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Ohio “wind energy killing” setbacks: reports of wind’s death were greatly exaggerated

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windenergygraphicOnce again the wind industry has been caught crying wolf about reasonable and workable setback increases.  In 2014, the Ohio legislature tweaked the state’s wind farm siting standards to require setbacks of 1300 feet from neighboring property lines, rather than from neighboring homes.  Wind energy advocates gnashed their teeth, with an executive of the national trade association, AWEA, claiming that “This would kill further wind energy development in Ohio unless the governor vetoes it,” while the CEO of wind developer Apex Clean Energy chimed in that with such odious setbacks, Apex “will have no choice but to take its investment and its business elsewhere. ”

Get ready for a shock, AWEA: Amazon, not phased at all by the setbacks, has announced plans to build a 100-MW wind farm to power two new distribution centers in Ohio.  And, in a late-2014 review of the status of 11 projects that are in the pipeline, it was federal tax credits and lapsed state renewable energy incentives that were cited as current challenges, not the setbacks.  While it’s quite possible that previously-approved projects are proceeding under the old setback rules, the same statewide overview notes that “several other companies, including Apex Clean Energy of Virginia, are acquiring lease rights and working on plans.” (Wait, what? Yup, the same outfit that just told us the setbacks ruined everything so they’d be taking their toys and going home still have four Ohio projects in the pipeline.)

It’s disheartening to see the wind industry employing these same shopworn scare tactics about moderate setbacks; no matter what the proposal, if it’s an increase over something that has been on the table, it’s decried as “killing” the possibility of wind energy in the area.  Anything over the 750-1000 foot setbacks that the industry prefers is considered extreme; in Ohio, claims that the old 1300-ft to homes setback was among the most stringent in the nation are practically a joke, with 1250-1500-foot limits now becoming the norm, and many areas going much further.  In Minnesota, a 1500-ft setback was eagerly embraced in lieu of a proposed 2700-ft rule; in Maine, a 2000-ft setback was deemed perfectly workable by a developer who was fighting a change to 4000-ft, after which they switched gears and pinpointed a 35dBA noise limit as the real “deal killer.”

Indeed, nighttime noise limits of 35dB or less can mean that setbacks will need to be large enough (4000 feet or more) to rule out development in most communities.  Still, it’s entirely reasonable for some towns to choose such low noise limits, or setbacks of a half mile or more, if the priority is to preseve the rural character of place and assure that few if any residents will hear turbine noise on a regular basis.  Ideally, these more restrictive rules would also include the option that wind developers can obtain noise easements from neighbors who are willing to live closer to turbines (often in return for a financial payout, either one-time or annual).  And guess what?  The much-decried Ohio rules do allow individual landowners to waive the setback requirement, if they wish to; this may be part of why so many projects are still happening.  It’s time for the wind industry to stop moaning about setbacks meant to preserve some semblance of rural character, and begin making peace with the fact that not all communities will make the same choices about opportunities for economic development.

Looking ahead in Ohio: Even as Amazon, Apex, and others proceed with their plans in Ohio, representatives from several northwestern Ohio districts have introduced a bill to let counties supersede the state rules and revert to the old setback standards on a case by case basis. (Will it surprise you to hear that it’s in this very region where Amazon is happy to build with the current rules? I thought not….)  So far, there does not seem to be any active reconsideration of the other key element of the 2014 rule changes in Ohio, a 2-year freeze of the state renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) at 2.5%—foregoing the planned 1% annual increases toward a 2025 goal of 12.5%—while the legislature reviews the RPS program. Presumably, a decision will be made during the coming year whether to revert to the old schedule or adopt new, lower targets.

