This is the fourth of five installments in a series about clean energy.
Brian Champney can brag about his 450 acres of farmland, 250 dairy cows and — if the permits go through — exactly one wind turbine. He is as stereotypically Vermont as a Bernie Sanders tote bag or a freezer full of Ben and Jerry’s. And, like many Vermonters, he is deeply worried about climate change.
“I think it’s important for everybody to try to leave the earth a little bit better for the next generation. We just happen to have a pretty good chunk of land, and the wind blows,” Champney said. “I think wind turbines should be part of the working landscape.”
Not everyone agrees.
Vermont is considering some of the most restrictive rules on wind power in the country, even as it pushes for some of the biggest cuts to carbon emissions. In May, Vermont’s Public Service Board proposed a new rule for wind projects that includes strict setback requirements and noise limits.
Champney’s turbine — the playfully named Dairy Air Wind project — will be evaluated under the previous rule, but had he waited a little longer to start the permitting process, his turbine wouldn’t have stood a chance. “None of the projects that have been built in Vermont to date could meet this standard,” said Olivia Campbell Andersen, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont.
The updated rule will make it much harder for the state to hit its renewable energy targets. Vermont aims to build up to 750 megawatts of wind power as part of a plan to source 100 percent of the state’s electricity from renewables by 2050. There are 120 megawatts of wind power currently installed — and that was under the old rule.
The new rule requires a setback distance of ten times the turbine height — so a 500-foot turbine would be set back nearly a mile. This is the most restrictive part of the rule, according to the Vermont Environmental Research Associates, a wind power consulting firm and one of the partners on the Dairy Air Wind project. The setback requirement will leave just 0.2 percent of the state available for wind power.
The new rule also sets noise limits for large wind turbines at 42 decibels during the day and 39 decibels at night. To put that in perspective, 40 decibels is about the volume of a refrigerator or a quiet library.
Speaking at a public hearing on the noise rule in Lowell, Vermont on May 2nd, Lowell resident Alden Warner used a decibel meter to measure the ambient noise in the room. “So I’d like to do a little experiment,” Warner said. “I’m going to ask everybody to be totally, totally silent for five seconds when I give you the sign.” The room hushed, and Warner held up the meter. Public Service Board member Sarah Hoffman read the measurement: 43.8 decibels.
Vermont is a wind power pioneer — the world’s first one-megawatt turbine spun into action on a windy mountaintop called Grandpa’s Knob in 1941. But, the recent surge of wind energy in the state has provoked a backlash. In 2013, some 69 percent of Vermonters supported the construction of large wind turbines in their communities. By 2016, that number had dropped to just 56 percent.
Environmentalists stand on both sides of the issue. Groups like Renewable Energy Vermont see wind power as an indispensable tool in the fight against climate change. Other groups, including Vermonters for a Clean Environment, say that wind turbines threaten mountain ecosystems. “In Vermont, our best response to climate change is to preserve these intact ecosystems and to preserve these mountains,” said Annette Smith, executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.
Smith claims that turbine noise can also cause health issues, including headaches, tinnitus, nausea, sleep deprivation and heart problems. “People are sick,” Smith said. “Not only does this technology not belong in Vermont or on our mountains anywhere in New England, it doesn’t belong anywhere near where people live.”
The research would suggest otherwise. The Vermont Department of Public Health reviewed the scientific literature and found “there is no direct health effect from sound associated with wind turbine facilities.” Researchers at MIT also conducted a review of the literature on turbine noise. They wrote that “no clear or consistent association is seen between noise from wind turbines and any reported disease or other indicator of harm to human health.”
The research has made little difference to lawmakers. Last summer, the state legislature passed a bill requiring new noise rules for turbines. The state’s Public Service Board set the sound rule to be “protective of public health,” and “reduce annoyance levels that some people might experience from turbine sounds.” The proposed rule must now be approved by a legislative committee, which has twice delayed its decision. If finalized, wind advocates could fight the rule in court or push the legislature to revise it, but they face an uphill battle.
Governor Phil Scott (R), who wants to ban wind turbines on ridgelines, recently appointed environmental lawyer Anthony Roisman to head the Public Service Board. In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, Roisman said that he is “not a fan” of turbines on ridgelines. He has sued to stop several wind projects in Vermont.
Despite these setbacks, wind advocates like Campbell Andersen remain optimistic. She doesn’t see the noise rule as a rebuke of the state’s commitment to clean energy. “It more reflects the growing pains or struggle of doing the hard work of getting there,” she said.
Vermont sources most of its electricity from the New England power grid, meaning the gas-fired generators that supply the better part of the state’s power lie conveniently out of sight. Vermonters have never had to gaze upon their smokestacks or inhale their exhaust. Now, the state is developing clean, domestic sources of power, and locals are grappling with what that means for the landscape.
“Some people just don’t like the sight of [wind turbines]. They think they’re ugly,” said Champney, when asked about the wind turbine he’s building on his dairy farm. “But there are other people that do like them. It is my property, and I like them. I believe in renewable energy, and it works.”
Read the rest of this series from Nexus Media.
Owen Agnew writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. You can follow him at @OwenAgnew.