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

Human impacts, Wind turbines No Comments »

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.

Ocean listening stations sprouting around US

Bioacoustics, Default, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

NOAA NRS_Stations_plus Cordell BankA new network of long-term acoustic monitoring stations is being deployed by NOAA-funded researchers in ocean waters from Massachusetts to the Arctic and Samoa. The Ocean Noise Reference Station (ONRS) Network represents the next step in data collection for NOAA, which has increased its focus on ocean noise in recent years.

Agencies, researchers, and NGOs are all concerned about the effects of chronic moderate noise on whales, seals, and fish (along with crustaceans and even eggs and larvae).  NOAA’s ocean noise mapping project is a big step forward, but it’s largely based on modeling of known ship and seismic survey activity.  Actual recordings made at sea by various researchers serve as “ground-truthing” for these models; early indications have been that the models are pretty good, usually within 5-10dB of actual recorded levels.

The ONRS network takes acoustic monitoring another step forward by deploying identical equipment in many regions, thus collecting “consistent and comparable multi-year acoustic data sets covering all major regions of the U.S.”  In addition to getting a better idea of regional differences (and consistencies), researchers will be investigating “how the ‘soundscapes’ at each of these sites changes, i.e. does it become noisier, are there more or less biological sounds, and is there a dramatic shift in the species present?”  All this will feed into NOAA’s ten-year effort to develop an Ocean Noise Strategy.

cordellThe most recent deployment took place this fall at the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast near San Francisco (it’s not even on the maps on the NOAA site yet, though I added it above as NRS11).  The hydrophone deployment mission (right) received substantial funding from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), along with the ongoing NOAA support for data collection and analysis.  Cordell Bank is one of the richest foraging grounds for marine mammals, thanks to an upwelling of cold water that attracts a wide range of species to feed.  At the same time, many of the thousands of ships traveling from Asia to ports in San Francisco Bay and further south along the California coast pass close enough that their “acoustic footprint” extends into the Sanctuary.  This can, at the very least, make it harder for whales or fish to hear each other as well as they’re used to, limiting the area over which they can communicate and causing them to raise their voices.  There are also indication that some species expend energy avoiding moderate noise, and that feeding and perhaps mating can be temporarily disrupted.  Most pernicious may be the possibility that living in elevated noise can increase physiological stress, triggering “a suite of negative effects,” according to one of the researchers.

Other research efforts are also adding to our understanding of the effects of shipping noise.  In Canada, Port Metro Vancouver recently deployed a hydrophone to examine the underwater noise from container ships headed into its facilities.  3000 such vessels traverse the waters each year, along with even more ferry transits and various recreational boats.  It’s part of the Port’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation Program. One of its most interesting goals is to zero in on ships that may be unusually loud and in need of some maintenance:

The hope is to establish baseline information to track noise levels and to identify noise levels from specific ships. The results could lead to simple mitigation measures such as hull and propeller cleaning, shore-based financial incentives, and information for regulatory agencies and for naval architects to build quieter ships.

Here’s some more from the researchers on that project.

And in the Bering Sea, acoustic monitoring is providing important baseline data on marine mammal presence, which will play into any future oil and gas development, as well as the potential for global shipping to extend into Arctic regions as polar ice melts:

“This passive acoustic monitoring technique allows us to detect the presence of vocalizing marine mammals continuously — 24 hours per day — in all weather conditions, over periods of weeks to months, over distances of 20 to 30 kilometers, and is a proven sampling method in the waters offshore Alaska,” explained lead researcher Kathleen Stafford.

Meanwhile, eavesdropping went on during the summer and fall in the Gulf of Mexico, and plans are being made for a recording network all the way around Antarctica, in some of the world’s most remote and acoustically pristine waters.

We’re listening more closely and widely than we ever have—the next question will be, are we willing to actually do something with what we learn, and find ways to slow or roll back our relentless intrusion into the natural soundscapes of the oceans?

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

Wind turbines 2 Comments »

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.

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