UPDATE, 1/29/2016:  While I’m not tracking all the news related to new projects, a couple of things caught my eye recently.  Two companies, including Apex, abandoned plans for wind farms in Ohio, though the news reports, and perhaps the formal notices filed with state regulators, don’t specify why; there are many reasons that proposed project aren’t completed, including the financial health of the companies themselves, and the fact that they often do preliminary work in many more places than they ultimately choose to build.  Relatedly, the Scioto Ridge Wind Farm, which was among those supposedly threatened by the new Ohio rules, is still under development; on January 26, the project’s Facebook page recently posted a local news article about an agreement reached between Everpower and a local opposition group, which reduced the number of turbines from 176 to 107; such reductions sometimes involve a move to bigger turbines, and it’s unclear whether the footprint is smaller (and so some setbacks larger) under the agreement.  Nonetheless, another local group has vowed to continue fighting the plans.

VT study sheds light on how often wind farm noise reaches bothersome levels

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VT SheffieldA sneakily fascinating legal response was recently released, in which the State of Vermont Department of Public Service (DPS) responds to request by wind farm neighbor Paul Brouha for relief from noise coming from the Sheffield Wind Farm.  Most of the technical back-and-forth amounts to quibbling between sound experts about 1-3dB differences, caused by slightly different monitoring techniques.  This minutia matters, in that it may determine whether the Sheffield project is just barely in compliance or just barely too loud at times; after all, limits are limits.  However, as usual in such situations, even if slight adjustments in operations were made to bring the sound levels down 1-3dB, such small changes are unlikely to change how loud the sounds seems at the home in question (the human ear generally can’t perceive a difference of less than 3dB).

Still, buried in the data at the end of the submission is some interesting information about how often sound levels reach various thresholds in each season.  The wind farm company, Vermont Wind, had done some on-the-ground sound monitoring at a location slightly closer than Brouha’s home, and the results shed some light on why some wind farm neighbors may be bothered by the noise.

Click through for the full story. Read the rest of this entry »

Wind farm plan abandoned after UK policy changes

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Recent policy changes by the UK government have spurred the developers of the Nocton Fen wind farm to pull the plug on their project.  The new government policy accelerated a planned end to wind farm subsidies, setting an end date of April 2016, and added a requirement that all wind projects receive approval by nearby residents via a local or neighborhood plan.

NoctonFen-windfarmWEB

In response to these changes, Swedish wind developer Vattenfall held a six-week local consultation, and this week announced it would not proceed with the project:

Graham Davey, Vattenfall’s Project Manager for the Nocton Fen Wind Energy Project, said: “It’s obviously disappointing to stop development of Nocton Fen as it would have delivered significant benefit locally and generated affordable, clean and renewable energy for tens of thousands of homes every year.

“It was clear that proposed changes to onshore wind planning in England introduced increased risk in the process. Stopping the scheme now is a sensible decision.

North Kesteven District Council Leader, Councillor Marion Brighton OBE, spoke for the locals, saying, “We welcome Vattenfall’s decision and appreciate them making this announcement so soon after the close of their recent statutory pre-application engagement. Their proposals would have been unreasonably intrusive in terms of the landscape character and amenity of local communities and I am sure that this decision not to proceed will be of significant comfort in bringing clarity on Vattenfall’s position in light of the Government’s recent policy announcements.”

This particular wind farm would have been built on the estate of vacuum cleaner tycoon James Dyson, and had raised local ire from the start due to its proximity to a local landmark, the Lincoln Cathedral; the turbines would be twice its height. “Lincoln Cathedral defines the landscape for miles in each direction,” said Melvin Grosvenor, who lives in the village of Baumber, 10 miles west of the proposed site. “This [wind farm] would spoil the long-distance view that has existed for a thousand years and change the character of the whole area.”

There are currently 250 wind farm proposals, totaling 2500 turbines, that may be similarly affected by the policy changes; time will tell whether the UK’s on-shore wind industry grinds to a halt, or adapts and finds a way forward.  It’s unclear from recent reports whether the loss of subsidies is deal-killer for wind developers, or whether some projects may be viable without subsidies, if they are far enough from neighbors to gain local support.

