supposition, the other sees vague results, poorly designed data collection, or exaggerated significance.  It’s clear that both the idea that turbine noise has nothing to do with the problems being reported, and the idea that turbine noise is inevitably harmful for those living nearby, are overstating what studies and surveys have found. Still, such disputed studies provide raw data that can help quantify the extent of issues and become valuable sources of clear information for those on both sides of the issue, and especially for local decision-makers. 

In particular, if those most affected decline to participate in the Ontario studies, these surveys will come to conclusions that far fewer people are bothered by noise than are, in fact, affected.  This can’t be good for anyone.  Rather than fear the possible misinterpretations, it would be better to help assure that these surveys obtain results that reflect the actual extent of the noise problem.

UPDATE, 4/15/13: Some area residents are telling the University of Waterloo researchers that it’s already too late to measure pre-construction stress and other health markers.  This study is meant to provide a “before and after” picture of local sleep and overall well-being.  But, according to  an article in Niagara This Week, residents question whether it will do so:

“You’re not starting in the right place,” resident Debbie Hughes told Bigelow, during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. “We are already affected by the turbines. Our stress is already high.”

A dozen residents, all opposing wind turbines, shared similar messages. “It’s too late, two years too late,” said Helen Kzan, wearing an NRWC receptor 2418 bib. “I’ve been to the doctor. They told me to move.  My stress level has skyrocketed. My physician told me my stress will kill me before the wind turbines.”

While what the locals are calling “the pre-stress level” is likely already be elevated, it would still seem likely that the study could identify any trends in sleep disruption and more widespread stress that may be caused by the noise of the turbines once they’re built (at least, if those affected choose to respond to surveys). The whole situation highlights the ambiguities that exist in trying to determine the cause of any health effects that do occur.

Floating deepwater wind turbines on track in Maine

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Ocean-based renewables are destined to be a huge piece of a future carbon-free energy system—tidal, wave, and offshore wind are all likely to become more technologically and economically viable over the coming decade or two. As these offshore renewables mature, they will reduce the current pressure to site wind farms in more populated areas closer to urban electricity load centers.

Statoil Hywind Turbine copyWatching the decade-long struggle in Massachusetts to build Cape Wind, the nation’s first offshore wind farm, researchers and state officials in Maine have chosen a different path: they decided to tackle the engineering challenges of building turbines that can float in deep water far offshore, rather than the social challenges of building wind farms in shallow water close to shore (which use fundamentally the same foundation designs as onshore turbines).  Floating deepwater turbines can take advantage of even stronger, more consistent winds than their nearshore counterparts; along most of the east coast, offshore wind is far more reliable than onshore locations.

After several years of planning, 2013 will see two floating turbine projects in the water off the Maine coast.  A one-eighth scale (57-foot tall) prototype will be tested in a relatively sheltered bay near Castine; the small model must be sited in waves that are proportionately smaller as well, to simulate how a larger unit will do with bigger offshore waves.  Meanwhile, Statoil will be installing 4 3-MW turbines two miles off the coast of Boothbay Harbor; this close-to-shore site will allow for closer monitoring and testing of the units’ durability.  Both projects are aiming toward the eventual construction of large-scale wind farms, likely using 6-8MW turbines, in waters far offshore, though likely not for another decade or so.  The Bangor Daily News puts the big dream in perspective: “to harness the Gulf of Maine’s winds by 2030, placing a full-scale wind farm of about 170 turbines, each taller than the Washington Monument, in the Gulf of Maine. That farm would bring 5 gigawatts, or the equivalent of about five nuclear power plants, of wind energy to Maine’s shore.”

UPDATE, 5/9/13: University of Maine researchers unveiled their 1/8 scale floating turbine foundation.  See article and video here.

