News Story

Wind Noise Dispute Pits Scientists Against State Officials

A panel of experts who were appointed to work toward noise level guidelines for wind turbines in Michigan had their work discarded when state bureaucrats didn't like what the panel was coming up with and made up their own rules instead.

As a result, there is now no specific state recommended decibel level limit for wind turbines. This means wind turbines can operate at 55 dBA (decibels adjusted to reflect the ear's response to sound), which is the standard Michigan had followed for at least two years. The panel was promoting reducing that level to 40 dBA.

The Wind and Health Technical Work Group panel was formed in 2010 as part of the Wind Working Group. The Wind Working Group, formed when Jennifer Granholm was governor , was within the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth (DELEG).

The technical work group panel was supposed to produce a report that would include any state guideline changes it recommended on the siting of onshore industrial wind turbines. Dr. Jerry Punch, an audiologist and professor emeritus at Michigan State University, was chosen to chair the panel. Kenneth Rosenman, a professor of epidemiology (occupational diseases) at MSU, was co-chair.

"The four issues we were looking at for this report were: physical safety, noise limits, limitations on shadow flicker and the conflict resolution process," Punch said. "We met at least a dozen times for DELEG, and we communicated regularly through email."

Regulation of noise levels is one of the most contentious issues related to the siting of wind turbines. Studies have shown negative health effects related to the constant droning of certain sounds, including noises produced by heavy traffic, machinery in factories, and, more recently, commercial wind turbines.

The panel completed its 10th draft of the proposed "Wind & Health" report, but state officials pulled the plug on the panel before a vote could be taken.

"It is important not to describe that last draft as a final draft," Punch said. "It was never formally adopted by the group. But it was approaching its final form."

If the state had adopted the 40 dBA limit, it would likely have meant Michigan's wind turbines would have to operate at an even less efficient level than they already do.

Michigan's 2008 energy legislation mandated that by 2015 at least 10 percent of the energy produced in the state come from renewable sources like wind. Forcing stricter requirements on wind power would have made that benchmark more difficult to achieve.

By the autumn of 2010, Punch said he and others were getting clear signals that Mark Clevey, a key manager for Consumer Education and Renewable Energy programs with the State Energy Office, didn't agree with the direction in which the panel seemed to be heading.

At the time, the State Energy Office was a division of DELEG. Clevey started after the Technical Work Group panel had started its work. Clevey has a master’s degree in public administration and economic development.

"He (Clevey) came to a few meetings and then stopped coming," Punch said. "Later, we were contacted and told that they had reorganized and that the work group was no longer needed."

Punch said Clevey essentially drafted his own report.

Clevey still holds his post at the State Energy Office, which is now under the Michigan Economic Development Corp. umbrella. He did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Michigan's current recommendations about wind turbine regulations are that they be based on "the best available scientific evidence."

In the summer of 2011, Punch, Rosenman and one other member of the TWG published their own report on wind turbine noise levels. In that report, they call for noise levels not to exceed 40 decibels. That 40 dBA noise limit was based in part on the recommendation of the World Health Organization, which makes its recommendations with a view toward protecting the health of the public, and not toward satisfying wind industry interests.

According to copies of emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Clevey's predecessor John Sarver came up with the old 55 dBA recommendation on his own. Based on his comments in an email dated June 16, 2011, Sarver came up with the 55 dBA limit after another, earlier, work group (which met prior to 2008) produced eight drafts of possible regulations but failed to reach what Sarver referred to as a "consensus."

"The guidelines were developed by me with input from members of the WWG," Sarver said in the email. "There was never a consensus on a variety of issues."

In the email Sarver added that the wind working group never endorsed his guidelines.

In an email dated June 24, 2011, Clevey said that the State Energy Office and the Michigan Public Service Commission support the educational purposes of the work group, which he asserts in the email had no legal authority to set government policy.

"100 percent of the group's work is for educational purposes," Clevey wrote in the email.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.