Recount reverses 3rd wind farm vote in divided Maine town

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ME Timberwinds~Dixfield-2mi simulationUpdate, 6/29/15: The drama continues in Dixfield, where a recount has reversed the recent approval of a more restrictive wind farm ordinance.  The initial 5-vote margin turned into a 31-vote victory for the other side, with the final tally being 390-359, against the revisions.  Town Manager Carlo Puiia and the chairman of the board of selectmen were both present for the recount; Puiia says, “There were several of us in the room, and a number of people were there as witnesses. I think we pinpointed where the problem was, and that this is an accurate count.” He added, “The Board of Selectmen will discuss this at their next meeting on July 13. My prediction is that they’ll continue to work off of what the Planning Board has already done. It has a lot of good stuff in it.”  If so, then we can look forward to a fourth round of voting sometime soon; the faction in town that favors letting the wind project proceed has narrowly prevailed in each of the three votes held so far.  The bad blood and distrust in town was highlighted in the days following the recount, when some locals became convinced that the wind company was immediately trucking turbine parts up to the site; in fact, the local project has yet to begin its lengthy permitting process, and the turbines were bound for a previously-approved project in nearby Carthage.

Original post:
35dB night limit wins approval in divided Maine town

The town of Dixfield, Maine has approved a new wind ordinance that includes setbacks of 4000 feet from neighboring residences, 2000 feet from project boundaries, and a night time noise limit of 35dB.  The latter provision is said to be a deal-killer by Patriot Renewables, which planned to build a 20MW project on a ridge in town (picture shows simulation from 2 miles away).

For the third time in less than three years, local voters were asked to approve changes in its wind ordinance; each time, the vote was a nail-biter. Read the rest of this entry »

Noise issues featured on annual “top stories” lists

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Every December, local papers around the country routinely highlight the top stories of the year gone by.  Based solely on AEI’s routine Google News keyword results, it appears that noise-related issues were among the major topics in several areas.

Wind farm noise issues made the lists in at least two places.  In Van Wert County, Ohio, it was the #2 story of the year.  The wind industry has been complaining loudly about a tweak to state rules that now measures the state’s modest 1300-foot setback limit from  property lines, rather than homes.  While wind developers claim this precludes most development, the option of establishing good-neighbor agreements with those living close to proposed turbines remains open.  In Huron County, Wisconsin, the #7 story was “Wind energy continues to divide community,” as the county and several townships consider revisions in their wind ordinances.

And, not surprisingly, continuing controversy over the diluted Grand Canyon National Park overflight rules was a top story in northern Arizona.  The big development this year was the FAA making 1700 additional flight permits available to companies using “quiet” aircraft. AEInews has covered the overflight issue in some detail for many years.

AEI poster for the Wind and Wildlife Research Meeting

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, Science, Vehicles, Wind turbines No Comments »

Next week in Denver, the American Wind and Wildlife Institute and National Wind Coordinating Collaborative will be hosting their 10th Wind and Wildlife Research Meeting.  For the second time, I put together a research summary poster for the event (here’s the first one).  Most of the presentations at this meeting are focused on direct mortality (birds or bats hitting turbines) and habitat-disruption issues; in recent years, concerns about the sage grouse on the northern plains and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s new eagle permit process have also been hot topics.

As usual, my contribution is one of the few looking at the effects of the moderate noise around wind farms.  It offers an overview of the current state of our understanding of the ways chronic moderate noise can change animal behavior and communication, shift population structure, and increase physiological stress.  It includes data from studies on sage grouse, frogs, mammals, and songbirds, as well as discussion of other considerations, uncertainties, and future research needs.

Effects of chronic moderate noise on animal behavior and distribution

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.

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

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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;

Read the rest of this entry »

Scottish study looks at actual vs. predicted impacts on neighbors

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The Scottish government has commissioned a study addressing an all-too-rarely considered question: do pre-construction impact studies accurately predict the extent of shadow flicker, noise, and visual impacts on nearby neighbors?  ClimateXChange will survey two thousand residents near 10 wind farms, including all residents with in 0.5km, and a sampling of residents at greater distances (somewhat over 30,000 families live within two miles of these wind farms, mostly around two of them).