UPDATE, 7/12/13: Late-session political maneuvering in the Maine state legislature has led Statoil to put a hold on its plans for floating offshore development in the state.  Governor Paul LaPage, a vocal critic of Statoil’s plans, vetoed an energy bill and in order to move it forward, demanded that an existing contract with Statoil be temporarily shelved to allow the University of Maine to file a bid as well.  LaPage and other fiscal conservatives have objected to the contract approved by the state PUC,  which pays Statoil a higher rate than other Maine electricity sources (the logic being that this small surcharge now will lay the groundwork for a new job base in the state as offshore industrial wind matures over the coming couple of decades).  The Statoil contract approved by the PUC uses up all the state incentives that have been approved for offshore wind in Maine.  It’s unclear whether the UMaine team wants to submit a bid; many see long-term cooperation between Statoil and UMaine researchers as the more fruitful way forward. An ideal scenario may find both projects getting contracts from the PUC, and thus be able to compete for some upcoming federal incentives for offshore wind development. In any case, the bill only holds up the commitment to Statoil for a few months, so the company’s sudden announcement of a hiatus may be more posturing than a fatal blow to Maine’s ambitious offshore vision. Local coverage here, here, and here.

MAJOR UPDATE, 11/7/13:  Since July, Statoil has definitively abandoned its project in Maine, citing political uncertainty that agreements will be upheld, and the University of Maine has released its plan, which aims to develop a 12MW pilot floating turbine project in the next few years, with the long-term goal of 500MW of deep water turbines by 2030, generating power at ten cents or less per kilowatt.  Here’s the latest.

The challenges for floating offshore wind are well-summarized in a recent article from SustainableBusiness.com:

Floating turbines cost less to install than conventional tower-based designs. They can be assembled onshore and then towed out to the installation site, eliminating the expensive and arduous process of building them out in the open ocean. On the flip side, the huge amount of steel needed to make turbines sturdy and heavy enough to withstand rough waves is too expensive. Engineers are working on solutions to get around that, such as intelligent systems that pump ballast water from one tank to the next as a way to stabilize turbines.

One thing that’s clear is the need for specialized turbine blades that can produce energy even as they rock and tilt on ocean waves. All that motion means more wear and tear and can also interfere with power generation. For now, all these designs are performing well, the question is more about which can be produced reliably at the lowest cost.

There has been some local resistance in Maine, especially about the power purchase agreements between Statoil and Central Maine Power for the energy from the pilot project near Boothbay Harbor, for which Maine’s electricity customers will be paying a premium.  State officials maintain that the small extra cost is a worthwhile investment in an offshore wind industry that could pay huge dividends in manufacturing and construction jobs in the years to come.  This is also a long-term investment in an electricity-generating future that can wean us from fossil fuels.  

While Maine’s electricity is already relatively climate-friendly, thanks to significant hydroelectric resources, the development of floating offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine could send lots of clean electricity to Boston and other New England cities.  Onshore wind in the Maine hills faces significant resistance as well, with locals feeling that the price paid by industrializing ridgetops and building new transmission corridors is not worth the modest benefit in green energy for neighboring states; the much smaller impacts of offshore wind may change that cost-benefit equation.   First, though, floating turbines will have to prove themselves durable, and the materials cost must be trimmed.  While that research is underway, offshore wind planners will need to insure that wind farm locations don’t interfere with key fishing habitat.

California regulators reject Navy training plans despite federal approvals

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Sonar Comments Off

The California Coastal Commission has rejected the Navy’s 5-year plan for training and testing activities that recently received provisional approvals from the National Marine Fisheries Service.  In a unanimous vote, CCC members said the Navy’s environmental studies failed to back up its claim that impacts on marine life would be negligible during the years 2014-2019.

The Navy’s studies and permit requests suggest that its activities off Southern California could cause 9 million behavioral impacts, 2000 injuries, and up to 130 deaths, though the Navy and NMFS expect impacts to be far lower, and whatever effects do actually occur to have negligible biological impact on populations.  The CCC wants to see more solid science to back up the Navy’s claim that the large numbers will not reflect actual impacts.  Contrary to the Navy’s claim that their projected impact numbers are much higher than what will actually occur, Michael Jasny of the National Resources Defense Council told Commissioners, “We think these are underestimates.”  (See previous AEInews coverage of the Navy and NMFS assessments: New NMFS Navy “take” permits: outrageous or reasonable?)

