The Unsound Science of Infrasound “Threat”

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The Michigan Land Use Institute this week posted a strong report, and a rich archive of supporting material, that raises important questions about the credibility of assertions that “infrasound” generated by utility-scale wind turbines produces dangerous health consequences. The article, by MLUI managing editor Jim Dulzo, a former colleague and a journalist who knows his way around complex issues, notes that opponents of big wind farms, including the 112-turbine, $360 million project proposed for Benzie and Manistee counties here in northwest Michigan, have embraced the unproven thesis to stop wind development in their regions.

Dulzo writes, “Two local groups opposed to the project, Citizens for Responsible Wind Development and the Arcadia Wind Study Group, base their push for mile-plus setbacks on a self-published book by New York pediatrician Nina Pierpont. She claims her “natural experiment” shows that wind turbine infrasound causes serious health problems, and that mile-plus setbacks are necessary. Wind opponents nationwide now routinely use her claim to push for big, project-killing setbacks.

“Dr. Pierpont’s theory, however, has little research other than her own to back it up, even though she has been promoting it aggressively since at least 2005. In the past 13 months, her infrasound-based “wind turbine syndrome” theory has drawn strong criticism from two panels of acoustic scientists and medical doctors who formally investigated it. And a 40-year infrasound research veteran is urging policy makers to ignore unfounded worries about low-frequency sound and, instead, concentrate on protecting people from sounds they can actually hear.”

The annals of environmental dispute in America, of course, are rich in the narrative of hyperbole, fear, and irony. Years ago one of the most prominent environmental leaders in the United States urged me to curtail my reporting on new evidence showing that dioxin, a byproduct of chemical combustion, was much less dangerous to people than previously thought. He argued that trace levels of the compound could cause high levels of human cancers and other maladies, and that such reporting would stir government to loosen regulatory standards. He made his case while lighting a tobacco pipe and inhaling deeply.

Mixing fear with scientific bombast, though, has now become the toxic tactical brew of choice for opponents of renewable and clean energy development here in northern Michigan. Early last year, during my three-month stint as a communications consultant, Traverse City Light and Power’s proposal to build a clean, high-tech, 10mw wood biomass gasification plant was defeated by an opposition campaign based on fear and ginned up science. Essentially, said opponents, the plant would use so much wood as to “slaughter” the forests.  And its particulate emissions, though controlled by state-of-the-art equipment, would generate innumerable respiratory illnesses, said critics.

Neither assertion was true. The Grand Traverse region, mind you, is so rich in wood fuel that a good number of those same opponents burn wood to heat their homes in stoves and furnaces with no pollution or particulate control at all. Nevertheless, the TCLP biomass plant was seen by opponents as tantamount to constructing a nerve gas factory in the center of town.

Jeff Smith, the respected editor of Traverse Magazine, wrote a careful evaluation of the disappointing episode in the November 2010 issue that describes his own dismay with the tactics and the outcome. “Maybe you are thinking the business community did this because they feared higher power rates from a naively ambitious but costly green energy plan,” Smith writes. “Not so. The people driving the ballot initiatives and the people whose opposition killed the 30 by 20 goal view themselves as environmentalists, and what raised their ire was that TCLP wanted to build, or at least seriously evaluate building, a wood gasification power plant—wood being a renewable energy source.”

Citizens concerned about industrial development have every right to express themselves and to debate the merits and risks of big projects. The four Benzie and Manistee townships that are the targets of Duke Power’s big wind proposal unfold across a landscape of forests, orchards, clean streams, and Great Lakes vistas (see pix above) unrivaled in Michigan and the Midwest. The wind towers Duke wants to spread across 12,000 to 16,000 acres would establish a new and visually dominant industrial corridor along U.S. 31 at the southern entrance to Benzie County, and northern entrance to Manistee.

