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Big Wind’s Inconvenient Truth
The installation of wind turbines too close to houses and personal property is a major headache for the wind power industry, but headache scarcely begins to describe their impact to nearby property owners and neighbors. My property and home are scarcely three quarters of a mile from a three 1.5 megawatt turbine wind farm that went online in November 2009 with blades stretching nearly 400 feet into the air.
Large scale wind turbines represent a tiny and lucrative—thanks to federal tax incentives—corner of the electric power industry. By siting large turbine facilities close to population centers, the industry hopes to minimize the cost of expensive new transmission lines, but it faces a whirlwind of resistance from citizens objecting to the destruction of mountains, seascapes, wilderness areas, and natural quiet.
Opponents argue that wind power is a bad deal for everyone but shareholders who use subsidies to prop up an industry that is otherwise not economically viable. But on Vinalhaven, a small island in Penobscot Bay—where only three turbines are in operation—neighbors have opened up the industry’s Achilles heel: excessive noise.
New permit applications in towns across New England are raising hackles of anyone who pays attention to the way citizen dissent has been throttled in Maine where wind warriors mobilized to breach protective legislative barriers erected by the wind industry.
Vinalhaven is a small port town of only a few thousand residents whose primary business is lobstering. During the project’s planning phase in the early 2000’s I understood that my viewscape would change. My neighbors and I wanted to believe the promise of the promoters that our lives would otherwise be unaffected.
As an environmentalist who has often been on the receiving end of the NIMBY argument—opposing ill-advised developments that threaten the Everglades and water quality in Florida—I didn’t want to be part of a movement against wind. Environmentalists can’t wait to jettison hydrocarbons driving our economy, but the lessons of the past three years have tempered my perspective. Wind power is the easiest to seize the popular imagination. It is also the breeziest. There are massive obstacles to bring wind power technology to useful grid scale. Wind is intermittent. Storage of electricity when winds fall is highly problematic. Homeowners and businesses skeptical about noise impacts of wind turbines should revisit sitting on the proverbial fence: if the Maine experience is any guide, NIMBY means that the “next idiot might be you.”
The wind power industry and its local advocates on Vinalhaven insist that turbine noise is an inevitable cost supported by the public. On Vinalhaven, they trumpet that the vote to approve wind turbines was 380 in favor and only 5 against.
Neighbors have spent three years trying to get the State of Maine to enforce its own inadequate noise standards. As a veteran of wars against water pollution, I never expected that a place of solace and respite would prove the point that government can be its own worst scofflaw. It would be one thing if the small size of our community, fad or preference for local control over state or federal mandates, brought closer to resolution a problem that needs to be fixed. Instead of equity and fairness, neighbors are buried in procedural curliques tied to proving violations of state noise standards. We might as well be hog-tied to those spinning wind turbine blades.
Proving noise pollution is no trivial matter. On Vinalhaven, George Baker, a former Harvard Business School professor and executive of the local wind power facility, claims that the noise of the wind turbines is masked by the wind in the trees.
On a summer morning, there is scarcely a whisper of wind in the trees. The sky is blue and the early morning light casts long shadows in anticipation of day. Twenty five years ago I bought my property for its peace and quiet. In the background, the turbines churn like a rotating drum powered by Blakean bellows. What is so distracting is that the quality of sound varies from moment to moment. This is not the noise of a highway, a factory, an airport, or even the noise scape of a city. Turbine noise is as variable as the shifting wind, cementing one’s attention to intermittency like the rotating lights on a police cruiser. That is on the good days.
Neighbors can be woken in the middle of the night with an unidentifiable pounding; it is either in one’s head or chest or the walls of one’s house. From aural flickering to a constant disturbance: either way; having to spend significant time, energy and money to prove the point compounds the despair.
The worst are the hours shrouded in fog that I treasured. They now pulse with turbine noise. The Maine fog associates with a weather pattern—wind shear– that the wind turbine promoters knew about but ignored. They knew because in 2008 their experts told them so. It can be dead still on the ground and hundreds of feet in the air, the wind is howling. Not only did the project supporters omit informing neighbors of wind shear during the permitting phase of the Vinalhaven project, they obstructed discovery of the consultant report and, now, are spending ratepayer resources to contest a legal challenge in state superior court. Their objection: that neighbors do not have a judicial line of appeal. It is incorporated, they say, in a 2008 state energy law that few legislators read much less questioned before passing.
