In 2010, the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts constructed a pair of Vestas V82 1.65 MW wind turbines on their waste water treatment plant. After the first wind turbine became operational, nearby residents started complaining about noise. There are a few interesting circumstances related to the wind turbines in Falmouth.

Most of the closest homes are on the other side of a divided highway, Route 28, and when the highway is busy there is considerably more ambient noise in the area.

As can be seen from the Google maps image, the closest home is 335 meters or 1099 feet from the wind turbine. Given that there is a divided highway which provides much higher levels of ambient noise much of time, the distance seems potentially reasonable. This isn’t a quiet area most of the time and wind energy noise is typically highest when wind noise itself masks it.

The turbines were originally intended for another site. They were purchased by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative for a site in Orleans, Massachusetts. That project didn’t go ahead and the turbines were sold to two different organizations for deployment in Falmouth, which had been considering 1.5 MW wind turbines.

There was a specific noise complaint related to a “bong” sound that was traced to a misaligned inertial damper and corrected by Vestas. There are occasional mechanical challenges in wind farms as with any large piece of machinery which can lead to it being noisier than expected until corrected. This occurred in Falmouth and was corrected.

Massachusetts and Falmouth combined have three provisions in their noise guidelines and statutes. Falmouth required that wind farms meet the 40 decibels A-weighting (dBA) limit which is in agreement with World Health Organization guidance for environmental noise of an annual average of 40 dBA outside homes (dBA indicates decibels in the A-filtered scale which is what humans hear best and is agreed time-and-again to be the appropriate choice for wind noise assessments). The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) requires that there be no more than a 10 dBA increase in a specific standard of averaged noise and that there be no ‘pure tone’ conditions which cause specific spikes in specific frequencies which are disruptive.

Noise modeling projections after the first turbine was constructed, including a ten-day noise testing period by HMMH, found that under certain circumstances the combination of the two turbines might occasionally exceed the 10 dBA increase limit at two homes on the other side of the highway. Noise modeling standards assume that the wind moves directly through each turbine to the receptors.

In May 2012, additional sound testing was performed by the DEP (This was done using non-standard approaches it appears, including a noise averaging approach which is not aligned with acoustic’s industry standards and would tend to skew results high, and a peak noise determination approach which is also not aligned to industry standards). The complainants selected the wind conditions under which the greatest noise was experienced, and that became the basis for testing.

It determined that the wind turbines did exceed the 10 dBA threshold at night at just one home. Interestingly, this home is not one of the closest homes across the highway, but a home to the south at 211 Blacksmith Shop Road. Averaged noise calculations using the non-standard approach when turbines were operating were not included in documentation, but ambient noise approached 40 dBA without turbines so it can be assumed that under the worst circumstances noise outside of some homes with turbines exceeded an average of 40 dBA.

The 10 dBA guidelines have a solid rationale, because as the WHO guideline documents, if maximum noise inside a bedroom exceeds 45 dBA maximum more than 10-15 times in a night, sleep can be sufficiently disrupted to cause concern. The WHO guidelines point out that partially closing windows can reduce noise inside bedrooms by 10-15 dBA. So does the empirical evidence show that noise inside bedrooms was outside of WHO standards? No, it doesn’t. The worst noise was around 50 dBA outside of homes and with partially closed windows that would likely have been 40 dBA or lower inside bedrooms. And given that the testing was only done under conditions identified as worst by the complainants, it’s unlikely that the World Health Organization guideline of 40 dBA  annual average outside of homes was exceeded either.

The final circumstance that is interesting about this case is that Massachusetts (and New England in general) is a locale where anti-wind campaigners have created health scares in residents related to wind energy. Dr. Nina Pierpont, who is at the epicenter of the psychogenic ailments related to wind energy, is a resident in the region, and in fact interviewed Neil Andersen regarding his symptoms in 2011. As has become clear from other court cases, the evidence presented, and further studies in Australia and New Zealand, Dr. Pierpont creates symptoms in those near wind turbines by raising health fears and triggering the nocebo effect in them.

In 2013, the town of Falmouth had reduced the turbine operating hours to 16 hours per day, eliminating noise from the turbines at night. However, Neil and Elizabeth Andersen, who lived at 211 Blacksmith Shop Road, did not consider that adequate and brought a civil action to have the turbines shut off for twelve hours a day instead of eight and they won. Pertinent quotes from the decision include the following:

The Andersens have submitted affidavits and medical records supporting their claim that the nuisance produced by the turbines has resulted in substantial and continuous insomnia, headaches, psychological disturbances, dental injuries, and other forms of malaise. The court finds the Andersens’ claims that they did not experience such symptoms prior to the construction and operation of the turbines, and that each day of operation produces further injury, to be credible.

Thus, a turbine schedule of 7am to 7pm, Monday through Saturday, would provide seventy-two operational hours per week and provide substantial mitigation of the proven (at this point) harm, with no irreparable harm to the Town. While the Town may suffer some financial penalties for reduced REC production and a decrease in expected revenue generation, the risk of major default on various financing agreements or damage to the equipment from prolonged shut down is likely avoided. [the judge adds some holidays later in the decision]

In this case, according to the data, there was a noise problem with one of the turbines that was fixed. The turbines operated within World Health Organization guidelines for community noise requirements but were perceived to be noisy especially under certain  wind conditions. A single judge out of the 49 cases that considered medical information found the wind health impact claims to be credible, although there is no documentation I was able to find that medical experts were brought in as witnesses in this case.

Of course, anti-wind campaigners such as Sarah Laurie of Australia and Carmen Krogh of Canada now reference this decision in their submissions to wind farm siting bodies around the world as if it is proof, as opposed to an interesting outlier.

Posted by Energy and Policy Institute