A good number of people — some summer folks, others retirees and long-time residents — very clearly see a phalanx of wind towers as the geography of abomination, a threat to property values, and a wicked insult to the little towns and the woods and fields that surround them. Others view the new electrical generating zone as an income producer, a statement of modernization and change, a curtain-raiser for a new era of clean power for the region, state, and nation. What the wind turbines clearly won’t do, as Jim Dulzo’s article reports, is produce infrasound that jeopardizes human health.

— Keith Schneider

Diving Deep for Geothermal Energy Finds Acceptance and Political Heat on Surface

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One of the potential success stories of clean energy development on private and federal lands in the West involves NV Energy, which announced in February that it will purchase 32 megawatts of renewable energy from a planned Central Nevada geothermal plant. The Ram Power Corporation is developing the Clayton Valley Geothermal Project, which is scheduled to begin construction in 2012.  It is one of five geothermal leases that Ram Power has acquired from the Bureau of Land Management in Esmeralda County, Nevada where the developer hopes to generate as much as 160 megawatts of electricity.

Talk about clean energy that is capable of generating baseload power without climate changing emissions and at prices competitive with wind or coal. But geothermal development is slow going. Projects are expensive, and often located in places off the high-transmission path. And in some states rich in geothermal resources, Hawaii in particular, the high temperature resources are either located in sensitive environments or close enough to existing communities that people just don’t want to go there. So Hawaii still burns a lot of oil for its electricity, though the state is moving aggressively to succeed in clean energy development.

Nevada, which produces 300 mw of geothermal power annually, is the number two geothermal energy producer in the country, behind California. It has more future geothermal energy in the planning stages than any other state, potentially 200 mw to come between 2012 and 2014.  Ormat Technologies, which has gained $13 million in Energy Department funding, is planning to build a geothermal plant capable of generating at least 40 mw of baseload power in Nevada’s Independence Valley. Construction could start in 2012. It also has bought into a geothermal project in Elko County, which it will develop in phases, the first of which calls for generating 16 mw.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who represents Nevada, has been a big help to the state’s geothermal industry, the result of $90 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which could eventually add 1,000 state jobs. But Nevada also has much more geothermal energy it is capable of producing, perhaps 3,000 more megawatts, the equivalent of three big coal-fired power plants. The rub is the cost — $12 billion — and that most of the geothermal resources in Nevada are located in the northern portion of the state, meaning a new transmission line would have to be developed in order to move power to the southern portion of the state. And as we reported earlier this week public resistance to new transmission lines can be fierce.

Oregon is expected to receive $40 million for geothermal development, according to Senator Ron Wyden. And California, which has 46 operating geothermal plants generating over 2,500 mw of electricity, more than any other state and second only to the Phillipines, will receive $23 million in  federal investment, according to the list of projects made public last year by the Energy Department.

Hawaii, though, has only one project on the list because it has one operating 25-30 mw plant — Puna Geothermal Venture — and no others. Reason: Public resistance in a state with bounteous volcanic and hot spring activity and lots of underground heat. But the location of the geothermal resources has stirred lots of opposition over development, including from the influential Rainforest Action Network. The plant’s operations, largely due to a blowout of a well in 1991, also has raised safety concerns. The current plant, initially developed in the early 198os and shut down, was modernized, enlarged, and started in 1993.

Hawaii still generates a sizable portion of its electricity with expensive oil. Despite proposals by geothermal development companies and active interest by the state to promote the technology, which state officials view as clean, renewable, and safe Hawaii continues to burn oil for power because citizens discourage geothermal as a ready alternative. Hawaii is busy promoting biofuels to replace diesel fuel for electric generating plants, and a new generating station is expected to receive its fuel from a biodiesel plant in Grays Harbor, Washington, that converts canola from Canada into fuel, and that just restarted operations after an explosion late last year.

— Keith Schneider

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Let Wind Energy Blow? Not In These Places

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Next month Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is scheduled to rule on a proposal to build one of the most contentious clean energy projects in the country. It is a 420-megawatt offshore wind farm in Massachusetts called Cape Wind. Audra Parker, the young leader of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, has emerged as a local public interest celebrity as a result of her work to prevent developers from constructing 130 turbines five miles out in Nantucket Sound.

