A new rule limiting the noise wind turbines can make will face a test Thursday when lawmakers consider whether the proposal does what they intended.
Their decision could have implications for whether Vermont can meet its renewable energy goals. At least one of the legislators with a vote is taking a skeptical view of the rule as drafted.
The Energy Development Improvement Act, adopted last year, calls for the Public Utility Commission to write uniform standards for wind turbine noise. The PUC responded with rules that would limit turbines’ sound to 39 decibels at night and 42 during the day.
Environmentalists say the limits violate the intent of the law, which according to its text is “to encourage the efficient use of energy, provide for the development of renewable energy resources, and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.”
Some critics of the rule say it would make any new utility-scale turbines in the state impossible by imposing unrealistically low sound limits. The PUC itself said the proposed limits are lower than what’s found in many common situations.
“Literature equates a 40 dBA level to sound levels in a library, or those produced by a stream or a refrigerator,” the Public Utility Commission wrote when submitting its proposal.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, said that even if the rule discourages new wind turbines, it’s not necessarily discouraging development of renewable energy at the same time. Vermont has plenty of options for meeting its goal of getting 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources without resorting to things so controversial as wind turbines, Benning said.
But the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, of which Benning is a member, may not consider policy questions such as whether 500-foot-tall wind turbines have a place in Vermont, he said.
The committee’s charge is rather to ask a fairly narrow set of questions about a rule, Benning said, including whether it meets the intent of the legislation that enabled it, whether the rule is arbitrary, and whether its potential economic effects are adequately described.
Benning said he’s satisfied the rule meets all these criteria.
Another member of the committee said she’s not.
“I continue to be concerned about the decibel level they have set,” said Sen. Virginia “Ginny” Lyons, D-Chittenden.
“I think we need to ensure whether the rule put in place was developed on scientific data and can be upheld,” she said. Otherwise, Lyons said, it could be vulnerable to legal challenges.
It’s important “to get it right” with regulations on wind turbines and other forms of renewable energy, Lyons said, because well-suited energy projects will encourage still further development. That means the wind sound rules need a solid foundation, she said.
“I’d like to think when I go back to listen to new information … that I’d be open to that information,” Lyons said, but the decibel levels proposed by the PUC at this point “appear to me to be arbitrary. Given that, it’s going to take something to convince me otherwise.”
Another committee member, Rep. Robin Chesnut-Tangerman, P/D-Middletown Springs, said he’s tried to approach the wind sound question with an open mind and has talked with a number of people on both sides of the issue.
Chesnut-Tangerman did not say whether he’s decided how he’ll vote.
The eight-person committee might not even vote on the rules at Thursday’s hearing, depending on the volume and the nature of the testimony, Chesnut-Tangerman said.
“I think the committee wants to be sure we hear all the relevant information,” he said.
Benning said he expects viewpoints to get a good airing. “I believe there will be a thorough discussion of why each member of the committee is voting for or against” the rule, Benning said. “I’m looking forward to that conversation.”