Visit to Vinalhaven wind turbines leaves questions

A group from Martha’s Vineyard who are interested in wind energy recently took part in a conference on the topic in Maine. They learned from other New Englanders, and from a close-up look at the municipal turbines at Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay, that many communities are only beginning to understand and address the effects of the relatively new technology.

The Island Institute in Rockland, Maine hosted a Sustainable Island Living Conference, November 5-7. The event attracted New England islanders who are involved in energy projects and planning.

The conference agenda included two breakout sessions that focused on offshore wind development and island power grids, as well as a tour of the Fox Islands Wind project at Vinalhaven. (Vinalhaven and North Haven Islands face one another across a waterway called the Fox Islands Thoroughfare.) Bill Veno, senior planner for the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) spoke to the assembly, as did Ted Bayne, director of Vineyard Power, a community owned energy cooperative developed by the Vineyard Energy Project (VEP).

Mr. Veno talked about Martha’s Vineyard’s Island-wide wind energy development planning process and about the new collaborative effort between Rhode Island and Massachusetts to develop an area of mutual interest in federal waters between the two states.

Mr. Bayne reported on VEP’s smart grid grant and program for VP, in conjunction with General Electric and the Department of Energy. The new technology allows the energy co-op to shift electric loads and maximize use during times when electricity demand and costs are less.

Turbines up close

Prior to the conference, Mr. Veno emailed information about it to Vineyarders interested in wind energy, including MVC commissioners and members of the Dukes County wind energy work group. Although West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel did not attend the conference, he and his friend Nick Puner drove up to Maine on Sunday and joined Mr. Veno and his wife Aubyn on the tour of Vinalhaven, led by town manager Marjorie Stratton.

Mr. Knabel serves as West Tisbury’s representative on the Dukes County wind energy work group. Mr. Puner, a West Tisbury resident and former Westchester County planning member, shared Mr. Knabel’s interest in the tour.

The Fox Islands are approximately 12 miles from Rockland in mid-coast Maine. Each of three General Electric 1.5-megawatt turbines stands 388 feet high, from the ground to blade tip, on a 25-acre parcel of land on the northwest, sparsely populated side of Vinalhaven.

A strong wind on the day of the tour made for a rough 75-minute ferry ride from Rockland to Vinalhaven. It also spun the turbines so they produced maximum power.

Mr. Knabel said it was worthwhile to see them first-hand.

“You have to experience it,” he explained. “They are a very, almost eerie, presence, because the scale is so much larger than anything there. The natural vegetation of the forest tends to be evergreens, pines, and balsams and spruces, and these things just absolutely tower over everything.”

Mr. Puner agreed. “The Vinalhaven turbines dominate the landscape, and they’re awesome,” he said. “They’re not ugly, but they’re right on top of everything. I definitely think it’s a mixed bag.”

Like the Vineyard, the Fox Islands depended on electricity delivered via an underwater cable from the mainland. One of the wind project’s goals was to generate enough electricity for the two islands’ approximately 2,000 year-round residents to lower high electric rates.

The Vinalhaven and North Haven ratepayers own the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative (FIEC). Fox Islands Wind (FIW) LLC, a subsidiary of the electric co-op, operates the wind turbines, which cost about $14.5 million. The wind energy project involved a complex financing structure, special permitting, and detailed environmental impact and engineering studies.

FIEC members overwhelmingly supported the Fox Islands Wind Project with a vote of 382-5 in favor. Since the turbines went into operation about a year ago, Vinalhaven residents say their electricity costs have decreased. However, some residents who live closest to the turbines, within a radius of half a mile to a mile and a half, complain that the level of noise is much worse than anticipated. They formed the Fox Islands Wind Neighbors as an organized protest against the noise.

Noisy or not?

Mr. Veno said he was interested to hear about the FIEC’s efforts to address the residents’ complaints, including noise data collection and mitigation measures. He also talked to some Vinalhaven residents about their concerns.

“Something that strikes me is that the way communities have traditionally looked at noise and have a noise limit with decibels, that tool wasn’t really designed for the type of noise that seems to be involved with wind turbines,” Mr. Veno said. “Because it’s not really the decibels so much, and it’s not exactly a pure tone situation, and so we’re really trying as a society to figure out where that appropriate level is.”

The Vineyard group’s reactions to noise from the Vinalhaven turbines varied.

“When we were at the site, it sounded to me like airplanes flying overhead,” Ms. Veno described. “But then we stopped at the bus driver’s house, who lived about three-quarters of a mile away, and got out of the bus and listened from there, and it sounded really just like ocean waves do in the distance from our house on the Vineyard.”

Mr. Puner said ambient wind noise competed with the sound of the turbines on the day of the tour.

“I didn’t think it was that dramatic, but on the other hand, I don’t dismiss that somebody could be seriously upset by the constancy of it,” he said. “One person’s music is another person’s noise.”

Although Mr. Bayne did not go on the tour, on a previous visit to Vinalhaven, he went inside one of the turbines.

“The column that the turbines rest on is like a flute,” he recalled. “It’s hollow, and it’s got an object on top of it, which is generating this low-frequency resonance. It’s not the blades, because they’re only going 18 rpm and aren’t going to make a lot of noise. It’s the motor, basically — the mechanical parts that are up above that are resonating.”

The Island group’s consensus was that their visit was too short to make any definitive judgments about Vinalhaven’s wind turbine noise, which varies from day to day. The tour did, however, leave them with a new awareness of how subjective the noise debate is and how it might influence zoning bylaws for wind energy development on Martha’s Vineyard.

“Although Vinalhaven residents didn’t say it explicitly, what it really means is that if your permitting process is based on decibel levels of one sort or another or differential sound levels, it doesn’t work, that those criteria are inadequate,” Mr. Knabel said.

“And that the only way to really deal with this,” he added, “is to create such large setback distances that the likelihood of having complaints and having people unhappy and uncomfortable becomes vanishingly small.”

As Mr. Veno summed it up, “We’re all in a learning curve.”