The long battle over Cape Wind, the granddaddy of citizen opposition campaigns to clean energy development, is a reflection of many other such battles across the country, and emblematic of the schism in the environmental community over clean energy development and climate action. This post documents grassroots activism opposing wind energy projects in 12 more states.

Many of my environmental friends are not that concerned, arguing that grassroots opposition represents the give-and-take, checks and balances that have always existed in the green community. My reporting indicates that it could be much more significant than that, and may invite criticism from environmentalism’s opponents.

On the one hand, said a letter this week in my hometown weekly, the Benzie Record-Patriot, environmental organizations have pushed hard for clean energy investment and action to solve global warming. On the other groups big and small assert this or that project is unfit for construction. I’m documenting that opposition in this and a number of other posts.

With wind the arguments generally focus around noise, viewsheds, light flicker, location, and a few more issues. But victory for wind opponents is no victory because the default position now and for the time being is almost always generating power with more fossil fuel, mostly coal. In the risk-benefit analysis how is that coal is seen as less risky than wind?

Nevertheless grassroots activists fighting clean energy are gaining fame and plenty of support. On Nantucket, Audra Parker counts the Kennedy family as allies, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s senior environmental attorneys, though the NRDC says the windfarm should be built. The state historic preservation officer also opposes the project because of its location in an area viewed as historically significant, as well as sacred to a number of native American tribes.

Greenpeace supports the project, which was initially proposed almost a decade ago, along with the World Wildlife Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Dr. George Woodwell, the renowned ecologist and the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

Many of the details of the opposition to the Nantucket Sound development — viewsheds, NIMBYism, scale of the machines, proximity to sacred ground — are consistent with another fight over wind energy nearby on Cape Cod. Wellfleet officials want to place one windmill on town land close to Cape Cod National Seashore, but neighbors are organizing to stop the project.

A year ago, authorities in New York and in Ontario identified Lake Ontario and Lake Erie as likely sources of offshore wind power. In mid-April 2009 the New York Power Authority unveiled big offshore projects for both lakes. Some of the windfarms would consist of 500 turbines towering 45o feet above the lake. Shoreline owners in  Jefferson, Oswego, Cayuga and Wayne counties in New York went to work to halt the idea, which they accomplished earlier this year.

The issues included scale, sediments, transmission lines, water quality, boating safety, fisheries, subsidies, efficiency, and aesthetics, loss of tax base. “The projects are bad community planning, especially in the water. People choose to live in and visit waterfront communities for the view and relaxation. These projects destroy the view, create noise and other pollution and devalue property,” wrote Robert E. Aliasso Jr. and Tom Bishop, co-chairs of the Coalition for the Preservation of the Golden Crescent and 1000 Islands Region.

In Minnesota a proposal to build 52 turbines producing 78 megawatts of power over 32,000 acres in five townships near Red Wing, south of Minneapolis, is running into local opposition. Steve Groth, a rural landowner, has asked Goodhue County to amend the county’s zoning ordinance to establish a yearlong moratorium on wind development to study potential health and safety concerns. He also wants the PAC to increase setbacks between turbines and non-participating dwellings from the state-mandated 750 feet to 3,168 feet. He also wants to increase setbacks between turbines and homes from the state-mandated 750 feet to more than half a mile. The proposal has generated resistance from wind developers, who view Goodhue as a likely site for wind development.

In Michigan, wind development has prompted grassroots opposition in the Thumb region, near the Lake Huron coast, where landowners are objecting to noise and vibration. And on the other side of the state, where Lake Michigan lies, a proposal to build a large offshore wind farm near Luddington has prompted howls of protest from shoreline land owners. The French company that proposed the project has scaled back the number of windmills it wants to build. The state established a blue ribbon committee to develop siting guidelines and regulations.

