BRATTLEBORO — On May 1, George Harvey, Tom Finnell, and I drove over the foggy Green Mountains to Bennington to attend a Public Service Board hearing on proposed new regulations for wind power in Vermont.
The new rules would set a noise standard of 42 decibels (dB) during the day and 35 dB at night. They would also establish minimum setback distances of 10 times a turbine's height, so a 300-foot-tall turbine would have to be 3,000 feet from the nearest property line.
Combined, these rules would effectively ban new wind power in our state.
There were 40-50 people gathered at the Bennington fire station when we arrived, and I was astounded to hear speaker after speaker give testimony in support of wind power and in opposition to the tighter sound restrictions.
“Wow, this is Bennington? I am impressed,” I thought to myself.
Tom was the first of the Brattleboro contingent to speak. He had brought his own decibel meter just for tricks and grins.
Holding it high for all to see, he said, “I want to start by noting that this sound measuring device starts at 40 dB, below that it simply reads 'Lo.' I have been sitting in the back of the room watching the levels bounce around as people talk, and when nobody is speaking, the level reads 40 dB. I guess that's the ventilation system that it is picking up in the background.”
As he spoke, those around him chuckled and lightly applauded. Turning to the board members, he said, “The standards that you are proposing are unreasonably low.”
George spoke next. He and Tom have a delightful dog-and-pony style, as anyone who has watched their show, Energy Week, on BCTV can attest.
“In 2015 the entire wind power industry combined would not make it onto the list of the world's biggest companies with revenues over $100 billion per year,” he said. “This list included Koch Industries and 21 oil and gas companies in 2015.
“The combined revenue of these 22 companies was six times bigger than the U.S. federal budget. Today, Koch Industries has fallen off that list, and only seven oil and gas companies remain on it.
“Do you think that they are scared of renewable energy? Do you doubt that they are doing everything in their power to fight wind energy?” George asked. The applause got louder.
“I would like to talk for a minute about terrorism,” he went on.
“The Paris terrorist attack last year lasted 217 minutes and resulted in 137 deaths. It was a horrendous event that shocked the world,” George said. “In that same 217 minutes, roughly 10 times as many people died as a result of outdoor air pollution, and they continue to die at the same rate, minute after minute, day after day, year after year.
“Why is the world not horrified? Why are we not doing everything in our power to move away from fossil fuels?”
George finished with a discussion of wind turbines and sound: “Pika Research is a wind company based in Maine, and has a wind turbine that was tested by the EPA for sound levels. The test failed, however, because the sound of the turbine was drowned out by the sound of the wind blowing through tall grass in a neighboring field.
“When they set the test up in a different field to avoid that problem, the turbine registered 37 dB, which would have failed this Public Service Board's proposed standard. The inference can be made that the wind blowing through that field of grass would also fail the PSB's sound standard.”
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Not everyone was so inclined at the hearing. After about 15 people spoke in favor of wind power, two spoke in opposition.
One man was a Selectboard member in Grafton during the fierce debate on wind power there last year. He gave testimony that made it clear that he has done a lot of research on the issue and visited most, if not all, of the wind farms in Vermont.
He said that at one of them he could feel vibrations on the wall of a residence coming from a nearby wind turbine. At another he said that the “sound” where he stood was so intense that he felt ill effects in his heart and chest and had to quickly leave.
These were serious allegations, and it was disconcerting to hear them. To make matters worse, there is no way to easily validate whether they are true, or if the effects continued after he left the sites.
What I did find online was a map depicting noise complaints from homes near wind farms in Vermont. The Department of Public Service has registered only four complaints out of 164 homes within 1.5 miles of the Georgia Mountain wind project, for example.
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In 2013, a number of us sponsored a series of talks by two leaders of the remarkably successful European transition to renewable energy. One point that they made over and over again was that opposition to renewable energy evaporates when communities are given the opportunity to invest in, and own a share of, big energy projects.
To this end, I would urge the Public Service Board, the Department of Public Service, the Legislature and our governor to create mechanisms whereby community ownership of large wind and solar energy projects is easy and profitable.