VINALHAVEN, Maine — The three wind turbines that were designed to lower and stabilize the unpredictable electric bills of Vinalhaven and North Haven islands also have brought some sleepless nights to those who live closest to their giant blades and the noises they make.
The controversy over the noise levels between Fox Islands Wind officials and some islanders began soon after the turbines went on line last fall, but last week, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection received a letter from its wind turbine noise consultant that seems to back up the project’s unhappy neighbors.
“There exists a significant body of consistent meteorological and sound data indicating sound levels greater than applicable limits,” Warren L. Brown, who also serves as the University of Maine’s radiation safety officer, wrote Wednesday in a detailed letter. “Substantial changes are recommended for FIW nighttime operations.”
Brown reached his conclusions after reviewing a noise complaint submitted by Fox Islands Wind Neighbors, a loose association of those who are negatively affected by the turbines, and also after reviewing sound and other data from the Fox Islands Wind project.
For Cheryl Lindgren, who lives less than half a mile from the turbines, Brown’s words came as welcome news, though the department has yet to make a decision based on them.
“It’s gratifying, it’s hopeful. It’s also been a lot of work having to do all this to get people to acknowledge that we have a problem,” she said Sunday in a telephone interview. “We’re hoping we can work together now to get some kind of compromise — that we can get some dialogue going, and that they will respond to the needs of the people who are suffering with this.”
But George Baker, the CEO of the Fox Island Wind electric company and vice president for wind at the Island Institute, said Brown’s findings might not be conclusive.
“He’s looked at a bunch of data that our sound consultant has put together. Our sound consultant analyzed exactly the same data and found us to be in compliance,” Baker said Sunday in a telephone interview. “There’s something going on here, and we don’t know exactly what it is, between the experts, and how they are analyzing and interpreting exactly the same data.”
According to Baker, the differences might stem from the way the experts treat ambient sound from various sources, especially the wind in the trees. State sound regulations “have a hard time” dealing with wind turbines, he said.
“If we were an industrial facility, you would turn on the facility on a still, calm day [and measure its noises],” he said. “Unfortunately, our little community wind farm doesn’t operate on still, calm days. It operates on windy days. … When the wind is blowing in the woods, it makes a lot of sound.”
Lindgren, however, says this argument is full of hot air.
“[Baker] keeps talking about the ambient sound. It’s a little disheartening,” she said. “Anybody with a set of ears can come sit on my porch. You can clearly tell the difference between wind in the trees and the sound of the turbines. They don’t cancel each other out.”
Baker said the turbines are turned down by 2 decibels at night in order to meet the state sound requirements.
“If, when experts get through sorting out this question of compliance, and it’s determined that we are out of compliance, we’ll just turn them down a little more at night,” he said. “We’re absolutely committed to compliance.”
But that solution might not sit well with some islanders, he suggested, who have benefited from a 15 to 20 percent reduction in their electricity costs since the turbines starting moving.
A survey completed a month ago by Fox Islands Electric Coop members showed that the majority of respondents were in favor of slowing down the turbines in order to reduce sound no more than state regulations require.
“The project remains very, very widely supported on the islands,” he said.
Lindgren, however, pointed out that electricity costs dipped nationwide last fall, not just on Vinalhaven and North Haven islands. And, after nearly a year of being woken up by the noisy turbines, she’s both frustrated and disappointed.
“We believed in ‘green energy’ as being all good. That’s not always true,” she said. “When corporations get involved, it’s not always from the heart. … I think the whole population could turn off a couple of light bulbs and we’d be in the same place.”