In Vermont,  a wind project proposed for Herrick Mountain in Ira generated opposition from residents and an ecologist with the Fish and Wildlife Department who said in a letter to the developer that it would damage the Green Mountain ecosystem. The project, proposed by Vermont Community Wind Farm, has been repeatedly attacked, principally for the potential effect it could have of the  ridgeline, along with visual and noise issues.

Citizen opposition in Vermont also has  erupted in other communities, including over a 16-turbine project by First Wind Corp. in Sheffield. But Vermont residents also are supporting some big wind projects, among them a project by Green Mountain Power Corp. and Vermont Electric Co-Op to build up to two dozen 400-foot tall wind turbines along a three-mile stretch of Lowell Mountain ridgeline near Lowell. The windmills, built mostly on private land, would generate up to 63 megawatts of power – enough to power about 20,000 homes. Earlier this month the Kingdom Community Wind project was approved by residents 342-114.

Maine Governor John Baldacci has stirred a hornet’s nest of grassroots opposition with his campaign to speed wind farm developments on and offshore. Citizens in Penobscot County filed suit against a $130 million 40-turbine windfarm to be built on a ridgeline, and earlier this month lost the case in the Maine Supreme Court.

Maine’s Citizens’ Task Force on Wind Power is pushing the governor and the state to issue a moratorium on industrial wind power projects until adequate noise regulations are implemented. Baldacci is resisting the effort, and he is supported by a number of the state’s editorial boards.

In Rhode Island, opposition is mounting to an offshore wind farm near Block Island. Eight wind turbines are proposed in the ocean three miles southeast of Block Island. They will rise 450 feet above the water from steel frames anchored to the ocean floor. And residents of New Shoreham aren’t thrilled.

In Oregon, a Texas company has stirred opposition to its proposal to build a wind project across 47,000 acres on the slopes of Craig Mountain that overlook two sides of Union. The Antelope Wind Power Project calls for 182 turbine. Union opposition focuses on spoiled views, and damage to wildlife habitat. The City Council declared its opposition to the project in December, and a hastily formed group papered the town with “Say NO” posters.

In Illinois, residents of Dekalb County have battled wind farm proposals for 7 years, arguing that they cause illness, nuisance, noise, and other problems.

In Pennsylvania, a wind farm proposal has sparked a fight in Butler Township.

In Wisconsin, Invenergy seeks state approval to build 100 turbines in four communities in what would be Brown County’s first major commercial wind farm. The Ledge Wind Energy Park would have the capacity to generate enough electricity for 40,000 homes. Critics are trying to stop the project and among its many arguments — most of which are consistent with other battles over wind farms — is a new one. They argue the turbines would interfere with nearby telecommunications towers, a point disputed by the county’s emergency safety officials.

In Wyoming, resistance to wind farms appears to come primarily from the fossil fuel industry, which doesn’t want the competition.

Three years ago billboards along I-70 in Kansas protested against the “industrialization” of rural parts of the state as large-scale wind farm development advanced. “Such opposition to wind farm development–and related transmission–threatens to slow growth in parts of the country where populations are small, viewsheds are wide and wind resources are robust,” wrote David Wagman, chief editor of Renewable Energy World Magazine, in February.

How significant is this push back on renewable energy development? Here’s what Gabriel Alonso, CEO, Horizon Wind Energy said recently: “We have 19,000 megawatts of wind energy under development throughout 22 states. We have run, in some specific cases, into opposition. But you need to differentiate between three people making a lot of noise or re opposition within the community. Normally when we peel back the onion, we always find out that we are talking about three people who have economic, real-estate or some sort of interests, and we are conflicting with those interests. So I do not consider ‘not in my backyard’ being a real fundamental issue for us to site projects.”

Is Alonso right? Instinct says he should know. But in so many states the fights over wind are fierce and driven in too many cases by personal sensibility and not keen grappling with the alternative, which is almost always more coal. It’s not like battling a Wal-Mart and winning a wetland and a downtown business association capable of keeping its members prosperous. It’s not like killing a highway and getting a beautiful river valley. Killing a wind farm generally means getting the same-old, which is coal.

— Keith Schneider