If wind power isn’t economically viable because wind is intermittent by nature, the costs to my life and property are continuous. There is not a single regulation against excessive noise– at the state, local or federal level– to enforce and protect. Given the level of controversy and impact, one would think that industrial wind turbine noise is a public threat where the nation’s environmental agency, the US EPA, ought to engage. But the sole staffer of the EPA’s Office of Noise Abatement retired years ago.
A 2010 petition to the EPA by Maine residents —triggered by the Vinalhaven controversy—implored the agency to involve itself in regulating wind turbine noise. It was rejected by EPA and an administrator who referred petitioners back to the same state regulator in Maine who subsequently resigned after the regulatory effort to tame turbine noise was thwarted by political meddling.
Dead still. So quiet that a conversation can carry a mile. Hundreds of feet above the island, wind shear picks up the turbine blades and hurls them around (The sardonic anthem of turbine advocates on Vinalhaven is “Spin, baby, spin”.) casting sound pulses through moisture heavy air. At other times, sound from the turbines skips like a rock on the surface of a cove.
Think of the sounds from a wind turbine as of a thunderstorm. The noise metric, called the dbA scale, captures the peal of thunderbolts. It fails to capture the low rumble of the storm; the vibration and hum of the turbines. Most wind noise controversies are framed around the dbA level because that is how the industry established the metric for sound in the 1990’s. At nighttime in Maine, for instance, the upper limit is set at 45dbA. For ordinary homeowners, though, to prove 45dbA is more complicated than pointing an acoustic measurement instrument and registering its results. Our neighbor group has chased in the middle of the night, in the middle of the freezing cold, pointing microphones and instrumentation at the pitch black sky in an effort to provide statistics and samples that state-hired consultants will accept. You can’t pick up the phone and complain. You have to pay for tests to prove your complaint. On that playing field, ie. what constitutes a verifiable and legitimate complaint, the goal posts keep moving. So far as low frequency noise is concerned, the goal posts that citizens are trying to reach might as well be on the other side of the world.
Various terms have been used to describe the low frequency sound output of wind turbines: a droning noise or the dreaded thump that alternates or morphs into and out of a woosh. Sometimes, it is like the low sonic end of a spinning dryer. Depending on the wind and direction, the thrum quickens or slows. It can change from the whine of a jet engine to a pulse in the space of seconds. For unfortunate homeowners who live even closer to wind turbines, the effects are mind-blowing. Those who live closest—within half a mile– report their entire dwelling can throb and pulse in time with the swoosh of the turbine blades.
For neighbors in Vinalhaven, learning how to provide data deemed valid by state regulators, including its own consultant, to prove violations by the wind turbine operator (whose shareholders are soundly sleeping, tucked away in their quiet quarters) required learning, spending and acquiring a level of acoustic expertise no homeowner should be required to produce under any circumstances simply to protect themselves. But that is not how it works with industrial pollution.
All neighbors wanted was peace and quiet, and all neighbors have are data files of acoustics measuring turbine noise in the gigabytes. All neighbors wanted was quiet, and all neighbors have is the enmity, indifference, or silence of those who know an injustice was done on Vinalhaven but feel powerless to solve it. The fact that local electric rates on Vinalhaven have significantly increased in recent years while the cost of merchant power in the region has remained stable is an embarrassment of someone else’s riches.
The industry understands that chasing citizens around the dbA scale is a fool’s errand. The Vinalhaven neighbors pursued Maine state regulators up the regulatory ladder from the bottom only to find at the top, that lobbyists pressured the governor’s office to intervene against neighbors on their behalf. There ought to be a law, and indeed there should. It is not exactly an insight to point out that polluters are expert at erecting high legal hurdles to keep citizens at bay. It is a good regulation, in other words, so long as it is one they wrote. The wind industry spends in states where those “should’s” are likely to change the playing field.
Every large law firm in the state is under restrictive agreements with the wind industry. Well-placed lobbyists and shareholders rotate in and out of government office and appointments. The state environmental agency’s top regulator, Patty Aho, is a former lobbyist for the law firm representing the wind turbine utility on Vinalhaven. Aho “did what she was told” by throttling provisions that might have offered hope to Vinalhaven neighbors in future compliance measurement and enforcement. At a July 2011 public hearing at the state capitol on revisions to the state noise regulation—ostensibly to stiffen them to protect people—Aho affirmed that the purpose of regulatory review was to assist industry.