The steering committee for the study includes at least one concerned citizens group, Scotland Against Spin, along with the leading national trade organizations, Scottish Renewables and Renewable UK, and Scottish Natural Heritage, a quasi-public advisory organization often concerned with landscape impacts. The surveys went out in June and are currently being assessed, with the final report due this winter.

Surprisingly, though ClimateXChange clearly outlines the purpose of the survey as described above, both wind advocates and concerned citizens groups have characterized the study as an investigation into health effects complaints, a topic actually addressed in a previous report (including some in-depth back-and-forth with a prominent critic of their approach and conclusions). ClimateXChange has also completed some other relatively unique reports for the Scottish government, including one on legal compensation frameworks for wind farm disturbance and a look at the long-time informal standard of keeping wind farms 2km from villages (both of these reports are relatively brief and inconclusive, however). A property values study is also currently underway.

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

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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.

23 Texas wind farm hosts sue over noise, nuisance

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In what may be an unprecedented move, 23 Texans who host wind turbines on their property have filed suit against two different wind farm developers, claiming that companies “carelessly and negligently failed to adequately disclose the true nature and effects that the wind turbines would have on the community, including the plaintiffs’ homes.”

The plaintiffs host hundreds of turbines on projects developed by Duke Energy and E.ON, and as a Duke spokesman noted, they did consent to the placement of the turbines.  However, the lawsuit stresses that the companies told residents the turbines “would not be noisy, would not adversely impact neighboring houses and there would not be any potential health risk.”  

This court challenge stands apart from most previous nuisance suits, nearly all of which been filed by non-participating neighbors of wind farms (ie, local residents who are not hosting turbines themselves).  Most annoyance surveys suggest that wind farm hosts are less likely to be bothered by turbine noise than non-participating neighbors, and many wind projects make an effort to spread the financial benefits to include some non-host neighbors, because of suggestions that broader project participation will increase community acceptance.  In this case, however, the plaintiffs are receiving lease payments and tax benefits that will exceed $50 million over the life of the projects.

Among the plaintiffs are Willacy County Commissioner Noe Loya, who is said to “no longer enjoy sitting outside because of the loud noise,” with turbine noise inside and outside his home “disturbing the peace and making it difficult to enjoy living there.”  Another plaintiff, a local Justice of the Peace, “has difficulty sleeping, cannot have his windows open (and) cannot enjoy the sound of nature, due to loud noise from wind turbines.”  The lawsuit also claims that some residents have abandoned their homes. In addition to noise issues, the suit includes visual impact, property value, and health effects claims.

E.ON spokesman Elon Hasson, says the company is reviewing the suit. “We develop all of our wind farms in a safe, state-of-the-art and responsible manner. . . We believe these claims will be shown to have no validity.” 
UPDATE, 1/31/14: Spokesmen from both companies issued statements noting that one claim of the suit—that the companies had no plans to remove the turbines at the end of their useful life—is false, and stressed their ongoing monitoring and maintenance of the machines.  They more generally dismissed the other accusations, as well. 

The suit was filed in State District Court in November.  In December, the companies requested that it be moved to federal court, where U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle has called for a response from the companies by February 6.  

Ed. note: Some wind development leases I’ve seen explicitly preclude hosts from filing nuisance suits. There is limited information online about this case, and it’s unclear whether the plaintiffs’ contracts include such restrictions; if they do, then the legal case may be open-and-shut, or it may be that the crux of the legal challenge is the veracity and completeness of information provided to hosts prior to signing contracts. (It may be worth noting that lease agreements don’t usually include “gag clauses” against speaking publicly about noise or other post-construction experiences; confidentiality clauses usually cover only financial terms and development plans.)

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.

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. 

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.” 

