I encountered my first wind turbines in the early 1980s when, on a family holiday to the Pacific coast, my father drove through the Altamont Pass Wind Farm in northern California. Four siblings and I jammed our faces against the back windows of my old man’s Econoline van for a lasting look at those diffident sentinels, too many to count, their giant blades racing in the summer heat. They were thoroughly appealing, these towers, even as they brought to mind the villains of John Christopher’s classic Tripods Trilogy. They looked, to us, like the future.
Altamont was once the biggest wind farm in the world, in terms of power generating capacity. It is also a prodigious killer of birds, including Golden Eagles. Turns out the blades on the Altamont turbines – so giant in span to an eight-year-old – are small by recent standards. The smaller the blades, the more likely they are to kill avians.
Are the 1.1 terrawatt-hours of clean energy produced each year at Altamont worth the deaths of the estimated 9,300 birds (including 2,200 raptors) that the facility had been killing each year? In 2010, spurred by lawsuits by the state’s Audobon Society, a major operator of the Alameda turbines agreed to either convert 2,400 of the 1980s-vintage towers to newer turbines or shut them down by 2015.
Wind energy will save us, some say. It powers my apartment in New York. Wind farms slow the wind, research shows. They may (and it seems logical they would) affect pollination. Turbines might one day be replaced by fantastical high-altitude, power-generating kites, if Google has its way. But for now they are proliferating. They’re cool, they’re clean — and apparently they can be quite loud.
In this guest post, journalist Lois Parshley takes an in-depth look at the legal and cultural battle over wind turbines on the small island of Vinalhaven, off the coast of Maine, and at its implications for communities across the United States.
“On Vinalhaven, on Nantucket, in the Pacific Northwest – all across the country as green energy gains traction – reactions to wind projects are elucidating larger American values,” Parshley writes. “If Vinalhaven is any example, American individualism may struggle to find a place in the new green economy.”
Note: This piece, which was first researched in 2010 and 2011, has been revised since its original publication to reflect current electricity rates on Vinalhaven Island. The article has also been corrected to reflect that David and Sally Wylie are not parties to the current case before the Maine Superior Court. The article also initially misstated the name of the resident who suffered a heart attack at a 2011 meeting of the Fox Islands Electric Cooperative. Further, due to a typographical error, the article as originally posted stated that George Baker had “founded” an entity to purchase renewable energy credits from the wind turbine project. The corrected sentence now reads, “Baker also found a third-party company to buy five million dollars in other federal tax credits that the co-op couldn’t, and wrangled a low-interest loan for the remaining funds.”
A small town in Maine highlights the stress points of the expanding green economy.
Inside the filthy truck, a grizzled man lay in the reclined passenger’s seat, fast asleep. “I’m the bird man,” Richard Podolsky introduced himself after waking, shaking the sleep from his mane. Podolsky was in charge of ornithology studies around the three wind turbines recently built on Vinalhaven Island, thirteen miles off the coast of Maine. He’d seen three eagles that morning before retiring to nap during a rainsquall.
Vinalhaven’s turbines rise almost 400 feet above the horizon, visible before the pine and granite shores of the island itself. As the largest of Maine’s fifteen year-round island towns, until recently Vinalhaven was connected to the mainland by a power cable that runs under Penobscot Bay. Energy loss from the cable and the high cost of running power thirteen miles under the ocean made electricity prices three times the national average. So when a wind project was proposed in 2008, people jumped at the chance to lower their bills. Construction started at a breakneck pace in June of 2009, and the turbines began to spin less than five months later. School on Vinalhaven was canceled for the day and children performed a “wind mill dance” at the opening ceremony. Within months, the average electricity rate on Vinalhaven dropped to six cents, below the national average. At first, the turbines worked better than anyone had hoped, actually generating excess power that was sold back to the mainland.
That’s when the trouble began. Most of Vinalhaven’s 1,165 year-round residents supported the project, but within a week of powering up, several families living within half a mile of the towers began to complain about the turbines’ noise. A few months later, battle lines were drawn and the thrum of legal filings began to compete with the whoosh of the turbines.
On the ferry from the mainland, the turbines slowly disappear as the boat threads its way through the lobster traps into Vinalhaven harbor. To come home here is called being “on-island.” As in, “He’s on-island.” On Vinalhaven’s narrow roads, there is an unspoken rule to wave to passing cars. Islanders often leave their keys on the dashboards of their cars. This is an island you can visit once and later be greeted in the grocery store by several people you know. Community is unavoidable.
The evening in 2010 that I arrived on the last ferry from the mainland, Dick Morehouse taped a brightly colored paper sign reading “Welcome Home!” to the panes of his weathered front door. Lee Morehouse, a sharp, small woman, pulled out the Vinalhaven phonebook, pointing to the turbines on a map pinned to the wall. The wind gusted against the single-paned windows of their unheated kitchen.
The Morehouses are close to the heart of the windmill conflict: their son-in-law, Philip Conkling, is president of the Island Institute, a community development organization. Maine’s Speaker of the House approached the institute when Vinalhaven applied to the state legislature for an exemption from the state’s electricity deregulation law. The law, which declared power generation companies must be separate from transmission and distribution companies, made it illegal for the island’s electricity cooperative to generate its own electricity, effectively preventing wind projects. Thanks in part to Conkling’s efforts, Vinalhaven was granted an exemption.
It was during this process that Philip Conkling met a skinny man at one of the meetings the Island Institute hosted. George Baker was a volunteer treasurer for a nearby island’s electric co-op – and a Harvard Business School professor about to begin a sabbatical. Baker wore thin metal glasses, long floppy bangs, and a charismatic smile, and he quickly became a central figure in the Vinalhaven controversy.
Baker spent his sabbatical on-island advocating for Vinalhaven’s wind project. He spent a second year on unpaid leave to finish the job. Baker was the one who decided that the project should be scaled to generate roughly the amount of energy the community would use in a year, and how much that would be, which was how three turbines, each producing 1.5 megawatts, ended up above Seal Cove. Islanders were inclined to listen to the enthusiastic outsider.
It was Baker who figured out how to finance the $15 million project. As Fox Islands Electric Cooperative was a non-profit, it couldn’t utilize the government’s tax incentives. So Baker created a for-profit electric company called Fox Islands Wind that was eligible for the 30 percent federal income tax break. Under Baker’s direction as nominal CEO, Fox Islands Wind would own the turbines and sell their power to the co-op at the cost it takes to produce; Baker himself purportedly earns nothing from the project. Baker also found a third-party company to buy five million dollars in other federal tax credits that the co-op couldn’t, and wrangled a low-interest loan for the remaining funds.
Next, the island had to decide where to put the turbines. Three locals offered to lease the community a parcel of land on the highest hill of Vinalhaven, an abandoned stone quarry with three years of collected wind data and an average wind speed of 13 miles an hour. It was not in the middle of town, not on the coast, and not around a lot of “summer people,” as islanders call families with second homes. It appeared to be a perfect site, and construction was soon under way.
Tristan Jackson, the owner of the island’s local coffeeshop, is able to sit companionably in silence with a stranger in the way of someone accustomed to time at sea. As one of the two islanders sent to research Samsø, a Danish island that uses 100 percent wind power, Tristan said he’d focused on community reactions during Samsø’s transition. No one there, he noted, complained about noise. Once the blades started spinning on Vinalhaven though, everyone soon agreed there was a basic, inescapable problem: Vinalhaven’s turbines were audible.
At most, the turbines can be heard for three-quarters of a mile. Of the thirty within that radius, some families say they don’t hear the turbines or the noise isn’t an issue. But for the Wylies, the Lindgrens, and other families, it was devastating.
When Cheryl Lindgren opened her front door, I didn’t know what to expect. “Who are you?” she asked, pulling her red jacket closer and stepping out onto the porch. The Lindgrens were extensively quoted in a New York Times article published in 2010, which caused tremendous stress on the island; since then Cheryl had been wary of strangers asking questions. She rubbed her hands together in the chill morning air. “I don’t really have time to talk,” she said. “One of my ducks has bumble foot, and the veterinarian is off-island. We’re going to have to cut the abscess ourselves.” She shook her head. “The noise has them constantly stressed. They’ve been off their feed for months.” She suggested I talk to the Wylies and pointed me in their direction, one or two dirt roads over the hill.
“Try to imagine if someone was tapping you all the time. At first it wouldn’t bother you. But over time you just become really sensitized and irritated,” Sally Wylie said. On her back deck, the turbines were visible, spinning slowly over the last red leaves in the maple grove surrounding their house. “They go WHOO-WHOO,” she said. “I’ve become very sensitive to it. I’ll be walking down the road and I’ll hear it. It comes through the walls, and lately I’ve been getting headaches.” Standing still, I could hear a faint mechanical rumble, like a highway heard from far away.
“We went to every single informational meeting,” Sally said. “George Baker, the man in charge, said the ambient noise of the wind in the trees would cover the noise of the turbines.” She paused to let me listen. “It doesn’t.”
In 2008, the island electrical co-op hired Resource System Engineering to do a study on the sound potential of the turbines. The only available public summary of the document shows a map circling the properties within three fourths of a mile of the turbines. The document suggests those within the boundary might have sound concerns. The co-op never shared this information with the neighbors, and hired Acentech, another firm, which produced a second study saying the noise of the turbines would be covered by ambient sound.
The Wylies say their property has lost value since the turbines were built. “We were supportive,” Sally said in 2010. “But anyone who buys out here is going to buy for the peace and quiet. If someone had said, ‘Do you support the turbines,’ we would have said yes. If they had said, ‘Do you want to throw in an extra $200,000 in support,’ we would have said, ‘Gee, no, we can’t afford that.’ And that’s what’s happened.”
The Wylies want a property guarantee from the island electrical co-operative to help them sell. “We don’t leave lightly,” Sally said. “We’ve been summering here for 18 years. We just moved here full-time. Our kids helped build this house. But we’re in a real Catch-22.”
The island electric cooperative has faced its own financial troubles. The complicated financial structure left some critics of the project fearing that Baker was in it for the money. When I asked Tristan Jackson if he thought Baker had acted in good faith, he said, “That’s an opinion I have no opinion about.” After the neighbors of the wind farm hired legal counsel, George Baker has refused to talk to the Wylies or to the local group opposing the turbines, Fox Island Wind Neighbors (FIWN). He declined to be interviewed for this piece.
In August of 2010, FIWN submitted data that purported to show the turbines were out of compliance with state noise regulations. A group of neighbors dug into their savings to collect their own data about the turbines’ noise. “George told the islanders at the most recent co-op meeting, ‘Every time these people complain it costs you money,’ because if we turn in a complaint, they have to defend themselves,” Sally Wylie said. “So islanders are angry. But what were we supposed to do, say nothing when our home is ruined?”
Neighbors collected data from the turbines that showed noise spikes five decibels over state limits, and an average noise that slightly exceeds Maine night-time regulations of 47 decibels – which is about as loud as an average conversation. They asked the co-op to slow the spin of the turbines, which would raise electricity costs for the rest of the island, and could potentially make the turbines quieter.
In the autumn of 2010, consultants from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection found that in some conditions the turbines did exceed state noise limits. Fox Islands Wind disputed this analysis, claiming the state did not use standardized methods to separate turbine noise from background noise, including the sound of wind in the trees. Still, the state issued a notice giving Fox Island Wind sixty days to ensure that its turbines were in compliance at all times.
State regulations are designed to set basic minimum standards, but sound is one of those strange things that science still can’t fully explain; we know that some people are more strongly affected than others by different volumes, and no one knows exactly why. The Wylies are as upset about all the furor as anybody. Sally Wylie told me, “Who wants to be the negative person? This is not fun. We were told this wouldn’t happen.”
Then she continued, “These turbines are an assault on rural America. It doesn’t cost George a penny, and we are spending our Christmas money. Chip Farrington, the manager of the co-op, said at the most people are saving $26 a month.” Sally gestured upward as the blades continued their imperturbable spin. The wind blew through the trees. In the background was the faint industrial murmur. “We have all of this for $26 a month?”
If each family saved $26 a month, Vinalhaven collectively saved an average of $374,400 in that first year. In a community with veterans living off Social Security and lobstermen making $5 a pound, that’s a significant amount of money.
Since then however, electricity prices have climbed on Vinalhaven even as they’ve fallen on the mainland. In 2010, the first full year that the turbines were on-line, islanders paid 8.82 cents per kilowatt-hour, slightly lower than the state average of 8.94 cents, according to data from the state’s Public Utilities Commission. Since then, energy rates on the island have continued to increase while those on the mainland have gone down. The 2012 average energy rate on the island was 10.9 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with a state average of 6.91 cents.
What happened? Charles “Chip” Farrington, general manager of the co-op, said in an interview that some of the difference is due to costs the utility has incurred in defending itself against regulatory complaints and for sound monitoring. This has added, he said, approximately two cents per kilowatt-hour to residents’ power bills. Another factor, Farrington said, was variability in the price the co-op has to pay for additional power from the mainland during the summer, when the wind is low and the population more than doubles, and the income it receives for selling electricity back to the grid during the winter when demand is lower and the wind is more powerful. While rates are currently low on the mainland thanks to a glut of natural gas, Farrington said, they are subject to normal market volatility, and could go up any time. Islanders, he maintained, would benefit in the long term from the turbines.
Fox Islands Wind Neighbors has suggested a different reason for the higher rates, one that deflects responsibility from their opposition and back toward the project’s authors. Included in the project’s original plan, the neighborhood group noted in a recent blog post, was the assumption that Fox Islands Wind would earn more than $355,000 a year from the sale of renewable energy credits. The market for renewable energy credits, they say, has since crashed. “No longer would FIW receive $355,437, but more like $37,171,” the blog post claims. “This translates to an increase of about 3 cents per kwh for island energy costs.”
Citing a confidentiality agreement, Farrington said he could not comment on transactions involving energy credits. “I can say,” he added, “that any benefit from any REC transaction will go straight to the cooperative’s ratepayers.” Conkling added that rates in the Massachusetts market for renewable energy credits were in fact going up, “and will likely benefit ratepayers when a new agreement is reached in the near future.” In May 2010, the electric co-op surveyed its members on their attitudes to the turbines. Of the 515 members who responded, 95 percent said they supported the turbines. The co-op hasn’t performed another survey since then, Farrington said.
For some opponents of the turbines, it was galling enough to be told they would have to suffer the noise pollution for the greater good of the island. At the moment, they are also seeing an increase in their electricity rates.
On the way from visiting the turbines and the neighbors in 2010, I stopped at the Vinalhaven Historical Society, a white clapboard building with a musty back office. Three women of indeterminable age were chatting when I walked in. “Oh the wind, the wind is wonderful,” Lorraine Bunker said. “But people have gotten pretty riled up about it. I heard one person say he won’t be happy until the turbines are shut down. I also heard someone say just wait until hunting season, maybe there’ll be an ‘accident.’” Another woman walked in behind me, wearing a silver lapel pin in the shape of a windmill. A chorus of, “Hi Priscilla’s” echoed around the room. “I love them, though,” Lorraine continued. She had a thick Maine accent, her vowels broad and her “r’s” dropped completely. “I think you are going to hear that pretty much everywhere. Even some of those who are up that way don’t mind at all.”
Lorraine conceded that the whole thing had gotten a little out of hand. “I think in the beginning people were concerned and felt sorry for the Wylies, but they’ve been so negative and gone so far into the media.” She paused. “Very little is said about the positive and the people who live here and really appreciate and enjoy these turbines. I think most of us have lost patience.” Priscilla piped in. Her voice was high-pitched with age. “Fox Island Wind has bent over backwards, too. They haven’t shoved it under the carpet and said ‘Tough patooties,’ you know. They’ve tried to come to a solution.”
The Historical Society has a huge manila envelope of yellowed and torn newspaper clippings, which divulged that Vinalhaven once had diesel generators. Lorraine explained, “We three were born and raised here, and when we were young there was a power plant down by the ferry that had a constant hum. It was loud, diesel generators right in town, and I remember going to sleep at night with that sound. It never bothered me. You were used to it, and you knew if you wanted to have power that was the way it had to be. No one questioned it.” Priscilla added, “People who think the wind turbines are noisy are people who came recently to the island, to get the tranquility, and that’s part of the problem.”
The third woman spoke up softly for the first time. “I hear the lobster boats leaving every morning,” she said. “But the noise is just people going to work. That’s what it takes to live on an island.”
In his sunny kitchen in 2010, Philip Conkling told me over a cheese sandwich that in rural areas the people who are working usually have no issue with the noise that wind projects make. It is people who have moved to the country for peace and quiet that are typically the most bothered. At the time, Vinalhaven’s electricity rates were slightly lower than those on the mainland.
“The islanders hear the noise and say wow, our power bills are going down. The transplants – who typically have much higher incomes – they hear those noises and it is an assault on their property values, their piece of mind.” He sighed, wiping an errant drop of mustard. “Most transplants know better than to take a stand because they are usually in the minority. I try to put myself in the Lindgren’s shoes. It’s driving them crazy, they are really upset. If I were really upset and everyone else were benefitting, my strategy to make the turbines slower probably wouldn’t be to piss everyone else off.”
In 2010 Conkling said, “Maybe we will have to turn them down a tiny bit. One decibel isn’t going to make a difference in what they hear. Even two decibels won’t. They want the turbines slowed substantially, and of course that will cost everyone else money.” In April of 2011, Fox Island Wind announced that the turbines would be slowed slightly to meet state standards, raising everyone’s electricity rate by $5.59 a month, about a 5 percent increase. Another increase followed in November 2012. The dispute has continued in Maine Superior Court, where seven neighbors — the Wylies not among them — are currently seeking to overturn a sound monitoring plan approved by the state Department of Environmental Protection that allows the turbines to continue operation.
“Islands are motivated by lifeboat ethics,” Philip Conkling told me in 2010. “Everyone is in the same lifeboat. People think they are going to move to islands and be hermits, and it’s just absolutely the opposite case. People are thrust together with each other. That’s why island communities are so powerful – because you can’t avoid them.” He continued, “The Wylies and the Lindgrens, their strategy should have been to say, ‘Hey. We’re your neighbors. You’ve got to help us. You can’t just throw us out of the lifeboat, you can’t feed us to the sharks.’ Instead, they went over the heads of the islanders to the mainland and the newspapers. Is it any surprise the islanders have hardened?” He shook his head. “It’s too bad, because some kind of accommodation could be made. Island life is,” he paused, looking for the right words. “You are all in it together.”
Sally Wylie later echoed Conkling’s sentiment, although from a very different perspective. “There’s an ethical question,” she said, staring up at the spinning turbines. “Do you sacrifice the small part of the population and just focus on what the majority wants? Why didn’t they just say, this isn’t really working, this is a lot louder than we thought. We’re a community. We have a problem, but we’re part of the community package. It’s not like you can throw us out with the laundry.”
The turbines were expected to be well-suited to Vinalhaven, because the benefits were predicted to be co-located with the costs. But even on an island barely fifteen square miles, it seems the costs were perceived quite differently. The crux of the matter is most apparent in the difference between Samsø’s transition to wind power and Vinalhaven’s. Samsø’s flat coastland geography is quite different from Vinalhaven’s granite quarries and ridgelines, which may amplify the noise pollution. But the difference in community reaction can’t be explained just by the landscape. Tristan Jackson said it seemed like roughly a quarter of the people on Samsø were also initially troubled by their wind projects. Yet no Danes have spoken out against the turbines, and there wasn’t ever this kind of public furor. A common Danish proverb goes, “If it’s good for everybody, it’s good for me.” This different understanding of collective good may have helped Samsø weather their transition to green energy comparatively cordially. On Vinalhaven, on Nantucket, in the Pacific Northwest – all across the country as green energy gains traction – reactions to wind projects are elucidating larger American values. If Vinalhaven is any example, American individualism may struggle to find a place in the new green economy.
The pressures causing energy prices to rise are not going to go away, on islands or in cities. Renewable energy is increasingly necessary – and inevitable. With these mounting tensions, the question remains how communities, both large and small, will adapt, and who will pay when projects fall short of their promises. The transition will be easier for some than for others. “I understand that if we run short of energy, the entire continent will be deforested and you won’t be able to hear wind in any trees at all,” Tristan Jackson said, squinting in the sunshine outside his coffee shop. “We’ve got to give a little.”
At a 2011 meeting of the island’s electrical co-op, Art Lindgren dropped to the floor with a heart attack. Another resident leapt up and began to give perform CPR, saving Lindgren’s life. As Conkling is fond of saying, Vinalhaven can’t afford to leave anyone behind.
Lois Parshley is a freelance journalist and photographer. Follow her on Twitter @loisparshley.