By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
CRANSTON, R.I. — Renee Petrone has lived along the Johnston border in Western Cranston for the past 15 years. She had given wind turbines little thought in that time. That changed in November, when Petrone and her husband returned home from a two-week vacation to find 519-foot-tall wind turbines staring at them from across the street.
The Petrones, like just about everyone else in Alpine Estates, had no idea the neighborhood would one day be home to such imposing residents. Some homes, including the Petrones’, are about 2,000 feet from a turbine. Petrone said no notice of the project was ever sent to her house.
“These are big machines and no one knows for sure how they will impact our health. That’s my top concern,” she said. “I’m all for green energy, but we need to site them responsibly, or at least let people that will be affected have a say in the process.”
There is no question renewable energy is significantly better for the environment and public health than the burning of fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean, however, that solar and wind energy are benign or clean.
For example, the International Renewable Energy Agency has estimated that solar panel waste, about 250,000 metric tonnes in the world at the end of 2016, could reach 78 million metric tonnes by 2050.
And just because wind and solar are much cleaner than natural gas and oil, doesn’t mean renewable-energy projects can’t be tainted by deception, backroom politics, poor planning, and the allure of profit and tax revenue. They also can produce unintended or overlooked consequences when not sited responsibly.
Providing power to a growing population comes with many costs — some hidden, some obvious. For the past few years, for instance, Rhode Island has been sparring about where to site utility-scale solar facilities. At the moment, open space, such as forests and farms, rather than developed areas, like parking lots, rooftops, and brownfields, are often the preferred locations — at least for most developers and many state and local officials.
Environmentalists, conservationists, and many project neighbors argue that cutting down trees and covering up farmland is counterproductive and shortsighted, especially when Rhode Island has plenty of already-disturbed areas available to host solar arrays.
A group of Cranston residents, for instance, is concerned about a proposed ground-mounted solar project that would require the clear-cutting of nearly 30 acres.
While state officials, municipal planners, and various other stakeholders continue to grapple with this controversial issue, another renewable energy is also stirring debate statewide. The siting of industrial-scale wind turbines has created another heated discussion, but for different reasons, namely possible health impacts.
Petrone called the town of Johnston the day after she returned home from vacation to inquire about the massive structures and ask why her family was never notified. She said she was eventually told by both the Johnston town planner and the Cranston City Planning Department that they had “no obligation to notify me,” because they only had to notify people 250 feet from the project’s property line.
Green Development LLC erected the seven-turbine, 21-megawatt facility on a privately owned industrial area/former farmland in Johnston, between Plainfield Pike and the Central Landfill. The 3-megawatt machines are the largest land-based turbines in the state, followed by Green Development’s 10-turbine facility in Coventry that began operating in 2016. Each of those turbines is 414 feet tall and produces 1.5 megawatts of electricity.
In total, Rhode Island has 29 100-kilowatt or larger land-based turbines that can generate up to 45.1 megawatts, according to the Office of Energy Resources (OER). Green Development’s Johnston turbines haven’t yet started spinning.
The Petrones and many of the other homeowners in Alpine Estates hope the 21 blades remain still.
Petrone’s main concern regarding the turbines, specifically the four closest to the neighborhood, is the different noises they will create once they start spinning. She said neighbors will be exposed to infrasound, low-frequency noise, and shadow flicker — various studies have documented different wind turbine impacts that have debunked or supported health concerns. She said solar panels would have been a better renewable-energy choice for the property.
ecoRI News recently spoke with Petrone about her new neighbors. Internet research about the impacts of wind turbines has left her concerned about possible health implications to her, her husband, their 3-year-old dog, and their neighbors. She mentioned concerns about pressure headaches, migraines, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, and sleep deprivation. She’s also worried about property values being negatively impacted.
Through her Internet research — she noted the turbine controversy in Falmouth, Mass., that has featured health complaints and lawsuits, and another in Bourne, Mass., where town officials are dealing with resident complaints about turbines in the neighboring town of Plymouth — Petrone said she has learned that turbine noise has been described as piercing, preoccupying, continually surprising, and irregular in its intensity.
The Rhode Island Department of Health has said there are no identified health concerns associated with wind turbines. According to the 2017 Rhode Island Land-Based Wind Siting Guidelines report, only one formal shadow flicker complaint has been filed in the state.
The 2017 OER land-based turbine report does note that wind-energy projects may pose certain types of public safety and environmental impacts, including shadow flicker, noise, bird and bat deaths, and signal interference. The report also notes that proper siting of wind turbines can mitigate or avoid such impacts.
However, like most, if not all, of Rhode Island’s many reports and studies, this 50-page document only recommends standards for “communities to consider when addressing potential impacts.” These guidelines aren’t mandated. A sample ordinance is provided.
Petrone is also troubled by the lack of information and notice neighbors received from local officials and the developer about an industrial-scale energy project that was built in their backyards.
She noted that on page 14 of the Rhode Island Land-Based Wind Siting Guidelines it reads: “Projects with impacts reaching across town lines should be required to work with each town.” She doesn’t believe that was the case, at least according to the Cranston and Johnston officials she has been able to speak with. She said the mayor of Johnston told her personally that it was “none of Cranston’s business.”
Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena said as much to a WPRI reporter last month. In a Dec. 18 story, he told the news station that the town and company that owns the turbines went through the proper channels to have them built. As for the concerns from his town’s neighbors to the south, Polisena said, “They don't have to be notified. Quite frankly, not to be rude, it’s none of their business, they don’t live in the town of Johnston. Same thing in Cranston if they were putting something on Plainfield Pike on the Cranston side they don't have to notify the Johnston people.”
A year earlier, in September 2017, Polisena told WPRI that neighbors shouldn’t be concerned. “It's in an unobtrusive area. You’re not going to have homes around it. A lot of it is farmland area.”
Petrone has spoken with the attorney general’s office and included all of the information she shared with ecoRI News and more in a letter she sent to the Department of Heath. The department’s Center for Healthy Homes chief replied via e-mail that “RIDOH does not have any authority or jurisdiction over the situation below. Rest assured RIDOH stays current with all available scientific research on this and all related topics.”
Cranston isn’t the only Rhode Island community concerned about the impacts of siting wind turbines close to neighborhoods. Some residents of Coventry have complained of shadow flicker and noise from the 10 414-foot-tall turbines in their rural village of Greene. They say the utility-scale facility isn’t consistent with the town’s comprehensive plan and has dramatically changed the village’s long-established characteristics.