Film features the stories of Fairhaven wind farm neighbors

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Fairhaven Film ScreenshotA new film from Fairhaven, MA, features the compelling real-life experiences of several local residents who live close enough to the wind turbines to hear them on a regular basis.  The film, entitled Too Close, has a calm and caring tone, and is free of side-issues that can at times clutter the wind turbine siting debate (e.g., economic or carbon-reduction arguments), and focuses nearly solely on audible noise, with only a brief mention of infrasound.  Also, refreshingly, quality of life (including sleep disruption and intrusion in backyard solitude) is given as much or more attention as more acute health effects, and the film is free of the more alarming/alarmist claims that are featured in some other concerned citizen documents.

The 44-minute film can be viewed here.

There are just a couple of things I would add for context, which may be useful as you consider these stories from a range of “regular” people dealing with this new noise in their local soundscape.  First, though it’s mentioned in passing a couple of times, some of the issues, especially shadow flicker, but also noise for some more distant residents, are more problematic at particular times of year. For the closest residents, it can be daily or near-daily, while at other places, the problems may at times recede from the intensities described here.  When interviewees speak of things that happen “sometimes” or “some days”, it’s not always clear how commonly (how many days a month, hours a day, or months of the year) these experiences occur.

Also, as in every town with noise issues, these hardest-hit residents are a minority of nearby residents.  Surprisingly, few solid surveys exist to help us get a better sense of the proportion more severely affected, but some numbers from Fairhaven offer a sense of it.  There are just over 700 homes within 3000 feet, and residents of at least 56 of these have filed formal complaints; that would represent about 8% of homes, a small proportion, but a significant breadth of impact.  In this video, all or nearly all of the residents live significantly closer (950-2100ft); it’s quite likely that most of the complaints come from this closer zone, and that somewhere between 10-20% of closer homes have complained.  Also, we need to bear in mind that not everyone is comfortable publicly complaining; doubtlessly, more than 56 homes are experiencing issues similar to those discussed here.

A valid question can be raised about how high a proportion of negative impact is acceptable around any new infrastructure or industrial development.  Some will surely argue it’s reasonable to expect to impact 5-10% (or even 20%) of nearby residents, while providing social benefits for many more.  Yet, in a small town, when over 50 families are having their lives disrupted, it can cause a serious rupture in the local social environment; this “tearing the community apart” effect has been stressed in many other locales where noise became an issue.  As reasonable as it may be to suggest that “you can’t please everyone,” it’s also entirely valid for towns to consider the effects on their sense of local community if dozens of homeowners were to become aggrieved at a proposed new development.

All in all, this film provides a credible and compassionate look at the personal side of an issue that is often swept up into polarizing hyperbole and self-serving rhetoric from both sides.  

Australian report on LF, infrasound at Macarthur windfarm

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AEI lay summary of:
Resonate Acoustics.  Macarthur Wind Farm Infrasound & Low Frequency Noise: Operational Monitoring Results. 18 July 2013.  Author: Tom Evans.  Client: AGL Energy Limited.  Download report here.

A new report from Australia is being touted as the latest definitive proof that infrasound around wind farms is no louder than infrasound from wind and human activity in areas with no wind farms. While providing a relatively robust new set of data, the study design leaves some important questions raised by wind farm neighbors and other acousticians unanswered.

This may be the most comprehensive infrasound/low-frequency study released yet: it includes several days of measurements made prior to construction of the wind farm, along with at least ten days of measurements made when the wind farm was partly operational, and ten more days once the wind farm was fully operational.  Sound was measured down to 0.8Hz, lower than some similar studies.  Most importantly, sound was recorded inside the homes, which were1.8km (1.1mi) and 2.7km (2.7mi) from the nearest turbines, on opposite sides of the wind farm; at both homes, there were many more turbines at slightly greater distances than the closest ones.

