Regulations and circumstances

Wind power is the fastest-growing form of energy production in Finland; the total amount of installed wind energy is growing at a rate of 40% per year. However, one major hindrance to the development of wind farm projects is the environmental effects and noise emissions caused to surrounding residential areas. This has slowed municipal planning processes and delayed or even cancelled some projects.

There are no existing regulations specific to the noise limits applicable to wind farms; general limits are governed by the Environmental Protection Act (86/2000) and general noise guidelines regulated by the Council of State (993/1992). The general guidelines do not fit well with the special characteristics of wind farm noise and the Ministry of the Environment has issued separate non-binding directions regarding acceptable wind farm noise levels. The existing regulatory regime is open for interpretation and is therefore unpredictable. Noise levels depend largely on case-by-case evaluation by the relevant authority.

Regulation reform

The legislature has acknowledged the importance and uncertainty of the matter and a legislative initiative was commenced in 2013 to stipulate a new decree governing noise emissions. The initial objective was to have the decree enacted in early 2014. However, the final form of the decree faced opposition in Parliament and the bill never reached the parliamentary decision-making process. A new working group was established in Autumn 2014 to draw up new outlines for the decree. A draft version of the outline was sent for opinions and statements in November 2014. Due to recent parliamentary elections and the possible composition of a new government together, the final decree now looks like being issued in Summer 2015 at the earliest.

The key objectives of the reform are to narrow the scope for case-by-case interpretation of applicable noise levels and specify appropriate and suitable noise levels for the unique circumstances of wind farms. However, the reform faces notable political objections and some technical aspects remain open. Finland has committed to substantially increase the amount of energy produced by renewable energy sources by 2020. Yet aspects of environmental protection and preservation – including the extremes of pulsating noise in sound levels, the possibility for certain deviances and discretion and modelling – have a significant role, and a consensus between these two objectives has not been met.

Proposed decree complications

The new proposal contains provisions regarding the pulsating low-frequency noise emissions of wind farms. Accordingly, where the wind farm is located in an area that is susceptible to pulsating noise, a 5 decibel (dB) correction should be made to the measurements. This means an unjust restriction for wind farms and a twofold punishment.

Actual measurements have shown that the occurrence of pulsating noise on the nearest disturbed subject can be as infrequent as once in every four months. However, as pulsating noise occurs occasionally in virtually every wind farm and the definition of 'pulsating noise' in the proposal is insufficient, the 5dB correction becomes the principal rule and not an exception, as it is meant to be. In addition, a diligent project developer would add a 5dB correction in the noise calculations. As a result of such correction, the noise limit restriction becomes twofold. Taking into consideration the infrequency of the occurrence, the broadness of the definition of the phenomenon and the procedure of diligent noise calculations, the proposal stands as a substantial and unjust restriction to the development and location of wind farms.

Further, according to the proposal, the noise limits would apply based on the existing building permissions for the area. The noise limits are the same for residential and holiday homes. This means that limits would be calculated against single building units, not as per actual area circumstances. This clarifies the application of the limits, but simultaneously the proposal contains no provisions to deviate from the application. The proposal does not, for example, provide for situations in which:

  • the building is no longer in use;
  • the building owner accepts the wind farm; or
  • the project developer has acquired the building.

Such provisions should be added to the proposal or the regulation will remain too restrictive and fail to meet the actual circumstances of the wind farm industry.

A third essential deficiency in the proposal is that it does not acknowledge the possibility for deviation from the limits in industrial or otherwise noisy areas. Such deviations are granted for industrial buildings, which leads to a situation where wind turbine noise limits are more restrictive than those for industrial buildings situated next to turbines. There are examples in permission practice that the noise limits can differ by as much as 10dB. The opportunities for locating wind turbines in built environments are usually limited. This means that reconciliation of the wind farm to the environment should be made in the master planning and permission procedure. The proposed regulation does not facilitate reconciliation and therefore virtually rules out many intended projects.

The proposed regulation contains many specifications for noise limits applied to wind farms. The prevailing regulations do not lend themselves to the unique circumstances of wind farms and therefore the regulations contain room for deliberation from a wind farm developer's perspective. Hence, the proposal is an improvement. However, the restrictions and deficiencies represent an unjust and excessive restriction and hindrance for project development and the existing proposal is therefore unacceptable.

The proposal is the object of political dissent. Amendments are awaited before the final regulation is issued. However, the schedule and final form of such regulation remain open and should be followed by operators in the energy business. The new proposal will mostly affect projects that are not yet in the permission procedure stage.

For further information on this topic please contact Sami Kyntölä or Lauri Toivio at Sivenius Suvanto & Co Ltd by telephone (+358 9 530 6760) or email (sami.kyntola@sisulaw.fi or lauri.toivio@sisulaw.fi). The Sivenius Suvanto & Co Ltd website can be accessed at www.sisulaw.fi.

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