By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Wind turbines are a hard sell these days.
Several Rhode Island communities have denied wind turbine projects or simply shown reluctance to explore building new ones. Much of the aversion stems from a fear of community backlash. Real or not, objections to noise, shadow flicker and a drop in property values are the frequent arguments against these renewable energy projects. The disabled Portsmouth High School turbine also sits as a vivid example of expensive repairs.
“Some people enjoy (wind turbines). Some are neutral. Some are up in arms,” said Corey Lang, professor at the College of the Environment and Life Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, during a recent public workshop.
Lang is one of two URI researchers studying the noise and visual impacts of Rhode Island’s 14 wind turbines. The data is expected to help update the state energy plan and provide municipal planners and developers standards for assessing local wind projects. The first of three public workshops sponsored by the Office of Energy Resources was held Jan. 17 at URI's Coastal Institute.
Lang will conduct an analysis of real-estate sales from 1996 to 2012 to uncover trends that wind turbines might have had on property prices. Only those properties within 2 miles of a turbine will be included in the study.
“That’s a huge issue and people have right to be concerned about it,” Lang said.
Harold Vincent, research professor in the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Ocean Engineering, will conduct acoustic measurements at the state’s wind turbines. Vincent, an underwater acoustics expert, explained that wind turbines generate unusual sound patterns that sometimes get louder at further distances.
Vincent will take several acoustic readings in order to account for the many conditions that influence the “wooshing” sound from turbines, such as traffic, temperature, humidity and wind direction.
Massachusetts sets its current wind turbine noise standard at 10 decibels above ambient or background noise. By comparison, breathing registers at 10 decibels and a vacuum cleaner registers at 80 decibels.
A Rhode Island renewable energy report released at the end of 2012 omitted the anticipated wind turbine siting standards, such as fall zones and noise levels. The East Bay Energy Consortium wind project has waited on the guideline to advance its turbine project in Tiverton.
Critics of wind turbines often point to the tax breaks and financial incentives that are needed for wind turbines to compete with fossil-fuel-based energy. Local opposition has focused more on the aesthetics, as it did in defeating proposals in Westerly, Middletown and Jamestown.
One of the first and most contentions wind turbine proposals is in Charlestown. Resident Lawrence LeBlanc has tried unsuccessfully since 2009 to build two 400-foot-high turbines on property next to Route 1. Opponents say the project hurts property values and the rural character of the coastal town. The Town Council enacted a moratorium on wind turbines in 2010, and a group of residents and the Town Council have sued the Zoning Board for considering the project.
LeBlanc attended the workshop at URI with his attorney Nicholas Gorham. Both seemed pleased that a higher authority was helping set standards for wind development. “The state is taking renewable energy seriously and that is a step in the right direction,” Gorham said.
Seth Steinman of People’s Power & Light, a buyer and distributer of renewable energy, also approved of the wind research project. “Wind turbines are the most affordable source of zero-emission energy and a crucial piece of the puzzle to reach our state's clean energy goals. This science-based, state-specific process will provide valuable information to help developers, municipalities, and citizens build well-sited wind turbines in Rhode Island.”
A draft report from the research is expected sometime between October and March 2014.