At the more distant home, daytime infrasound levels prior to construction were commonly 60-70dBG, with a few peaks of 80-90dBG (grey circles below); these measurements capture the natural ambient infrasound levels caused by the wind itself, along with contributions from machinery and vehicles in the area (the threshold for human perception is about 95dBG for pure tones, perhaps lower for pulsing sounds).  The peaks were much lower at night than during the day, only reaching 70dB at the highest wind speeds.  With the wind farm operating (yellow diamonds below), the range of results was generally similar.  Note that the operational data is not all turbine noise; some periods will have peak sound levels caused by the same local ambient sounds captured in the pre-operational monitoring period.

Macarthur wind farm dataWEB

(dBG weighting accentuates 10-30Hz, the threshold between audible low-frequency sound and infrasound, and includes 2Hz-70Hz)

At the closer home, a limited pre-operational monitoring period only captured wind from a couple of directions, so the report’s operational results only consider periods with these two wind directions, as well.  (An appendix includes the full dataset of the operational period, which closely resembles that of the more distant home shown above, though peak sounds remain below 80dBG). In the limited dataset, pre-operational levels were significantly lower, clustered between 40-60dBG.  After construction, the bulk of measurements were in the same range, though there was a clear increase in periods with measurements of 60-70db, with a few peaks up to 75dB.  The authors of the report suggest that some of these higher measurements appear to be due to a transient non-turbine source (one chunk of them all occurred in one short period during which wind speed and direction did not change), and much of the rest may reflect higher daytime wind-related sound, rather than turbine sound, since the limited pre-operational period did not capture much data at high wind speeds.  They also note that, regardless of the source, even these peaks were within the range recorded at the more distant site pre-operation, so they reflect sound “no greater than levels that occurred naturally in the local environment (prior to the) operation of the wind farm.”

A separate section of the report addresses audible low-frequency noise, using the dBA-lf metric (dBA weighting, applied only to sound from 10-160Hz), and also reported as linear (unweighted) results at each frequency band (down to 10Hz when compared to regulatory criteria, and to 0.8Hz in a series of charts of median levels in each frequency band).  Again, results showed compliance with regulatory thresholds, except for a few 10-minute periods (roughly 2% of the periods); the authors of the report consider it likely that most of these are extraneous sounds, or would be in compliance if found to be steady, rather than variable, sounds.

(Ed. note: It must be mentioned that the authors of the report are exceptionally diligent in suggesting plausible alternatives to turbine noise for each of the occasions where operational sounds appear to be higher than pre-operational; on-site human monitoring would allow at least some of these ambiguous time periods to be more definitively characterized.)

This report offers some good, solid new data, collected over a relatively long period of time (10 days or so, rather than a single day) with a decent range of wind directions and with raw data collected down to below 1Hz.  While affirming that infrasound remains well below the 95dBG human perceptual threshold and 85dBG regulatory threshold, and also generally below the frequency-band limits widely applied to low frequency noise (10-160Hz), a few limitations in the research design leave several key questions unexplored:

First, the houses used in the study were relatively far away from the wind farm.  While there are some noise complaints at the distances studied (especially in Australia and New Zealand), the vast majority of neighbor complaints occur when turbines are closer, from a quarter to half mile especially, and out to three-quarters of a mile (a bit over 1km) with some regularity.  This study takes the important step of recording inside sound levels, but with many complaints coming at half or quarter the distance of even the closer home here (and a tenth the distance of the further home), we are left without a clear idea of infrasound or low-frequency noise levels at such locations. This may be especially relevant to the low-frequency findings, since even at the greater distances, inside low frequency sound was much closer to regulatory limits than were infrasound levels.