A former governor, Angus King, is a large shareholder of a wind turbine company, First Wind. He wrote in a Maine business publication that he spent last July 4th on Vinalhaven and didn’t meet a single opponent of the wind turbines. He also didn’t seek the neighbors out. A recent single-question poll by First Wind claimed to measure public support for wind power. A similar poll question, limited to a single question, might solicit the opinion of neighbors who live within three miles of industrial scale wind turbines.
The public is ill-informed about wind turbine noise for a variety of reasons. Usually, a gag order accompanies payment when homeowners are bought out—often after a exhausting, protracted struggle. The industry counters with arguments; wind noise disturbs different people in different ways. The inference is that if you object to noise, you are a complainer in the great scheme of freeing energy tied to oil. In small communities like Vinalhaven, these formulas can be used to great effect, dividing the local population.
In the early phase of permitting the Vinalhaven project, a sound consultant to the project developers wrote tellingly that the site chosen for the wind turbines was likely to generate noise complaints from nearby homeowners and residents. Instead of dealing with property owners up front as the consultant recommended, the wind turbine operator buried the report and hired another consultant. In doing so, Mr. Baker, the former Harvard Business School professor and chief executive of the Vinalhaven turbine operation, made an implicit decision that pit islanders against each other. The result imposed a significant cost on the turbine neighbors; let them fight the state.
Divide and conquer is not the last refuge of polluters but it certainly is a popular one. At a public hearing last July when citizens battled industry on the outline of regulatory reform, a neighbor of a wind turbine installation in another part of the state despaired to me privately– she would not be quoted– that her livestock fences had been cut and garbage dumped in her rural driveway when she spoke out against the turbines in the permitting phase. Now that the turbines roar, her children can’t play in their backyard. The noise is so relentless in her home, another mother testified, that when her children go to bed she asks every night: “Did you brush your teeth, say your prayers, and take your sleeping pills?”
On Vinalhaven, supporters of the wind farm project—goaded by the local utility board and executives—posted a drawing of goat heads in a bucket of blood on a Facebook page, wishing the worst for neighbors who subsequently moved—for health and safety reasons. There are nights when the lobsterman Arthur Farnham, whose home is only seven hundred feet from the nearest turbine, turns his television volume to high, the fans on, and still can’t drown out the noise. It is worst in the winter. But the Harvard Business School professor and turbine operator insisted and the state acquiesced so that wind noise for compliance would only be measured in summer months on Vinalhaven.
Unless you have had something of deep value stripped from you, you don’t understand what the noise does to a fine summer morning on Long Cove or a deep winter night when the noise is roaring in your head or in your house.
The solutions are expensive to polluters. 1) Require fair market price buy-outs or property value guarantees for property owners within two and a half miles of turbines, 2) apply 35 dbA limits to nighttime operations immediately, 3) require the wind turbine industry to pay for the costs of noise monitoring and make all data available through web sites in real time, and 4) develop metrics that capture and regulations that protect against low frequency noise.
As stories pile up of citizens driven from their homes by turbine noise—sometimes health and property values ruined —the absence of effective wind turbine noise standards reflects the quest of polluters and their shareholders to demonize regulations. Shifting the costs of noise pollution has created a new caste of politically connected entrepreneurs who in turn have hired consultants, attorneys and lobbyists to obscure the wind power industry’s most inconvenient truth.
In its brutal outline, regulating noise from wind turbines illustrates the struggle of our times: whether government regulation can protect public health, or, whether private industry should be left alone to do a better job, whether or not it can demonstrate the results. Industry responds by hiding in the deep weeds of “complexity” and “disagreement with interpreting facts”. They buy time for an industry desperate to keep federal subsidies flowing; subsidies set to expire at the end of 2012. The wind power industry hopes Congress and the White House will ignore the fact that people, property values, and natural quiet are collateral damage to popular enthusiasms whose economics have failed to pan out.
We used to say with pride, “this couldn’t happen in the United States”. But wherever the costs of pollution are unallocated, it happens every day the wind blows.