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The Commons
Voices / Open Letter

What we hear at our home

A 35-decibel noise level for all wind turbines in the state would effectively mean the end of the use of this efficient and benign technology

Juliet Cuming is director (and co-founder with her husband, Commons photographer David Shaw) of the Mark Shaw Photographic Archive which is, to her knowledge, “the only solar and wind powered straw bale photo archive in the world.” She has sent this letter to the Vermont Public Service board.

Originally published in The Commons issue #407 (Wednesday, May 10, 2017).



In 1995, my husband and I moved to Dummerston, pregnant with our first child and dreaming of the good life.

We had bought a parcel of land that was too expensive for our modest budget, but it was perfect for the solar- and wind-powered home we planned on building.

Located at the top of a hill, in a class 7 wind site, with south-facing solar exposure and an open field, we had the ideal location to use the complementary technologies that make renewable energy possible in climates like ours. When the sun is not shining there is likely to be wind, and when the wind is silent, the sun is often blazing, so one source of power is generally working when the other is not.

Having studied renewable energy and natural building in both Europe and the U.S.A., we were excited to put our knowledge to the test.

We first installed solar panels and a residential-sized wind generator on our building site. Residential wind turbines are typically smaller, and louder, than the beautifully sculptural commercial turbines that, in our area of the state, are most visible on Route 9 between Bennington and Brattleboro.

While we were not experienced builders, I became the contractor and my husband the “stacker” of the first all- natural straw-bale home in our area.

Even in Vermont, most of our neighbors (and all of our parents) thought our mud-and-straw structure sounded insane, but feature stories in The Boston Globe, Solar Today, Metropolitan Home, and a host of regional publications gave us, and our experimental home, credibility.

In fact, our “Earth Sweet Home” house quickly became a mecca for natural-building enthusiasts and scientists from all over the world.

Over time, our off-the-grid home — i.e., we are not attached to the power lines and store all the power we produce in batteries — now includes a second building for our business. We have added to our solar array and have recently installed a larger, Bergey 5kW wind turbine. Our wind turbine, located as close to our house as planning rules will allow, has even become a local landmark.

When I look at my wind turbine or my solar panels, or any wind and solar arrays around our state, I feel immensely proud.

I find these technologies beautiful because I know that the electricity they produce is not only powering Vermont homes cleanly and efficiently, but they have also created Vermont jobs.

If our state is to continue to lead the nation in forward thinking, and if we truly want to be energy independent, we need the mixture of energy technology that wind and solar provide.

* * *

Eighteen years ago, my husband was invited to join the Dummerston Fire Department; he is also our town’s rescue chief. Living off the grid, as we do, it is always ironic when my husband has to babysit the ubiquitous (and unattractive) power lines that come down with regularity during the windy ice storms that have become more frequent in recent years due to climate change.

As he sits in the firetruck waiting for the electric company to arrive, he finds solace in the knowledge that the same wind that dragged him out of bed in the middle of the night is powering our batteries and keeping our family comfortable at home. Unfortunately, the same logic does not hold true during the oil spills, gas leaks, and other fuel-oriented accidents that are also in his purview.

Luckily, my husband has a relaxing home to return to. When we sit outside all summer, all we hear is the sound of the wind rustling the leaves in the trees, a sound that is typically quite a bit louder than the gentle whirring of our wind turbine, but equally as peaceful.

Not so peaceful is a noise we used to hear every month, without fail, for most of our 20 years here in Dummerston: the jarring monthly “test siren” necessitated by the nearby Vermont Yankee nuclear power station.

Once a year, the test siren was accompanied by an evacuation drill, which, as a first responder and firefighter, my husband was expected to participate in.

The annual drills, which simulated a full evacuation from our area, never successfully managed to evacuate everyone safely (even in the land of pretend, nuclear power was not safe), a fact that contributed to our family’s involvement in the movement to close the Vermont Yankee plant.

Thankfully, Vermont Yankee is now closed, and we are not quite as worried that southern Vermont will be rendered uninhabitable by a cataclysmic accident like the one that has destroyed the area around Fukushima, Japan.

Since Vermont Yankee was decommissioned, the state imports much of its energy, and in doing so, sends over a billion dollars out of state to massive, and often international, fossil-fuel corporations.

These pipeline-building, water-poisoning, corporate monoliths have little interest in protecting tiny Vermont, but they have a great deal of incentive to meddle in the laws that our small state might adopt.

Vermont has the led the nation in many initiatives and, if corporate interests can prevent wind in Vermont from taking hold in a more meaningful way, it could immobilize renewable-energy efforts in other, larger, energy markets.

* * *

By now, it should be clear that my family is committed to clean, reliable energy as well as to the safety of our local community, so imagine my shock when I heard that the Public Service Board was contemplating sound standards of 35 decibels for all wind in the state, which would effectively mean the end of the use of this efficient and benign technology.

This 35 decibels is the level of sound that my solar- and wind-powered dishwasher makes. It is the sound of a room full of people sitting in silence. It is far quieter than psithurism — the sound of the wind rustling the leaves of the trees.

I worry that this new attempt to ban wind energy has been driven by a very active and loud minority who is not only fueled by “alternative facts” but most likely supported by the dirty energy corporations that have a great deal to gain by preventing Vermont from becoming energy independent via renewable technologies.

I fear that the Public Service Board has not heard from enough people with positive experiences, and I would like to invite you, the PSB, to my home in Dummerston to hear what my wind turbine sounds like. You won’t hear exactly what I hear, however, because when the wind blows I hear not only the pleasant sound of psithurism, I also hear the absence of an electricity bill!

I urge the Public Service Board to reconsider these proposed rules, to ask who is served by this 35-decibel rule, and to find out who really supports it.

I hope that we in Vermont — her citizens and my family — can continue to produce our own energy, using Vermont’s plentiful, safe and renewable resource: the wind!

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