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February 10, 2010
Article

As electric co-op conducts sound experiment, Vinalhaven residents debate solution to turbine noise issue

by David Tyler

On February 1, the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, Inc. began an experiment in which the three 1.5 megawatt General Electric wind turbines on Vinalhaven will be randomly slowed down at night for one month.

On January 29, the co-op's board of directors sent letters to 38 households located within a half-mile of the 388-foot tall turbines. About half of those are seasonal homes, according to Chip Farrington, the co-op's general manager.

Neighbors were asked, according to the letter, to fill out detailed logs for the month of February describing the sounds the turbines make. The turbines will be slowed down at random rates and times between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. The Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, Inc. is owned by the ratepayers of North Haven and Vinalhaven. The Island Institute (which publishes Working Waterfront) assisted in the permitting process for the project and helped with community involvement and financing.

It is the latest effort by Fox Islands Electric to address complaints from a few neighbors about noise made by the turbines. Since the $14.5 million wind project began producing power in early November of last year, neighbors have described the sounds made by the turbines as a whooshing and grinding noise or a low rumbling, sometimes producing a noise similar to a cement mixer or an airplane that never lands. Approximately a half-dozen neighbors say the noise has been so disruptive that it makes it impossible to live normal lives-that they can't sleep at night and that the noise is harming their health. Others say the noise is disruptive, but want to let the February experiment run its course. Other year-round residents who live within a half-mile of the turbine have not complained about turbine noise, according to Farrington. Those neighbors who are not bothered by the noise say they can't hear it in their homes or that it sounds like a dishwasher.

As of February 8, one turbine had not been operating for about 10 days, according to Farrington, due to a problem with one of its blades. The turbine was scheduled to be operating again February 10. When asked how that would impact the experiment, he said the co-op board will look at the data gathered "and if we have good enough data, we will go from there."

The three turbines have produced over 2 million-kilowatt hours of electricity, as of February 1. The wind-power project cut the cost of the energy portion of the average ratepayer bill by one-half in December, compared to December of 2008, Farrington said. However, the turbines generated 20 percent more power than initially estimated for the month, he said.

Over the course of a year, the three turbines are expected to generate all the power needed on the two islands. But along with that power, the community is also coping with how to resolve the problems that the turbine noise is causing for fellow-islanders.

Vinalhaven Town Manager Marjorie Stratton said that what she hears on the street is that islanders still feel good about the project. And from a business point of view, the project is doing exactly what it was predicted to do, which is to reduce electric costs.

But after the turbines started, she began hearing from those neighbors who are bothered by the noise.  "When we first started getting complaints, it made me feel kind of sick-like a sort of stab to the heart," Stratton said. Stratton is also an elected board member for the electric co-op.

In conversations with about 20 islanders at Fishermen's Friend, the Surfside Restaurant, the Paper Store and outside Carver's Harbor Market on February 1, this reporter found that the large majority of those interviewed still support the wind-power project and believe that it is benefiting the island, despite the complaints about noise. Many are sympathetic to the roughly two dozen neighbors who say the noise has disrupted their lives, but a few said that those living near the turbines should get used to the noise. A couple of people suggested the co-op should purchase the properties of these neighbors. People also said that the larger benefit for islanders on both North Haven and Vinalhaven should carry more weight than what they see as the complaints of a few. And a couple of people said they no longer support the wind project.

 "I've been here 20 years and I think it's the most wonderful idea, because I am all for going green and saving money, and we're doing both," said Vicki Moyer, at Carver's Harbor Market.

"People should remember the old power plant-that was so loud," said Sally Conway. "You got used to that." Before 1976, the island had a diesel power plant located in town. "I think the turbines are great," Conway said.

"I'm thrilled-we did the right thing and this community, the two islands, will benefit," said Margaret Englehart, outside the grocery store. "We need it." When asked about those who say their lives have been disrupted by the turbines, she said, "I think that is a small group and I hope we can find some way that will make them happier. But for the community as a whole, it's wonderful already and it's going to remain with us."

At Fishermen's Friend, Justin Dyer said he thinks the project is still a good idea because he likes the idea of clean energy, although he expressed concerns about the long-term feasibility of the project because of its initial cost.

Lyford Alley said, "If it's going to save us money on our bill, I think it's a good idea." He thinks islanders still approve of the project.

Many interviewed said they were concerned about the turbine's neighbors. "I feel very badly for them," said Carol Shirley, outside the market. She has gone to the turbines, and did not hear the noise, "but I don't live there, either."

When asked if the community would agree to slow the turbines down, even if it meant paying more on their electric bills, if that would help neighbors, those interviewed were divided.

"I don't know, we'd have to have a meeting on that," said Brenda Philip, outside the market. "Everything is so expensive around here now that I don't think anyone wants their bills to go up any higher." One of the attractions of the wind project is keeping electric bills down, if possible, she said.

But Shirley said, "If that's a way to do it, than probably it would be helpful to them, because they are part of our the community, too."

Donna Smith, at the Surfside Restaurant, said turning down the turbines would be OK as long as it would help with the noise problem and still provide power for ratepayers. "I think some of the townspeople are thinking it would be a really good thing to make everybody happy," Smith said. "But you're not going to do that, no matter what you do." Smith said her nephew and niece live near the turbines "and it doesn't seem to bother either one of them."

Alan Barker lives in a trailer down the road from the wind-power project, about 2,300 feet away.  and said he can see two of the turbines from his front porch.  

