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Row over wind farms' impact on NY air base reflects national clash

SNL Image

The Noble Ellenburg Windpark in upstate Ellenburg, N.Y.

Source: AP Photo / Mel Evans

More than 1,000 MW of proposed wind capacity in upstate New York could be at risk following Gov. Andrew Cuomo's recent announcement that the state will investigate whether turbines disrupt the radar and flights of a U.S. military airbase. But wind advocates and developers are insisting that a federal review process already in place works just fine.

Amid growing local opposition to regional wind projects, Cuomo, a Democrat, told the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times on Oct. 4 that his administration will launch a "full review" of the potential for wind turbines to interfere with the radar and airspace of the U.S. Army airbase outside Watertown in Jefferson County.

"No decision has been made," Cuomo said. "Obviously, the opinion of Fort Drum and people of Watertown matter most. So we want to hear your opinion but I see the potential danger and it's something that I take very seriously."

However, Cuomo was adamant about keeping the issue of possible wind turbine interference with Fort Drum — the second-largest military installation in the country and the largest single-site employer in New York — separate from his mandate to procure 50% of the state's electricity from renewables by 2030.

Cuomo's comments follow votes by the Watertown City Council and the Jefferson County Board of Legislators to oppose the construction of any new wind projects near Fort Drum. The Fort Drum Regional Liaison Organization also announced its opposition to eight new wind projects currently being considered by the New York Public Service Commission and by the Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment, which gives local municipalities a greater say in the siting of projects.

"Massive dead spots on radar"

The Fort Drum liaison group said that more than 1,000 MW worth of proposed wind farms in the counties of Jefferson, Lewis, Oswego and St. Lawrence would create "massive dead spots on radar used by air traffic controllers and commanders tasked with training soldiers." The projects' nearly 600-foot wind turbines, which number almost 400, would surround Fort Drum on all sides and lie within the base's main flight paths, the group said.

Avangrid Renewables LLC subsidiary Atlantic Wind LLC is seeking to build more than 800 MW of that proposed capacity with the 350-MW Mad River Wind Farm Project, the currently-postponed 205-MW Horse Creek Wind Farm and smaller projects at Deer River, North Ridge and Roaring Brook Wind Farm. The remaining projects at issue are Apex Clean Energy's Galloo Island Wind Project (Hudson), Invenergy LLC's Number Three Wind Farm and EDF Group's Copenhagen Wind Farm.

The liaison group said smaller, 397-foot turbines at two wind farms in Ontario, Canada, and in Lewis County already cause problems for the base's radar and flight operations.

Echoing new laws in North Carolina and Texas that were spurred by fears of turbines interfering with the mission readiness of military facilities, U.S. Congressman Chris Collins, R-N.Y., introduced a bill in January that would make new wind turbines built within a 40-mile radius of a military base ineligible for renewable energy tax credits. Collins represents Niagara County, home to both the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station and Apex's planned 201-MW Lighthouse Wind Project, which has faced considerable local opposition.

Robert Bryce, a vocal critic of renewables and senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, explained in an editorial for the Albany, N.Y., Times Union that the vast amount of land needed for wind energy increasingly is putting the lynchpin of Cuomo's renewable mandate at odds with local communities. Bryce related that the mandate requires an estimated 3,500-MW of wind capacity to be built across 450 square miles by 2030, but the PSC Chairman John Rhodes recently said the state will not force wind projects onto any community.

"If wind projects can't be built near Fort Drum and the state won't force Lighthouse Wind on rural counties and towns, where will the needed wind capacity be built?" Bryce pondered.

Looking further at the bigger picture, the American Wind Energy Association found that 35% of existing wind projects across the country would fall within the radius of any proposed 50-mile buffer zone around military bases. Such a "standoff" zone would stop $51 billion in private capital investments, along with $9.25 billion in additional investments for projects already under construction, the analysis said. However, the U.S. Department of Defense told Congress in 2015 that "generic standoff distances are not useful" given that missions and interference vary by location and wind project, AWEA noted.

"These [tax credit and standoff zone] obstructionist proposals will succeed in wasting people's time and jeopardizing vast sums of investment capital, but they won't improve military readiness," Julie McNamara, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an online post. "Worse, they directly undermine the military's stated mission of decreased energy dependence, including through increased renewable energy development."

Avangrid: The existing process already works

"There is already a detailed and technical process in place to work in partnership with the Department of Defense and individual installations ... to study and understand what risks there might be, to work together [and] to possibly mitigate those risks," Avangrid Renewables spokesman Paul Copleman said in an interview, referring to the DOD's Siting Clearinghouse that has been tasked since 2010 with reviewing the permitting of any energy project slated to be located near military facilities.

As for his firm's eight wind projects and their potential interference with Fort Drum, Copleman said, "we're early enough in the process where we are still trying to understand what those impacts might be. But ultimately, wind farms can coexist with military installations and bases."

The Siting Clearinghouse can deny any project it finds would pose an unacceptable risk to national security. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the DOD's siting body to-date has cleared 2,332 out of 2,594 energy-related projects, including 22 wind projects. If a project initially suggests a potential impact to military readiness, a mitigation stakeholder group is formed. Such groups in the past have decreased the number of turbines or adjusted their sitings, required that developers pay for additional hardware or software for radar systems, and struck agreements with plant operators to curtail or temporarily halt turbines during emergencies.

However, Copleman said every wind project in the U.S. ultimately must get the DOD's blessing, regardless of its proximity to a military facility, by receiving approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, which incorporates the DOD's consideration of a project into every siting decision.

Avangrid Renewables is a subsidiary of Avangrid Inc., which is majority-owned by Iberdrola SA.