Turbine bans: National security issue or smokescreen?

Source: Nick Sobczyk, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, May 2, 2018

New York could become the latest state to limit wind energy near military airfields because of the potential effects on radar and training operations. But detractors say such bans have little to do with national security.

Lawmakers are considering a bill to bar state subsidies for turbines near Fort Drum, one of the biggest employers in the northwestern part of the state. At least three other states have implemented their own bans or limits, and similar legislation has been proposed at the federal level.

But people on both sides of the issue see nefarious motives at play.

“I’d love to think that the proponents of bills like this are doing it because they think it’s important for the military, but I’ve got to believe that at least a lot of these folks are motivated by desire to not let wind energy happen,” said John Rogers, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The Department of Defense already has a clearinghouse that determines whether tall energy projects — like wind turbines and transmission lines — will hinder its operations, making bills like the one in New York redundant, critics say. Meanwhile, supporters say a vocal wind industry has too much influence over DOD’s siting decisions.

John Droz, a prominent anti-wind activist, has spoken out for a moratorium on wind farms near Fort Drum, as well as a 2017 law in North Carolina that temporarily bars wind development while the state studies its effect on military radar.

Droz has done work on the issue for the MasterResource blog at the Institute for Energy Research, a group linked to oil and gas interests and the billionaire Koch brothers. Last year, he penned an op-ed in a local paper near Fort Drum, the Watertown Daily Times, rebuking New York’s Clean Energy Standard and calling for legislation to protect Fort Drum from wind development.

Environmentalists and other critics see that kind of advocacy as evidence that the fossil fuel industry is using the military as an excuse to push an anti-wind agenda.

But Lisa Linowes — executive director of Wind Action, an anti-wind group — said the wind industry has unseen motives, too. The DOD Siting Clearinghouse is essentially a rubber stamp, she said, and the wind industry wants to keep it that way.

And local base commanders concerned about radar spotting from wind turbines generally aren’t cleared by the military to speak out publicly, said Linowes, who has also written on the topic for the MasterResource blog.

“The best people to bring the message would be the military, but they are the least free to speak,” she said. “And that’s married against the wind industry that is as vocal and as open and as aggressive as you can imagine.”

The wind ‘traffic cop’

At the crux of the debate is the clearinghouse, which was established by the fiscal 2011 defense authorization bill.

Everyone more or less agrees that DOD needs some mechanism to vet projects that could have an impact on radar. And both sides agree that an update to the clearinghouse law in the fiscal 2018 defense bill made the process more effective, giving base commanders and state and local governments more say in project siting.

That’s where agreement ends.

Former DOD officials say it’s a robust review that gives the Pentagon wide-ranging authority over what kind of projects get built near its bases.

Once a developer brings a project to its attention, the clearinghouse generally takes 30 to 40 days to informally review it and determine whether it will have an impact on military operations, said Dave Belote, former executive director of the clearinghouse.

If there is a potential problem, the clearinghouse begins a back-and-forth with the developer to see whether there is a way to mitigate it. The clearinghouse and the service branches also have votes in the Federal Aviation Administration’s process for permitting structures over 200 feet tall.

“The clearinghouse is acting as kind of a traffic cop, making sure everybody has the right information and making sure the services have solid analyses behind what they’re doing,” said Belote, now CEO of DARE Strategies LLC, a renewable energy consulting group.

But Linowes takes issue with the exchange between industry and the higher-ups in the bureaucracy at DOD. At least before the update to the law this year, she said, the clearinghouse would have to bend over backward to mitigate potential effects on radar rather than reject projects outright.

“The bar is so high that essentially no project is stopped,” Linowes said.

That didn’t sit well with locals and officials in places like Texas’ Fort Hood, where Linowes said base leadership was not contacted about a nearby wind project that was approved last year.

The debate over wind near Fort Hood eventually prompted the state Legislature to pass a law that limits tax incentives for wind projects near military installations.

Belote acknowledged that the clearinghouse rarely rejects projects, and even when it does, it doesn’t have much authority to shut down a project on private land.

But he said that’s because projects don’t move forward if the clearinghouse identifies an issue, even if they haven’t been formally rejected. Most developers will walk rather than get involved in a protracted battle with DOD, Belote said.

“Every single time, the developer either walked away from the project or made the changes that DOD asked for,” Belote said.

From a developer’s perspective, it wouldn’t make financial sense to move forward with a project if it were subject to the labyrinth of the DOD bureaucracy, said Tom Vinson, vice president of federal regulatory affairs at the American Wind Energy Association.

“Many projects don’t wait for a formal rejection from DOD, because if you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a site, you’ll stop development if you think DOD has some concerns,” Vinson said.

N.Y. bill

The New York bill comes out of that debate over the clearinghouse, but it’s also steeped in local politics.

