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Big Wind: Threat to Air Navigation, Military Assets

By -- February 16, 2017

“By 2008, nearly 40 percent of U.S. long-range radar systems were already compromised by wind turbines. Today, with more than three-times the wind capacity installed, the problem of radar interference persists.”

“Proper siting of turbines, while politically cumbersome, is the only tried and true form of mitigation. But this means denying wind developers access to land areas covered by radar.”

[Editor Note: This essay, the third in a series aimed at correcting the most harmful wind energy-related policies of the Obama era, examines how pro-wind federal law enacted in 2011 compromised U.S. aviation safety.]

U.S. air space has been made less safe and our national security compromised because of a reckless policy of siting wind towers within 30–40 miles of radar installations. By 2008, nearly 40 percent of U.S. long-range radar systems were already compromised by wind turbines.[1] Today, with more than three-times the wind capacity installed, the problem of radar interference persists.

As wind energy installations expanded under the Obama administration, project developers complained to the White House about military base commanders who were protesting turbines sited near radar and and pointing out the potential risks to base missions and aviation safety. Base commanders filed their objections with the FAA according to the long-established objective standard centered on aviation safety concerns contained in FAA Order 7400.2G, which specifically states that “electromagnetic interference potential may create adverse effects as serious as those caused by a physical penetration of the airspace by a structure.”

DOD Clearinghouse

Washington responded to Big Wind’s complaints by establishing the Department of Defense (DOD) “Siting Clearinghouse.”[2] The Clearinghouse was advertised as a “one-stop” service for industry, to ensure project compatibility with military operations. But the true intent was very different.

With the Clearinghouse, the White House successfully removed uncooperative base commanders from the decision chain. The law also realigned the review standard from aviation safety to national security. Under the new standard, the Secretary of Defense was expressly prohibited from objecting to energy projects unless, after all other technical mitigations were adopted, a project was still shown to be “an unacceptable risk to the national security.”

No one was sure what an “unacceptable risk” meant, but as long as President Obama was in office it was likely that no project would be unacceptable.

When Pioneer Green proposed siting twenty-five 575-foot-tall turbines across the Chesapeake Bay from the important U.S. Naval Air Station Patuxent River (“Pax River”) in Maryland, there was considerable pressure on the Navy to agree to a mitigation plan that would allow the project to proceed. It took an act of Congress to press the point that the turbines might cause irreparable harm to base operations.

Following then-Governor O’Malley’s veto of a state bill to stall the project for 13-months until more studies could be completed, Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) forced the issue by adding language[3] to the 2015 Defense Appropriations bill directing the Navy “to refrain from executing any agreement with respect to the operation of the proposed wind energy project until the study is provided to the congressional defense committees” and a more detailed assessment of project impacts on base operations was finalized.

Clearinghouse Agreements That Don’t Work

Wind proponents insist the Clearinghouse review process is robust. As proof they point to a settlement agreement between Iberdrola Renewables and the Navy involving the company’s North Carolina Desert Wind facility and impacts to the Re-locatable Over-the-Horizon Radar (ROTHR). The turbines are sited just 26 miles from the ROTHR, so well within the line-of-sight. (The ROTHR is located in Virginia and provides wide area surveillance to the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) counter drug detection and monitoring mission.)

Under the agreement, the Navy would drop all objections to the project and Iberdrola could proceed with the construction of 104 turbines (model Gamesa G114 2-MW) provided the parties cooperate in performing post-construction testing to assess possible adverse impacts on the radar. Sounds reasonable, until you read the terms of the agreement and recognize that the Clearinghouse-negotiated agreement hands all control to Iberdrola.

For example, if, during testing, the turbines are found to impair ROTHR operations, Section 2.B.6 requires the Parties conference on correcting the issues–but here’s the catch. Iberdrola Renewables’ participation in the conference “shall not obligate Iberdrola Renewables or Atlantic Wind to undertake any measures that Iberdrola Renewables, in its sole discretion, deems infeasible for any reason or no reason.” Further, if the turbines “repeatedly and steadily” degrade the ROTHR operation beyond what was agreed to by the parties the ONLY obligation is that “the Parties will immediately confer with the assistance of a mutually agreeable technical expert.” (Section 2.B.7)

The agreement allows for turbine curtailment but only under emergency circumstances where the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense, or the combatant commander declare a U.S. national security threat requiring full operation of the ROTHR. Even then Iberdrola calls the shots. Section 3.B states that such curtailment “will be temporary in nature and extend only so long as is absolutely necessary” and Iberdrola is at liberty to “seek any and all legal or equitable remedies for the curtailment.”

The Clearinghouse process may be robust but don’t be fooled by the intent. The process has repeatedly worked for the wind industry at the expense of U.S. military assets. It is no wonder that the first executive director of the Clearinghouse, retired Air Force colonel, Dave Belote, left public service to join Apex Clean Energy as Vice President for Federal Business where he led the company’s efforts to promote renewable energy (wind and solar) on military bases and public lands.

Recommended Actions

Large expenditures of government time and funds have been allocated in pursuit of technical mitigations, but so far the results are controversial. Proper siting of turbines, while politically cumbersome, is the only tried and true form of mitigation. But this means denying wind developers access to land areas covered by radar.

Last fall, Senator Cornyn (R-TX) introduced a critical bill aimed at addressing this issue. S3428[4] (refiled in this Congress as S.201) would remove all eligibility for the PTC and ITC tax credits for new wind turbine projects that would be sited within a 30-mile radius of an active military airfield, a military air traffic control radar site, or a weather radar site[5].

In doing so, Senator Cornyn is acknowledging that the wind credits, which enable wind development, are working at cross-purposes with other public funds spent to build and maintain the finest, most advanced radar systems in the world. Congressman Chris Collins (R-NY) introduced a sister bill in the House, HR 6397 (now HR 649).

In the coming months, the new administration can take action that protects air navigation and U.S. military and radar assets by following these recommendations:

  • Support repeal of P.L. 111 Section 358 and abolish the DOD Clearinghouse;
  • Support S.201 in the 115th Congress (2016-2017) sponsored by Sen Cornyn (R-TX): Protection of Military Airfields from Wind Turbine Encroachment Act
  • Support HR 649 in the 115th Congress (2016-2017) sponsored by Rep Collins (R-NY): Protection of Military Airfields from Wind Turbine Encroachment Act
  • Issue an executive order that places a stay on the siting of turbines within 40 miles of military radars and other assets unless cleared by base commanders.

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[1] Long Range Radar Joint Program Office Wind Farm Brief Kenneth Kingsmore, DOD Program Manager. September 29, 2008. http://www.windaction.org/posts/32007-long-range-radar-joint-program-office-wind-farm-brief#.WETvXfkrIuU

[2] P.L. 111 Section 358 (Ike Skelton National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011)

[3] Language added to the 2015 Defense Authorization Bill: “Patuxent Naval Air Station.–The Committee is aware that the Department of the Navy commissioned the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory to conduct a study to determine the effects and a potential mitigation plan between the operation of the proposed wind energy project and the Patuxent Naval Air Station. The study is not yet completed. Therefore, the Committee directs the Navy to refrain from executing any agreement with respect to the operation of the proposed wind energy project until the study is provided to the congressional defense committees.”

[4] S.3428 – Protection of Military Airfields from Wind Turbine Encroachment Act https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/3428

[5] Wind power has been allowed to impair national weather radar used for severe weather detection and air travel. See: http://www.windaction.org/posts/43188-wind-turbines-vs-weather-radar-in-tornado-alley-nebraska-showdown#.WC8D0PkrIuU

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