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Expert: Consumers Energy Trying To ‘Muddle’ Wind Turbine Noise Solution

A plan to address excessive noise issues at a Northern Michigan wind plant won't work, a sound expert said.

Additionally, he said he thinks Consumers Energy, which has offered the plan, knows it won't work.

On Feb. 7, Consumers Energy submitted a mitigation plan to address noise levels at its Lake Winds Energy Plant, located south of Ludington in Mason County. The submission of this plan was ordered by the 51st Circuit Court, where the utility is contesting the county's ruling (the first of its kind in Michigan) that the $250 million, 56-turbine wind plant is in violation of its noise ordinance.

Rick James of East Lansing-based E-Coustic Solutions is an acoustician specializing in the production, control, transmission, reception and effects of sound.

The following is an interview with James interviewed about the Consumers Energy Mitigation plan.

What did you think of the mitigation plan Consumers Energy submitted to Mason County?

"Consumers Energy is trying to use the same type of bad science it was accused of using in the permit application study by Brian Howe, HGC (the acoustical consultants to the county) to its advantage now that mitigation is the issue.

"First, it's trying to say the problem stems from background noise not being measured and its effects being left out of the HGC compliance measurements, which would imply that the measurements inflated the sound levels from the wind turbines. There was no evidence that this occurred and it would be expected that HGC would have made such corrections if they had found high background sound levels contaminated their compliance test results. Based on this type of specious reasoning Consumers Energy proposes minor adjustments to the turbines that are located close to where there have been complaints.

"But it is well established that a person cannot hear any difference when decibels are lowered by these small amounts."

Could lowering the decibel rate by as much as would be required to impact the noise significantly impact the efficiency of the turbine?

"Yes, lowering it by just 5 decibels could cost about 20 to 25 percent of potential energy production."

So let’s understand what you think Consumers Energy is planning to do. It would be similar to a situation in which repairmen keep coming out and adjusting a faulty furnace in a home, and after each adjustment it may seem to work alright for a short while, but eventually it malfunctions again and they end up coming back repeatedly a do more adjusting; but the real problem is that you need a new furnace. Would this be an appropriate comparison?

"Yeah, it would be somewhat similar to that. In my opinion, Consumers Energy knows that what it is proposing isn't going to solve the problem, but it sets up a whole scenario under which — as complaints continue into the future — they can say to the courts: 'Here they go again. We keep making these adjustments. We're doing all that we can and we need some sort of relief from this.' "

The Mason County case is the first in Michigan where a county has determined that one of these wind plants is operating louder than the ordinance allows. That means the outcome of the situation could be very important, doesn't it?

"Yes it does. That's why I think it is very important that the county understands what the real problem is. The Lake Winds Energy plant in Mason County was located too close to homes. The way it was designed did not include any safety factors. That is why it is bad science. They did not adhere to standard scientific methods that account for uncertainty in designs.

"Here’s one way to explain what’s happening. Under the Mason County ordinance there is a maximum allowable noise level. That means the turbines are never supposed to exceed that level. When the Lake Winds Energy Plant exceeds the noise limit, that's the same as when someone in an automobile breaks the speed limit.

"If a policeman stops you and says you've been clocked going over the speed limit, you get a ticket. It has nothing to do with whether the average speed you were traveling on that road was within the limit. If you get caught going over the limit, you've violated the law. But what Consumers Energy is trying to do with this mitigation plan is acting as if the noise violation is about the average sound level, not whether or not the turbines periodically exceed it. That would make enforcement almost impossible. Imagine if the police officer had to show that a driver's average speed exceeded the speed limit. Following a suspected speeder's vehicle would require a huge investment in time and still lead to inconclusive results.

"There is really no scientific basis for what Consumers Energy is trying to do with this. They’re going to bring in their experts in an effort to muddle things all together."

Is there a predictable percentage of people who will be negatively affected by turbine noise above a certain level while other people aren't?

"Yes, it's from 10 to 15 percent. It can be very frustrating for them. They can say, 'Can't you hear that constant noise?' But the person standing right next to them might not even hear it.

"The wind industry tries to claim that there is no proof that turbines cause health problems, but actually it is something that's been well established for decades. There is a long legacy of people suffering. It's the same thing as the 'sick building syndrome,' which has been well established and is well understood. ... It's the same as what's happening with these turbines. It really isn’t new; it has been known about for 50 years by acousticians who specialize in this aspect of noise; probably longer."

If wind turbines are causing health problems for 10 percent to 15 percent of those who live near them, why don’t we hear about even more complaints?

"Well, typically they call in the zoning commissioner and he doesn't know what to do about it. Then they go to the council and they don't really do anything. A lot of the time they just end up feeling isolated and don't know what to do.

"However, I think in the long run this could end up being like the cigarette lawsuits. First one person will win a case and get damages for the health impacts, then another will win and so on. I could at some point see it turning into a situation where we may see attorneys putting ads on TV, like the ones we see now that are seeking people who have Mesothelioma, only they'll be looking for people who are suffering ill effects from living near wind turbines. But even before it reaches that point, those who operate wind plants will be facing some pretty serious financial issues."

Consumers Energy spokesman Dennis Marvin said the utility wouldn't comment on the mitigation plan until after a Mason County meeting, which was Tuesday.

Lake Winds is part of the effort made by Consumers Energy to meet Michigan's renewable energy mandate, which requires that 10 percent of the state's energy be produced by in-state renewable sources by 2015.

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.