Cox Newspapers June 6, 2006
Defense Department halts wind farm projects
Concerns about radar interference stops Midwest construction.
By Jeff Nesmith
WASHINGTON — The wind energy industry, in the midst of record-breaking growth, has hit a snag because of concern the giant turbines may interfere with radar facilities used by the military.
At least a dozen wind-energy operations under construction in the Midwest received letters from the Federal Aviation Administration last week, directing sponsors to stop work pending a study of the effect the 300-foot-high turbines might have on radar.
Wind turbines in operation at the end of last year were producing nearly 10,000 megawatts of electric power — enough to power 2 million homes — and the industry has said it is on track to add 3,000 megawatts this year.
Earlier this year, President Bush said he believed wind turbines would eventually provide up to 20 percent of the country's energy needs.
But the FAA letters, which are linked to a congressionally mandated Defense Department study, left 12 projects becalmed and provoked protest letters from senators representing Illinois, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
The FAA has declined to reveal which developments received the "notices of presumed hazard," but Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said in a news release that 12 wind energy developers had been told they had to "cease operations immediately" on wind farm construction.
The American Wind Energy Association said that although construction of the "vast majority" of wind farms was proceeding on schedule, "a total of at least 500 megawatts due for completion this year and next is now under a de facto moratorium."
The number could grow if the issue is not resolved quickly, the industry association said.
Spokesmen for Austin Energy and the Texas General Land Office said they were not aware of any state projects that were affected. The land office has recently leased huge swaths of coastal land for future wind farms.
The Defense Department's study of the national security implications of the burgeoning wind farm industry was mandated by a provision in a military spending bill passed by Congress this year.
The language gave the Defense Department authority to halt construction of any wind farm in the line of sight of defense or homeland security radars until the study is completed.
"There is evidently some concern that somebody in an aircraft could hide behind those turbines," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonprofit organization that analyzes a wide array of defense issues.
He noted that FAA radar does have a dual use. The military Joint Surveillance System uses the same equipment as civilian air traffic controllers to track planes.
But wind turbines "have to get FAA approval before they're built, just like microwave towers and tall buildings," Pike said. "It's hard to imagine how a big problem could arise suddenly and unexpectedly."
Appearing at an industry-sponsored conference in Pittsburgh on Monday, assistant energy secretary Alexander Karsner said the Energy Department was working to resolve the issue and suggested that the delay would be brief.
"I am confident we'll get over it and address it in a way that is safe for radar, safe for planes, safe for national defense and accelerates wind energy's growth," Karsner said. In fact, he said some of the FAA letters already had been rescinded.
Michael O'Sullivan, a vice president of FPL Energy Inc. of Juno Beach, Fla., the country's largest owner of wind energy facilities, said at the conference that his chief concern was the rising cost of turbines, largely because competition from European wind energy developers.
The cost of installing a wind farm has increased by nearly 50 percent in the past two years, O'Sullivan said.
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