During the previous 5-year planning round, the CCC took a similar stand, and a Federal Court agreed to some additional precautionary requirements that somewhat limited Navy operations; that ruling led first to a Marine Mammal Protection Act exemption issued by President Bush, and finally to a Supreme Court ruling granting the Navy broad discretion to make operational decisions, and limiting court oversight.

Mark Delaplaine, a coastal manager for the CCC, noted the difficulty of assessing actual impacts: “I’m just torn between the fact that we haven’t seen strandings in this area, and these very large numbers (in Navy estimates) that are really a cause for alarm,” he said.  Still, he stressed that “you have to have additional precautions….It doesn’t make sense to train where there are large amounts of sea mammals.”

The CCC asked the Navy to voluntarily adopt a set of additional precautions in California waters, including larger safety zones in which they would shut down sonar and explosive operations when animals are nearby, avoiding several designated marine sanctuaries and areas known to host seasonal concentrations of blue, fin, and gray whales, and remaining at least 1km (a bit over a half mile) offshore.  The NRDC concurs with these requirements, and encourages a couple more, including avoiding sonar and explosive activity at night, when nearby animals are much harder to detect, and using the Navy’s instrumented ranges to help detect animals.

The Navy declined these requests. “We understand that the Navy is obligated to be consistent with the state’s coastal zone requirements, to the maximum extent practicable,” said Navy spokesman Mark Matsunaga. “And we believe we are.”

For more details on the hearing, see these articles from the Orange County Register and AP.  For a deeper look at the Navy and NMFS studies, see the AEInews lay summary of the Atlantic and Pacific 5-year plans.

Yellowstone snowmobile plan finally getting off its merry-go-round?

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It’s been a couple of years since we’ve checked in on the eternal Snowmobiles in Yellowstone debate, and in what’s sure to be a shock for those who’ve been following the issue since the Clinton administration, not much has changed!  During Team Obama’s first summer, Ken Salazar announced that the ongoing string of temporary winter use plans would be extended for a couple of years while the NPS accepted comments on yet another round of EIS preparation.  The Clinton adminstration completed an full EIS process, and announced its final ruling (which banned snowmobiles) just in time for the winter during which W was sworn in; the Bush NPS team suspended that plan and launched a brand new round of comments under a new set of temporary rules.  While the Bush plan didn’t ban snowmobiles, it did require, for the first time, that all groups of snowmobilers go with a local professional guide.  This requirement led to a dramatic decrease in snowmobiles entering Yellowstone; most snowmobilers prefer being able to be footloose, and the huge expanses of National Forest land in the region became their preferred playground.  Complicating implementation of that plan, however, were dueling Federal court rulings that appeared to contradict each other; some of these uncertainties lingered on into 2009, as the Obama administration began overseeing the process.

Snomobison011805In the years since, the two-year extension of the Bush-era temporary plan stretched to four, and finally the new proposed plan has been released.  In truth, it isn’t all that different than the Bush plan in terms of total numbers of snowmobiles and snowcoaches, though it tweaks a few elements in ways that may reduce some impacts, especially air quality, over time.   It seems likely that the noise impacts will be roughly similar to those documented in a series of studies we covered here in 2009, in which NPS researchers found that snowmobiles or snowcoaches were audible over half the day in many popular areas, including at Old Faithful 68% of the time, and 59% of the time at Madison Junction.  Still, the new plan does include some absolute dB limits for snowmobiles (67dB) and snowcoaches (75dB), and requires best-available technology on all vehicles by five years from now. The plan opens the door a crack to unguided groups (allowing one per day from each Park entrance), and continues the expensive practice of using explosives to keep a rarely-used pass open to snowmobiles (at the behest of the businesses in nearby Cody, Wyoming).  While the plan slightly increases the average number of snowmobiles to be allowed (from 318 to 342), the actual daily average over the past several winters has been under 200 per day.

