After yet another lengthy meeting full of intensive questioning, a panel of state lawmakers appeared to run out of steam and, in a couple of quick voice votes, on Thursday approved a set of sound rules for wind turbines crafted by the Vermont Public Utility Commission.
The eight-member Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules gave its final approval on a voice vote with only two dissenters: committee chair Sen. Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) and Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman (P/D-Middletown Springs).
Two members who were openly skeptical of the rules and asked numerous questions of PUC officials — Sen. Michael Sirotkin (D-Chittenden) and Rep. Mike Yantachka (D-Charlotte) — either voted to approve the rules or abstained. No roll call was taken. Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden), a vocal supporter of large-scale wind energy, left the meeting before the votes were taken.
The final rules retained the key PUC standard, which imposes a sound limit of 42 decibels during daytime hours and 39 dB at night. The PUC did remove a setback requirement for siting wind turbines, which would have mandated a buffer between a turbine and any occupied structure of at least 10 times the height of the turbine.
The PUC also clarified language regarding the consideration of noise-reduction technology in submitting proposed designs for wind farms.
The PUC sent LCAR members a lengthy memo on October 23 that proposed final language incorporating the above changes and provided a lengthy description of the process that led to the 42 daytime/39 nighttime standard.
The goal throughout the process, as PUC staff attorney John Cotter explained during the hearing, was to achieve an interior sound level of 30 dB or less at night. But as Cotter noted, “It’s difficult to monitor interior sound levels. There are privacy concerns inside peoples’ homes, and interior noises like refrigerators or furnaces can affect the readings.”
So the PUC tried to identify exterior sound levels that would achieve 30 dB or less inside homes. In the past, said Cotter, it was thought that buildings reduced sound by about 15 dB. But more recent research suggests that the real number is much more variable. The PUC memo cited a 2007 British study showing a range of 7 to 26 dB, “with most values in the 10 to 17 dB range.”
From that range, the PUC chose 9 dB as the basis for its standards. That meant an acceptable sound limit of 39 dB at night. The 42 dB daytime standard, according to the memo, accounts for “the fact that existing technology typically allows utility-scale wind turbines to achieve three decibels of sound level reduction … during the nighttime to meet the 39 dBA standard.”
Several LCAR members were not convinced by the PUC’s reasoning because its assumptions were very conservative and not entirely based on science. But in truth, there’s a lot about wind levels that the science doesn’t establish with absolute clarity.
Take the issue of comparing the PUC rules to those in other states. Wind advocates, including MacDonald, have asserted that the PUC’s limits would be the most restrictive in the country.
In truth, there is no real consistency among the states. In some, county or local governments set the rules. Different states measure sound differently, and there are a lot of ways to measure. Some set limits compared to background sound levels, which means more restrictive limits in rural areas than in cities or suburbs. Massachusetts has such a rule; many of its current or potential wind farm sites are offshore, where turbine noise would presumably fade into the sounds of the ocean.
As PUC member Margaret Cheney noted, it’s not merely a case of apples and oranges; it’s more like apples and a fruit market.
After more than two hours of questioning, Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia), a staunch opponent of large-scale wind, made a motion to approve the modified PUC role and read a lengthy statement. He argued that LCAR’s authority is strictly limited, and that in questioning precise decibel levels, committee members were straying into policy-making.
He asserted that “the PUC did not act randomly or in a vacuum … They considered numerous hours of testimony from numerous witnesses … and considered numerous documents and studies on the subject.”
Benning concluded that if LCAR were to object to the sound limits, it “would become susceptible to claims that its decision was arbitrary or beyond legislative intent.”
Either his argument carried substantial weight, or members of LCAR were simply prepared to wash their hands of the whole issue after four lengthy, contentious hearings in the last five months. After a brief and mostly procedural discussion, the committee approved the PUC rule.
“We will not, in any way, shape or form, make anyone happy,” MacDonald noted during the hearing. Afterward, Benning was asked if he thought the wind rules would be challenged in court.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I expected that from the beginning. There’s too much at stake for both sides.”
Wind opponents would have preferred lower sound levels or even an outright ban on large-scale turbines, but were willing to settle for the PUC rule. Wind advocates felt otherwise.
“I’m disappointed in the outcome,” said Sarah Wolfe, clean energy advocate for the Vermont Public Interest Research Group. She said that the rules would leave “few if any acceptable sites for large turbines.” In her view, smaller turbines will never be able to match ridgeline wind farms.
“You would have to cover the hillsides with small turbines to make up for what one large turbine could generate,” Wolfe said. “I have a hard time believing that that wouldn’t face extreme opposition.”
Is there a lawsuit in VPIRG’s future?
“We’re looking at all options,” she said, “and I would certainly say there are grounds for a legal challenge.”