And what has Vermont’s Public Service Board decided is an appropriate setback from property lines for big wind turbines on ridgelines?

After hearing testimony two weeks ago on a proposal to establish a moratorium on wind turbine applications until regulations are put in place, Connecticut’s legislative committee on energy and technology voted an amended bill out of committee by a 14 – 6 vote.  The legislation tells the Siting Council to stop reviewing two proposals by BNE Energy, go through a rule-making process to establish standards, then proceed with wind energy proposals.  The legislation says in part,

Such regulations shall include, but not be limited to, (A) setbacks, including considerations of tower height and distance from neighboring properties; (B) flicker; (C) a requirement for the developer to decommission the facility at the end of its useful life; (D) different requirements for projects of different sizes; (E) ice throw; (F) blade shear; and (G) impact on natural resources; and (2) a requirement for a public hearing for wind turbine projects.

Vermont has taken a different approach, choosing to review projects on a case by case basis.  This has led to a series of precedents that most Vermonters are probably not aware of.  What exactly has our Public Service Board (PSB) decided about setbacks from property lines, ice throw, blade throw and shadow flicker, and is it consistent from project to project?  These are important issues that would be routinely dealt with through either local zoning or Act 250 for non-energy development proposals.

So far, the PSB has reviewed East Haven (denied), Sheffield (approved), Deerfield (approved) and Georgia Mountain (approved).  Lowell is in the midst of its PSB review.  What information has the PSB reviewed to make determinations on these issues and what have they decided in each of these projects?

East Haven:  The PSB heard testimony from developers and opponents about ice throw from wind turbines in the East Haven case, which in 2004 involved 330 foot tall 1.5 MW GE turbines.  In that case, a physics professor from Rutgers University (with a PhD from Princeton University) testified on behalf of opponents that “ice projectiles may travel more than 0.4 of a mile from the base of the tower, and might land with speeds in excess of 200 mph.”  The project was denied by the PSB, but in its decision it appears that the opponents’ expert witness testimony on ice throw was ignored, while the applicant’s was cited.

Sheffield: The PSB did not consider testimony from parties other than the applicant about setbacks from property lines, ice throw, blade throw or shadow flicker in its decision to approve UPC/First Wind’s 40 MW proposal for 420 foot tall 2.5 MW Clipper Liberty turbines.  No specific appropriate distance from a neighboring property line was determined by the PSB.  Ice throw is mentioned in the PSB’s final order, leaving it to the developer to address: “If ice accumulation on the turbine blades poses an unacceptable safety risk UPC may implement additional access restrictions in the area immediately surrounding the wind turbines.”

Deerfield:The PSB did not take into consideration testimony that was submitted by parties other than the applicant about setbacks from property lines, ice throw, blade throw or shadow flicker in its decision to approve Iberdrola’s 30 MW proposal for 410 foot tall 2.0 Gamesa turbines.  No specific appropriate distance from a neighboring property line was determined by the PSB.  Ice throw and blade throw are not mentioned in the PSB’s Final Order, though the developer’s expert witness acknowledged in correspondence in 2000 that ice can be thrown as far as half a mile.

Georgia Mountain:The PSB issued a Certificate of Public Good for 3 – 5 wind turbines of undetermined size and location, leaving the issue of setbacks to be worked out between the developer and neighbors after the issuance of the CPG.  The developers failed to come to agreement with neighbors, so technical hearings are scheduled in March to look specifically at the developer’s request to put two of the 450 foot tall 3 MW turbines 150 and 180 feet from neighboring property lines.  In prefiled testimony, the developer’s expert witness testified that the PSB has already approved setbacks to property lines in Sheffield of <200 feet and in Deerfield of 290 feet.  If true, those distances were not the result of decisions based on testimony on the issues surrounding appropriate setbacks, but just happen to be the distances the PSB approved without taking into consideration balanced testimony on the distances that wind turbines throw blades and ice, or what is required if wind turbines collapse or catch fire.

Lowell:The PSB recently heard testimony by GMP’s expert about ice throw, blade throw and shadow flicker.  GMP’s expert witness on this subject is the same expert that wind developers used in the East Haven and Georgia Mountain cases.

Abutting property owners lack the time and resources to present their own expert witness on these issues, and there is some evidence that the PSB has so far ignored testimony that has been presented on these public safety issues.  Keep in mind that in the Lowell/GMP case, the PSB gave parties 3 weeks from when they were informed they had party status until the deadline for prefiled testimony.

In all these wind development cases, developers (funded by substantial federal grants and rapid depreciation schedules) have resources to provide the PSB with expert witness testimony on all the issues.  Neighboring towns and people with particularized interests have limited resources and they choose to put their very limited funds into developing testimony, but nobody so far has been able to provide the PSB with fully balanced testimony covering all the issues.  To do so in any one of these cases is likely to cost a minimum $500,000 to $1 million.  The result is that the PSB is making decisions based on limited, biased testimony, without the benefit of being able to evaluate testimony from both sides.  Imagine a murder trial in which the only party presenting evidence is the district attorney, and there is no public defender to represent the person charged with the murder.  In essence, this is the system Vermont is now using to evaluate the impacts of big wind turbine proposals.

Now, to answer the question the Public Service Board has not yet answered despite already approving three big wind projects, what is an appropriate setback from property lines for a big wind turbine?  This is a more complicated analysis than can be done in one blog post, because there are separate evaluations for shadow flicker, noise, blade throw, ice throw, and collapse.  A review of over 100 ordinances from around the country [Warning: It is 121.8 MB] was done in the Georgia Mountain case by an intervening neighbor who is an engineer by profession.   (The wind developer filed a Motion in Limine with the PSB seeking to have the testimony struck.)  His research found that “most jurisdictions require property line setbacks of between 1.1 and 1.5 times the total height of the turbine.”  For the Georgia Mountain project, that would require between 585 and 758 feet from the neighboring property line to meet the average standards set throughout the country.  These are minimum standards for safety (if the tower falls over) and not distances that address noise issues where some experts recommend distances based in miles, not feet.

If the PSB has approved the distances in Sheffield (<200 ft.) and Deerfield (290 ft.) according to testimony in the Georgia Mountain case, these are some of the smallest approved distances from property lines anywhere in the country, and are inadequate to protect neighboring properties from damage due to turbine collapse, let alone ice and blade throw, shadow flicker and noise.  The PSB’s process is not resulting in clear and consistent standards for the basic issues surrounding wind turbine siting.  Connecticut’s legislative committee’s approach, stopping to establish rules and regulations, makes a lot of sense.  Vermont’s PSB process is a poor use of resources for siting big wind turbines and is not resulting in clear decisions on important issues.

*If you want to fact check the information in this post, you will not be able to do so based on what is publicly available on the PSB’s website(s), which are a hodgepodge of three different servers with incomplete files that in most cases do not include the Certificate of Public Good or Final Order.  Here’s what the PSB has posted, along with ancillary sites set up by developers that contain their information but often do not include documents filed by other parties.  Nobody has archived all the filings in one place, except in the Lowell case where Energize Vermont is attempting to pull everything together on one page: