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Green Energy Co. Makes For An Unexpectedly Noisy Neighbor05:22
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Horse farm owner Laura McGovern gives ulcer medication to this mare because the animal seems agitated by noise from a nearby solar energy plant. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
Horse farm owner Laura McGovern gives ulcer medication to this mare because the animal seems agitated by noise from a nearby solar energy plant. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

Laura McGovern's 26-acre horse farm in the town of Harvard has the look and feel of a rural operation. It's surrounded by woods. A brook runs through the back. And there's an ongoing symphony of singing birds and chirping frogs. But lately there's been another sound, too.

"What you're listening for is a 'whoo whoo whoo whoo whoo whoo,' " McGovern says.

McGovern is walking with her dogs toward the rear of her property past her house and barn and horse corrals. As she walks, you start to hear a steady hum. It sounds like drilling or the rumble of a jet engine. And sometimes it squeals to a stop, but then starts again. There's also a vibrational quality to the sound, so you feel it and hear it.

"It'd be like somebody coming into your house and turning on a radio constantly," says Alexandra McReynolds, a part-time worker at the horse farm. "And you had to do your life with the fuzz, 24/7, for months and months and months. And even when you slept — turn it down, and then turn it up, and then turn it down — and trying to adjust your life to that."

Evergreen Solar believes these exhaust stacks and other manufacturing equipment are responsible for the noise heard by the plant's neighbors. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)
Evergreen Solar believes these exhaust stacks and other manufacturing equipment are responsible for the noise heard by the plant's neighbors. (Sacha Pfeiffer/WBUR)

The sound is coming from a manufacturing plant the size of three football fields that's a quarter-mile away. It's owned by a company called Evergreen Solar and operates 24 hours a day making solar-energy products.

Laura McGovern says the round-the-clock noise is so bothersome she has trouble sleeping. She also says it's hurting her business boarding horses and giving riding lessons.

"That's my outside training field and galloping track, which I get to use very minimally because of the effects of the sound," McGovern says. "It gets so loud that the students can't hear the instruction from the instructor."

Evergreen Solar knows the noise is a problem. Vice President Rodolfo Archbold says neighbors have asked if the plant could reduce its operating hours so they can get a peaceful night's sleep. But Archbold says limiting the hours isn't realistic.

"All the tools were designed to work 24/7," he says. "What the neighbors complain about or see as a major part of the issue is equipment that's outside that's designed to protect the environment, and that equipment needs to run whether we're producing or not."

Evergreen believes the sources of the noise include the plant's cooling tower fans and exhaust stacks. Neighbors almost a mile and a half away have complained. So Archbold says the company is now doing at least a million dollars worth of soundproofing. He takes me up a long, winding metal staircase to the factory's roof to give me a sense of how big a job that is.

From the roof, we look up at an elaborate network of giant gas tanks, exhaust stacks, metal vents and blower fans.

"What we believe is troublesome to neighbors is not the blowers themselves, but when the exhaust leaves the columns," Archbold says. "So we're working on custom design for those columns up there."

Back at his office, Archbold says some of the silencing devices are so specialized they won't be ready until Labor Day. And he says, even then, some noise from the plant will be inevitable. "When all is said and done, I'm not sure that it will return to — I don't know what's the right word to use — tranquil, completely," Archbold says. "I think there will be something that they hear all the time, even when we're completely finished."

Peter Lowitt heads the Devens Enterprise Commission, which gave Evergreen Solar its permits to operate and is now considering whether to fine the company $1,000 a week until it quiets down. Lowitt says the commission required Evergreen to do sound studies before it built the plant, and those studies concluded the neighbors wouldn't be bothered by noise. But the commission has since slapped Evergreen with two noise violations.

"It is definitely making more noise than we thought it would when we permitted it," Lowitt says. "We don't necessarily want to shut Evergreen down and throw 700 people out of work, but we also don't want to hurt the neighbors."

Still, many neighbors are frustrated with the Devens Enterprise Commission and Evergreen because the problem has been going on for months. Some neighbors first heard the sounds last summer, but assumed they were temporary construction noise. They say they never thought green energy would be so loud.

Laura McGovern, who owns the horse farm, says her animals have had enough of the sounds, too. "When the noise is bad, they don't eat, they pace in their stall, they chew wood," she says. "When the noise goes down, they eat."

Sound experts say the decibel levels in the neighborhood aren't loud enough to cause physical harm, but could cause mental stress due to lack of sleep and annoyance. For now, McGovern says she sometimes sleeps with ear plugs, and she's giving ulcer medication to one of her horses that's most agitated by the noise.

This program aired on July 2, 2009.

Sacha Pfeiffer Twitter Host, All Things Considered
Sacha Pfeiffer was formerly the host of WBUR's All Things Considered.

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