Given that previous plans have triggered lawsuits from both environmental groups seeking stricter rules and local business interests wanting fewer restrictions, it’s probably a good sign that both the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the snowmobile group Blue Ribbon Coalition responded with generally positive comments, while unlike 2009, no instant legal challenge came from the State of Wyoming, either. Fatigue has finally settled in, it appears, as the BRC’s spokesman suggested: “I think for my organization it would be important to resolve this and come up with a long-range plan that doesn’t get challenged in the courts.”

For detailed coverage of the new plan, see this article from National Parks Traveller.  The local Billings Gazette is always a good source for those wanting to track how this all unfolds.

CBC documentary addresses wind farm noise in Ontario

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A new documentary from the CBC’s Doczone series, titled Windrush, takes a look at the widespread resistance to wind power in Ontario, which is largely based on noise and health impacts.  While the CBC video is only viewable in Canada, a regional organization opposing industrial wind has posted a version on YouTube (it’s 42 minutes long and ends a bit abruptly; it’s unclear whether it’s abbreviated, or simply missing the end credits).

This is a fairly balanced program, especially in highlighting the differences between building wind farms in the wide-open spaces of Alberta and the more densely populated rural areas of Ontario.  While it gives a lot of screen time to researchers and public officials who are studying the negative responses of many neighbors to nearby turbines, it’s useful and important to hear these sober and measured voices of concern.  The conventional wisdom, as reflected in the MOE health effects report, is also presented, though more as a context within which the program attempts to explore the persistent claims that living near turbines can be more difficult than these reassuring assessments suggest.

At times, the time constraints of the program lead to unfortunately abbreviated presentation of some key issues.  Grid integration issues are greatly simplified and distorted, leaving the impression that wind farms are inherently incapable of “playing nicely” with the rest of our energy generation system; the minute or two spent on this issue would have been better left on the cutting room floor, as it presents little more than a cartoon version of an important and over-hyped element of the story.  The treatment of low-frequency noise and infrasound is fleshed out a bit more, though some of the material would have benefitted from a bit more context, especially in areas where the science is still emerging and isn’t yet totally settled.  Finally, as local health official Hazel Lynn discusses the health effects being reported, she makes a comment that flits by so quickly that viewers may miss this crucial bit of context: while noting consistent symptoms being reported by people in many areas, Lynn stresses that these impacts are important even if they are only affecting 5-10% of the population that is more susceptible.  The rest of the program may leave the impression that severe impacts are being felt by most or all of the residents in these towns. (The question of what proportion of residents are negatively affected by turbine noise remains woefully under-studied.  Clearly there are many places where 20-50% of nearby residents dislike the turbines, most commonly due to some degree of sleep disruption, but this number is itself reflective of just a handful of actual surveys; we have no concrete sense of what proportion of people around most wind farms are either annoyed or experiencing chronic health effects.  Still, as Lynn suggests, for many, the question of “how many” is secondary to the need to address the fact that the noise does affect some.) 

Perhaps the most powerful element of the program is the aerial photography of wind farm areas, which give a compelling sense of the scale of the turbines as compared to the homes, as well as the vast landscape impacts, leaving many homes surrounded by turbines.  The segments filmed in Denmark are valuable as well; these reflect the growth of turbines from the 660kW machines common there, to the newer 3MW giants that are causing far more pushback, in both Canada and Denmark.  It also feels very valuable to hear and see some of the people who’ve been so widely cited about their concerns, including Lynn, Michael Nissenbaum, otologist Alec Salt, and acoustician Henrik Moller.  Too often, the basic human empathy and spirit of inquiry that fuels their work is obscured by the crassly dismissive near-vilification of these researchers by supporters of the industry (and also, to a lesser degree, by the hyperbole of some industrial wind opponents).  And, throughout the program, retired nurse Norma Schmidt, who eventually moved out of her house, is a calm and compelling voice for the experiences of neighbors who have been affected.  I heartily encourage anyone involved with wind farm issues to watch the film.  

For more, see the CBC Doczone’s Windrush web page, which includes a Director’s Statement, graphics, and several related stories.  And, here’s an article from The Observer about the film.