Is There a Future for Community Wind In Massachusetts?

442255_41859791Last week, Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan announced an “inter-agency initiative . . . to provide support and guidance to municipalities, developers and stakeholders for land-based wind projects.”

Readers who have followed the issue of local opposition to wind turbines in Massachusetts know that over the last few years small wind-generation projects have come under increasing fire from nearby residents and advocacy groups complaining of health and other impacts from the operation of wind turbines.  Two turbines in Falmouth, whose future is still in doubt despite a town vote in May that rejected a plan to remove them, are the poster child for such controversies.  (The saga of the Falmouth turbines was documented as part of the Falmouth Wind Turbines Options Analysis process, which released a Final Report in January.)  Other wind projects, including projects in Fairhaven and Kingston, are facing similar challenges.  And opposition to land-based wind turbines is not isolated to specific projects.  A raft of bills pending in the state legislature would create commissions or other bodies to study alleged health effects of wind turbines, and many of these bills openly assume adverse effects that need to be mitigated (for example, see H. 2048, H. 2049, H. 2089, and S. 1041, which were the subject of a hearing before the Joint Committee on Public Health earlier this week).

Opposition to particular wind projects has frequently focused on sound, and sound concerns have raised challenging political and legal issues for those projects.  The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulates sound under its general authority to regulate air pollutants.  The standards DEP uses for assessing compliance with its “noise policy” (itself a “guideline” adopted by DEP in 1990) are embodied in ambiguous guidance or policy documents, not in formal regulations, and how the noise policy should be applied to wind turbines is disputed on legal, technical, and policy grounds.  In response to sound complaints associated with wind projects, DEP has conducted sound monitoring at several wind projects using a controversial methodology that differs from the approach generally taken for power plants and other facilities.  Sound from other types of generating facilities is typically regulated through air permits that include standards based on comparing a background sound level, set at the sound level exceeded 90% of the time when a facility is not operating, to the sound level exceeded 90% of the time when the facility is operating, i.e., looking at the change in base sound level that occurs when a facility operates.  For wind projects, DEP’s approach to date has been to compare the background sound level exceeded 90% of the time when the turbine is not operating to peak sound measurements recorded during turbine operation.  The result is a standard that is more difficult to meet and more subject to factors unrelated to the source being measured.  Although DEP has not taken direct legal action against wind projects based on the results of its sound monitoring, DEP’s use of this methodology, and publication of results it describes as showing “exceedances” of its noise policy, have contributed to a sense of regulatory uncertainty for developers and  increased political pressure on local authorities including Boards of Health to take action based on sound complaints. 

Optimistically, the announced initiative might shift the debate over land-based wind in Massachusetts in a positive direction.  Previous efforts by Massachusetts agencies focused on providing information to stakeholders (readers may recall the January 2012 Wind Turbine Health Impact Study); this initiative might lead to meaningful regulatory changes.  Indeed, the initiative looks like a proactive effort by the Patrick administration to fill the void left by the inability of the General Court to pass comprehensive wind siting legislation (bills with that purpose have again been introduced in both the Senate and the House).  Particularly promising are a proposal to convene a technical advisory group to consider changes to DEP’s noise policy and a proposal to establish wind turbine siting best practices through the Energy Facilities Siting Board.  A suggestion in the announcement that the advisory group will consider the use of permits for wind projects to address the sound issue is especially interesting.  Such an approach might put wind projects on equal footing with other types of generating facilities and could draw on DEP’s extensive experience implementing sound standards in the context of conventional generation facilities.  Prospective siting guidance might help avoid or mitigate the intense controversies that have sprung up around operating wind turbines.  Optimism aside, those who have been dealing with this issue on the ground know the passion it evokes on all sides.  Finding an appropriate balance that addresses any legitimate concerns of wind project neighbors while providing enough certainty to project developers to facilitate new investments is not going to be easy.

One thought on “Is There a Future for Community Wind In Massachusetts?

  1. The Town of Falmouth hid this following letter for 5 years between 2010 and 2015. The letter was hidden from the WTOP Wind Turbine Option Process.
    The Town of Falmouth was aware the turbines generated 110 decibels of noise

    The town is guilty of taking the health and property rights of up to 200 residential home owners

    August 3, 2010
    Mr. Gerald Potamis
    WasteWater Superintendent
    Town of Falmouth Public Works
    59 Town Hall Square
    Falmouth, MA 02540

    RE: Falmouth WWTF Wind Energy Facility II “Wind II”, Falmouth, MA
    Contract No. #3297

    Dear Mr. Potamis,

    Due to the sound concerns regarding the first wind turbine installed at the wastewater treatment facility, the manufacturer of the turbines, Vestas, is keen for the Town of Falmouth to understand the possible noise and other risks associated with the installation of the second wind turbine.

    The Town has previously been provided with the Octave Band Data / Sound performance for the V82 turbine. This shows that the turbine normally operates at 103.2dB but the manufacturer has also stated that it may produce up to 110dB under certain circumstances. These measurements are based on IEC standards for sound measurement which is calculated at a height of 10m above of the base of the turbine.

    We understand that a sound study is being performed to determine what, if any, Impacts the second turbine will have to the nearest residences. Please be advised that should noise concerns arise with this turbine, the only option to mitigate normal operating sound from the V82 is to shut down the machine at certain wind speeds and directions. Naturally this would detrimentally affect power production.

    The manufacturer also needs confirmation that the Town of Falmouth understands they are fully responsible for the site selection of the turbine and bear all responsibilities to address any mitigation needs of the neighbors.

    Finally, the manufacturer has raised the possibility of ice throw concerns. Since Route 28 is relatively close to the turbine, precautions should be taken in weather that may cause icing.

    To date on this project we have been unable to move forward with signing the contract with Vestas. The inability to release the turbine for shipment to the project site has caused significant [SIC] delays in our project schedule. In order to move forward the manufacturer requires your understanding and acknowledgement of these risks. We kindly request for this acknowledgement to be sent to us by August 4, 2010, as we have scheduled a coordination meeting with Vestas to discuss the project schedule and steps forward for completion of the project.

    Please sign in the space provided below to indicate your understanding and acknowledgement of this letter. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call me.


    (Bruce Mabbott’s signature)
    Bruce Mabbott Gerald Potamis
    Project Manager Town of Falmouth

    CC: Sumul Shah, Lumus Construction, Inc.
    (Town of Falmouth’s Wind-1 and Wind-2 Construction contractor)

    Stephen Wiehe, Weston & Sampson
    (Town of Falmouth’s contract engineers)

    Brian Hopkins, Vestas
    (Wind-1, Wind-2’s turbine manufacturer, and also Webb/NOTUS turbine)

    Note #

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