Second, the primary data is presented as 10-minute average sound levels.  In an attempt to consider whether they were missing important shorter-term variation, the researchers also looked at 1-minute averages, and for part of the data, 10-second averages.  They found that the 10-second averages closely tracked the 10-minute averages, with a similar amount of variation.  However, several acousticians have suggest that the negative effects reported by some neighbors are caused by much shorter pulses of low-frequency or infrasound: investigations have centered on the roughly once-per-second blade-pass frequency, and on even more rapid fluctuations that can only be captured when filtering sound at at time frames of 10 milliseconds, matching the sensitivity of human hearing.  It’s very likely that the 1-second peaks would show higher peak levels than the 10-second averages and 10-minute averages; one such analysis found 1-second peaks of 5-8dB higher than 10-second averages, with variations of up to 30dBG or more around the average when measured at 10ms, leading to peaks 10-17dB higher than the ten-second average.  While regulatory criteria rely on longer averaging times, human responses to much shorter-term peaks, and/or to short and long-term variability, may well underlie many  of the more vehement complaints that occur even when turbines are meeting regulatory noise limits.  Investigating this possibility more widely would help settle what is becoming a central question in community responses to wind farms.

Finally, even ten days of monitoring may well not capture conditions that are particularly troublesome for neighbors.  No indication is offered as to whether the monitoring was scheduled with any consideration for “worst-case” noise conditions, especially times of high atmospheric turbulence, or seasons when complaints have been highest (operational monitoring took place in southern hemisphere summer and autumn).  The report notes just one two-day period when the resident at one of the homes noted that the noise seemed particularly bothersome (results those nights were generally clustered within the typical scatter of data, though on the high side of the range).

While it may appear to some that these final points are nit-picking attempts to find any small reason to ignore the overall findings of this study, I offer them not so much as critique, but rather as a nudge to researchers, to dig deep enough to more definitively address some of the particular qualities of wind turbine noise that are being hypothesized as contributors to community responses to turbines.  In particular, averaging times for noise analysis must be well below one second (eg 125ms, or one-eighth of a second) in order to capture the amplitude modulation that gives many turbines their distinctive pulsing or throbbing sound quality.  

This study does a good job at assessing the wind farm’s infrasound and low-frequency sounds against the regulatory criteria; however, with community complaints being common even around projects in compliance, there’s a need for research that can help clarify whether wind turbine sound does—or does not—have unusual qualities or variability patterns that existing regulatory standards are not designed to address.

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.

AEI presents seminars to Sandia, NREL wind research teams

Human impacts, Science, Wind turbines 3 Comments »

Earlier this month, I arranged to visit the wind research teams at Sandia National Lab and the National Renewable Energy Lab’s National Wind Technology Center, both of which are relatively nearby here in the southern Rockies.  I’ve been following the work of many of these researchers for the past year or so—it was central to my 2012 Renewable Energy World conference paper and presentation on efforts to quiet turbines—and was very interested in learning more about their past, current, and future studies.  

NWTC

In particular, the Sandia team has recently built a Scaled Wind Farm Testing (SWiFT) facility, at which they’ll be studying wake interactions between turbines, and they’ve long been on the forefront of developing new materials and experimental active systems to reduce load strains caused by inflow turbulence.  They’re also leading the development longer blades, which may have important noise implications. Their most exciting forward-looking project is a 5-year effort to re-activate development of vertical axis turbines, with the goal of moving toward 5-10MW scale vertical axis turbines for use offshore (this will be a 10-20 year project, if the first phase shows promise).  Meanwhile, at NREL’s NWTC, lots of research has looked at the pinpointing the sources of sound on turbine blades, as well as advanced modeling of sound propagation in various atmospheric conditions.  Researchers there have quantified the power-production trade-offs caused by wake interactions within wind farms, and are on the leading edge of new technology that might allow individual turbines to monitor incoming air flows and adapt their operations to minimize loads and noise.  All of this research has intrigued me, because of the likely role of wakes and atmospheric turbulence in wind turbine noise levels, and in creating some of the more intrusive sound qualities that neighbors find hard to live with.  My hope was to sit down with these researchers and learn more about their work, as well as draw on their experience to see whether they thought the turbulence factors they study to reduce stress on turbines may indeed also have an effect on the sounds.  