 "They don't bother me at all," he said. "I can't hear them inside my house. When I go outside, no matter how much noise they're making, when a car goes by, it blocks the sound." The sound is louder sometimes, depending on which way the wind blows. "It doesn't sound any different than when you've got the dishwasher running in your house," Barker said. When he is outside, the sound of a hammer or wood being sawed is louder than the turbines. "I have a brook that runs by my house, and I hear that more than I hear the turbines."

His advice to the community: "Rather than sit back and listen to what is being said, people should come up here with their ears and hear for themselves and form their own opinions."

Brandon Lazaro rents a place right across the street from the turbine, about 1,500 feet away. "I live in a trailer," he said. "The walls are thin. I don't even live in a home. I don't think it's that noisy." He said the noise is like an airplane off in the distance, but it is not a loud sound.

"If you've got the TV running, or something like that, you don't hear it all," Lazaro said. "If I'm talking on the phone with somebody, I don't hear it. It doesn't bother me." Lazaro used to live near the town garage and said it was much noisier there, compared to where he lives now.

"I think it's a good thing to have them up here," Lazaro said. "Eventually, it will cut down on our electric bills."

Cheryl Lindgren lives with her husband, Art, about 2,440 feet from the turbines, and said they were both in favor of the wind-power project. During the first week after the turbines were turned on, "it was like we were hit in the head by a two-by-four," she said. "We were outside when they first turned them on and it was significant, it was very noisy, but we figured they're going to tweak these, they've just turned them on, it'll get better." But it did not, she said. "I grew up in an industrial valley in western Pennsylvania, with coal mines, and there were actually two power plants in the town where I grew up. So I'm not a stranger to industrial noises. But this is beyond a normal industrial noise."

Lindgren feels that the community is sympathetic. "I've had some great hope that they would be able to have some compassion," she said. "I think that anybody would understand, and if they were in the same position they would feel the same way-if  they had put these three turbines down on the hill in town.

Ethan Hall is building a home on a hill north of the wind turbines, about 3,500 feet away. He said he hears the turbines a lot "and they are loud." He said it is difficult to characterize the noise, because it is not constant and changes a lot. "I've never heard anything in my life that sounds like it," he said. Both he and Lindgren believe that current sound measurement standards do not take into account the complexity of turbine noise and its true impact. "The nature of the sound is so unique, that to try and quantify or qualify it with a strict dBa [decibel] measurement is an entirely inadequate way of describing the effect on people and surroundings," Hall said. Hall and Lindgren are part of a group called Fox Islands Wind Neighbors.

Hall also feels that neighbors are being asked to endure the turbine noise: "We're being asked to get used to it."

"We're not up against a big, industrial company," Hall said. "But we're being pitted against our community-that's what is occurring right now..."

The co-op board decided at its January 26 meeting to conduct the February experiment. "We kind of struggled with what kind of study would make sense, short of just, OK, we're going to turn them down," said Stratton. "This seemed like a reasonable approach." The co-op is working hard to resolve the noise issues. But the co-op is also "serious about serving all the customers," she said. "We can't do everything to serve these 25 customers that are close by. We have to serve all of the customers."

After the complaints came in, Stratton said she has read "all the literature that has come my way" about turbine noise. "It's just so new. But we're certainly trying to do the right thing."

The February experiment will reduce both the electrical output and the sound level from the turbines, according to the January 29 letter from the co-op board. The reduction in power output and sound can be predicted, wrote the board. "What we are unable to determine, without your help, is how much this reduction in sound level actually reduces any annoyance that you may be experiencing," wrote the board. "This understand­ing-of how reductions in output improve the sound situation-is the most important thing that we can learn from this experiment."

Accentech Incorporated of Cambridge, Mass. will be monitoring the sounds and collecting the sound data during the month-long experiment, Farrington said.

The co-op board also sent a letter with instructions on how to keep the logbooks. Neighbors are advised to log often and keep a regular schedule, note the date and time, and write a description of the sound or any other comments. Neighbors can also keep separate logs for different places on their property, such as their front porch or kitchen. Co-op employees are collecting the logs.

The system to code the sound the turbines make, according to the instruction letter is:

"1. Little or no sound. Not bothersome.

2. Turbines audible, but quiet. Not annoying.

3. Turbines somewhat audible, but ambient noise covers most of the sound.

4. Turbines moderately loud and annoying.

5. Turbines very loud and annoying."

Sound from the wind turbines is not to exceed 55 decibels between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. and 45 decibels between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. beyond the boundary of the wind-power property, according to the project's state Department of Environmental Protection permit. Although a few neighbors disagree, the co-op's board wrote that the sound from the turbines is "below the state's regulated sound levels at all protected locations."

"But we know for certain that, no matter how the official compliance assessment turns out, we will make the necessary adjustments to be at or below the state sound regulations of 45 dBa  [decibels] at all residences," the board wrote in the January 29 letter.

"We are going beyond state regulations to see what would work for our neighbors," said George Baker, CEO of Fox Islands Wind LLC, a subsidiary of the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative, that operates the wind-power project. Baker is also vice-president of the Island Institute's Community Wind Program.

The experiment is described as "expensive" in the January 29 letter. If all three turbines were operated at the slowest output that will be used during this experiment, over an entire year, the reduction in power would be 20 percent, said Baker.

At the end of the February experiment, costs, in terms of higher electricity prices due to less power being produced, will be assessed and benefits, in terms of reduced noise for neighbors, will be assessed, according to a statement from the co-op board printed as an advertisement in the Maine Sunday Telegram on January 31.

Also, according to the January 29 co-op letter, the board believes the experiment "will enable us, as a community, to figure out what to do and come to a solution that works, as well as possible, for everyone."

click to enlargeOne of the wind turbines on Vinalhaven.
One of the wind turbines on Vinalhaven. David Tyler

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