The measure would temporarily bar state funding for wind projects within the “Fort Drum radar zone,” defined by a series of exclusion circles ranging between 5 and 15 miles around various radar arrays and airfields on the installation.

Assemblywoman Addie Jenne, the bill’s sponsor, is a Democrat who represents a windy district in a state that has aggressively promoted renewable energy over the past decade.

But she’s also up for re-election in a conservative area of western New York, with a constituency that’s sometimes critical of the renewable energy mandates that come from downstate.

The U.S. House member for the area, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, last year penned a letter to the Army chief of staff expressing concern that DOD is “not appropriately considering the cumulative impact of industrial wind development projects on Fort Drum.” Jenne introduced her bill a few months later.

Opponents have cited between eight and 12 proposals that potentially threaten Fort Drum’s radar. The military has already cleared one and is in conversations with developers on a handful of others, said Anne Reynolds, executive director of the Alliance for Clean Energy New York, a wind industry group.

The fear is that more turbines could hinder training and operations for units like the 10th Mountain Division, one of the Army’s premier mountain and arctic units. If wind gets in the way, the Army could abandon plans to expand drone operations at the base or move some of its existing activities elsewhere.

“Fort Drum is already feeling the impact of the existing industrial wind turbines, and if the proposed projects are approved, Fort Drum’s mission readiness will be further diminished,” the Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization, which has lobbied hard against new wind development, said in a recent press release.

The Army, meanwhile, isn’t taking sides publicly. Asked about Jenne’s bill and the proposed projects near the base, Fort Drum spokeswoman Julie Halpin said the Army wants to make sure any effects on training or radar are mitigated before moving forward with a project.

“Fort Drum is dedicated to peacefully coexisting with wind turbine development, as we know the importance of renewable energy and that an economically sound North Country is good for all of us,” she wrote in an email. “That being said, given the possible effects on our training capabilities some wind turbine development could impose, we are very interested in working with municipalities and developers in the tri-county area during their planning process to ensure that any impacts are mitigated to the highest extent possible.”

Reynolds said her group has been at the state Capitol the last few weeks lobbying lawmakers against Jenne’s bill and trying to educate them on what she says is already an adequate DOD process.

The bill was voted favorably out of committee, though it isn’t on the full Assembly’s calendar yet. But Reynolds said leadership often allows local bills to come to the floor.

“I’d say that if the issue is really potential interference with military operations, then we should let the military’s process for assessing that play out,” Reynolds said. “The only motivation to pass a blanket restriction not based on that analysis would be that you’re opposed to the project whether it has an impact on the military or not.”

But Jenne says she is simply trying to protect the most important economic engine in her district. She told local station WWNY-TV last year that she supports the state’s broader renewable energy goals, as well as farmers and landowners who want to bring in extra income by allowing wind development on their land.

“That is why I have supported efforts to compensate landowners that agree not to develop their land in ways that jeopardize training activities at Fort Drum,” she said. “I am also working to secure funding specifically for landowners who will be negatively impacted by legislation that would exclude parts of the region from state wind subsidies.”

‘A whole lot of facets’

Environmentalists see high stakes in the New York bill, which they say could establish a precedent for other states.

New York has set an ambitious goal of getting half its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and Jenne’s bill potentially jeopardizes hundreds of megawatts of power in the windiest region of the state.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has been campaigning against it, including in a letter to the Assembly’s leadership in March, which was signed by Belote.

The bill, Belote said in an interview, “arbitrarily draws a line in the ground that has no meaning in science. It just makes people feel good.”

But Belote and other opponents of the New York bill acknowledge that the approval process could be improved. The biggest problem is communication among developers, the clearinghouse and leadership at bases that sometimes breaks down or doesn’t happen in the first place.

“Even the clearinghouse staff itself would say they haven’t done a good enough job communicating,” said Vinson of AWEA.

The clearinghouse update in last year’s defense bill — pushed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) — could straighten those lines of communication. Cruz and fellow Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn proposed legislation last year to make wind projects near airfields ineligible for federal tax credits, but that bill appears unlikely to go anywhere with the new clearinghouse procedure in place.

As a better model of how states might address the military’s concerns, Belote pointed to Oklahoma, where the Legislature passed a bill to require new projects to be approved by the clearinghouse and FAA.

In that case, legislators crafted a compromise after Air Force officials expressed concerns about wind encroachment on their flight training paths. The measure became law with the governor’s signature last month.

But Linowes countered that the Oklahoma measure simply repeats the federal statute. “It has no teeth whatsoever,” she said.

For now, both sides are playing a waiting game at the federal level.

The new clearinghouse process is still untested, and it remains to be seen whether it will remedy concerns of local base commanders.

But states will likely continue what has turned out to be a complicated fight.

“It’s right to think about military preparedness. It’s right to make sure we don’t make it harder for our military to do what we need them to do,” said Rogers of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “But that has a whole lot of facets.”