As it turns out, they were also intrigued by such a dialogue, and both labs asked me to present their teams with a seminar on what I’ve been learning about community responses to turbine sound.  Much of what I shared was new to them, and we had some great discussions.  One of the central take-aways from both teams was that very little research has really looked at the acoustic effects of inflow turbulence, and there was universal agreement that this is an important area for future study (as a start, the SWiFT facility will incorporate some acoustic measurements).  Many of them were especially interested in the varying sound quality of turbines, and the ways that this may trigger negative responses among neighbors; there was much speculation about the potential to identify the conditions that create the troublesome knocking, banging, thumping sounds, and perhaps adapt turbine operations to minimize or eliminate them.  As I’ve long found in my interactions with academic and agency researchers, there was an easy openness and curiosity in both rooms, with many questions tossed around, and an excitement about studies they hadn’t seen before. 

Read or download my presentation: The possible role of turbine, wake and shear effects on community response to wind farm noise  (This is the “director’s cut,” including a few slides deleted for length from the final version, along with some additional slides from the REW conference presentation that cover related topics) 

Community Response to Wind Farm Noise: The possible role of turbulence, shear, and wake effects by jimcummings

“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.

Victoria tribunal calls for more health effects evidence during 6-month pause before reaching wind farm permit decision

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CherryridgeA environmental planning Tribunal in Victoria, Australia recently completed 28 days of hearings about a proposed new wind farm above the Trawool Valley.  In a recent statement and preliminary report, the Tribunal noted that health effects were the central issue, and that the testimony presented left them still unable to make a clear determination about whether the wind farm will pose an undue impact on human well-being: “In summary the Tribunal has been made acutely conscious of the questions but finds itself in a less than satisfactory evidentiary vacuum regarding the answers.”

UPDATE, 11/27/13: The Tribunal has ruled that the wind farm can be built.  It will be the first new wind farm constructed since Victoria adopted a 2km setback standard.

The Tribunal notes that it found the evidence of health effects to be both consistent and convincing, though both the extent of the problem and the cause were far less clear. It also notes that many (though not all) of the health effects referred to in the literature occurred at distances of less than 2km, which is the statutory setback in effect in Victoria.  Getting more clarity on how common effects are beyond that distance appears to be at the heart of the Tribunal’s decision to postpone a decision for six months:

The Tribunal considers that the issue of health and wellbeing raises two distinct questions. The first question is whether there is a causal link between sound pressure emissions from wind turbines and adverse health effects on nearby residents. The link may be physiological or psychological. However, given that the respondents expressly disavow that the impact is psychological and that the so-called “nocebo effect” lacks any empirical basis, the inquiry in this case must be as to whether there is a physiological cause. In this regard Mr Cooper hypothesised that wind turbines may emit a particular low frequency “signature” that gives rise to the problem.

One difficulty facing the satisfactory resolution of this question is that there appears to be no overlap of expertise between the acousticians and the health experts. The acousticians can measure the noise but are unable to say what effect it has on human health. The health experts can identify the health issues but are unable to connect those issues with particular levels of noise or sound pressure. It is this that creates the need for interdisciplinary studies.

If the first question produces an affirmative answer, the second and equally important question is what is the incidence of health problems amongst the nearby residential population, and how does that incidence vary or attenuate with distance from the wind turbines. Obviously the problem must be given greater weight by decision makers if 50 per cent of the population surrounding a wind farm is affected rather than 5 per cent.

The full statement linked above (which also has a long section on noise annoyance and sound limits), and an excerpt containing the section on health and well-being, paint a pretty solid and concise picture of the Tribunal’s quandary.  The South Australian EPA is conducting a study around the Waterloo wind farm in the next couple of months that may help answer at least some of the questions, and the Tribunal is eagerly awaiting these results.  It has also invited both sides in the dispute to submit further information that contribute some of that interdisciplinary insight mentioned above.  

UPDATE, 10/23/13: The next round of evidence will be presented to the Tribunal, as requested, this week.