Peter Kelly-Detwiler: 617.875.6575 | Leighton Wolffe: 781.547.1193 pkd@northbridgeep.com, leighton@northbridgeep.com

Wind Power: A Growing Resource That Is Getting Cheaper

Wind energy in America is booming. However, this growth is at risk from potential legislation to protect military bases with rules the military doesn’t need or even want.

The recently released numbers for 2016 show that 82,000 megawatts (MW) of wind have now been installed in the U.S. That’s equal to approximately 5.5% of the country’s electricity consumption and enough to supply 24 million homes. In some states – such as Iowa and Kansas – over 30% of the electrons supplied now come from wind.

And the wind resource is still barely tapped. Some projections have it supplying as much as 20% of the nation’s energy by 2030, particularly as more powerful turbines access stronger, steadier winds and become more efficient, producing electricity at increasingly lower costs.

In fact, the CEO of NextEra Energy recently projected on an analysts’ call that a step function in the size of wind towers and blades will help push the price of wind down to between 2.0 and 3.0 cents per kilowatthour by 2020, without subsidies. This compares with the estimated cost of generating power from a new advanced combined cycle gas-fired power plant at 5.6 cents. In other words, wind may come in at half the price.

Cheaper power is good for most everybody in the country – it makes our economy more competitive, our exports cheaper, and frees up capital for other uses. And as NextEra points out, it’s made in America: there are over 500 U.S. wind-related factories supporting good jobs. Meanwhile, wind is quite often located out in rural areas, where it provides an important economic stimulus, creating more employment, boosting local tax revenues, and paying royalties to landowners.

Wind Under Threat of New Legislation Related to Military Bases

Despite these undeniable advantages, the future of U.S. wind energy in the United States has recently been threatened by proposed legislation – at both the state and national level – to limit the amount of wind turbines that could be installed near U.S. military bases.

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Perhaps the most interesting kerfuffle in this area has been Avangrid’s (formerly Iberdrola) large wind farm in North Carolina, built to serve Amazon. This installation fall within 28 miles of a U.S. radar installation (the Relocatable Over-the-Horizon Radar – ROTHR) which monitors an area exceeding two million square miles, including the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.

One of two such radar sites in the country, the relationship between the wind farm and ROTHR has recently been the topic of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal as well as a post by a fellow contributor in Forbes. Each of these pieces generally support the view of nine North Carolina lawmakers who want the Trump Administration to shut down this $400 million wind farm, based on national security concerns. This, despite the Navy’s approval of the project in 2014, and a reiteration by the Pentagon last month that it had no problem with the wind facility as ultimately configured, after the project was reduced, the turbines were re-positioned, and extensive studies were conducted with the military in order to avoid conflict with the radar’s functioning. In fact, a Navy spokesperson specifically stated,

“While initial studies indicated a potential conflict between the Amazon wind project and the ROTHR, additional data collected since that time determined that the project is not likely to affect the mission…”

The fate of one wind farm is important, but not in itself critical to the industry’s future. Of much greater concern is the recent spate of one-size-fits-all legislative efforts emanating from states such as New York, North Carolina, and Texas aimed at a much broader prohibition of wind farm construction. These all involve redlining a broad zone around military bases to prohibit future wind construction.

In New York, for example, Republican Congressman Chris Collins introduced legislation in November, the Protection of Military Airfields from Wind Turbine Encroachment Act to “ensure that any new wind turbines located within a 40-mile radius of a military installation will be deemed ineligible for renewable energy tax credits.”  It died in the last Congress but was reintroduced last month with a 50-mile exclusion zone. A companion bill with a 30-mile radius around military airfields was introduced in the United States Senate by Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn.

In Texas itself, which is by far the country’s wind energy leader, with about a quarter the country’s total installed capacity, members of the Texas Legislature recently introduced a bill that would prohibit property hosting wind-powered devices within 30 miles of a military base from qualifying for any tax abatements under Chapter 312 of the Texas Tax Code. A similar bill was introduced into the Texas Senate. This comes despite the fact that Texas leads the nation in wind-related employment, at over 25,000 jobs.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, a recently filed bill would prohibit wind farm construction near military installations in that state. It’s hard not to see a red herring here, as this one-size fits all proposal in no way reflects the highly varied function of our numerous military airfields, the characteristics of the proposed wind facilities, or indeed the robust existing process to deal explicitly with these issues.

Don’t Forget Economic Development

It should be noted that while the legislators opposing wind are generally Republicans, this is not entirely a Red State-Blue State issue, especially when it comes to economic development. In fact, almost 90% of the wind capacity last year was added in states that voted Republican.

North Carolina State Rep. Bob Steinburg (R) is one politician who thinks the North Carolina legislative effort is based on false premises. He noted recently that the U.S Department of Defense (DoD) already has a system in place to evaluate projects and ensure military base air space is not compromised. Steinburg was quoted as saying he’s not ‘pro wind’ per se, but renewables are an economic development issue.

“I support economic development, that’s what I support…I’m the last guy you’d see hugging a tree. I’m a fossil fuel guy, but I’m also a realist. We shouldn’t be fighting alternative energy. We should be finding a way to incorporate alternative energy in our current energy matrix. We’ve got to find a way to co-existing, that’s my goal.”

In a January open letter, Steinburg noted the Avangrid wind installation will be the largest taxpayer in two counties – paying over $500,000 annually – while local landowners (mostly farmers) will receive $624,000 per year. At its peak, the project’s construction also created over 500 jobs with over 30 local companies involved, pumping over $1 million monthly into the local economy. Steinburg commented further,

“And now 17 full time, highly paid positions, which can’t be offshored, have been created to maintain the site, led by a North Carolina native and U.S. Army veteran.”

A Robust Military Review System Already Exists

Steinburg is correct: the military already has a thorough and extreme vetting process for any type of facility to be located near military bases, including wind installations.

As noted in the annual 2015 Department of Defense report on this process, the DoD “reviews each application and works with applicants to overcome mission compatibility challenges, such as the impact of wind turbine projects on military radar systems.” If a project is felt to have a potentially adverse impact, a Mitigation Response Team (MRT) is created to identify ‘reasonable and affordable mitigation options’ where they exist, and enter into binding agreements with developers. In a very small number of limited instances, these obstacles are deemed insuperable and the project is not allowed to proceed.

In fact, several cases demonstrate aptly that this process functions and has teeth. For example, in one instance, the Deputy Secretary determined that a proposed Somerset Maryland wind facility posed ‘unacceptable risk to national security of the United States…based upon potential impacts to a unique military radar at the Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland.’ The project was subsequently scrapped.

Another example of a successful MRT review process occurred in Oregon where a developer relocated all proposed turbines outside the boundaries of key military training routes. And in North Carolina, an applicant agreed to limit construction of turbines in a military training route utilized for low-altitude training activities.

The process clearly works. There has never been a wind farm built that the DoD has objected to. However, the key part of a recent DoD evaluation highlights why the various proposed legislative actions are so entirely misguided, when it states:

“Due to the wide variety of missions and the variability of impacts on different types of obstructions, it is not possible to apply a “one-size-fits-all” standoff distance between DoD military readiness activities and development projects. (author’s emphasis).”

Creating a one-size-fits-all legislative approach is therefore entirely unnecessary. Further, it will deny economic opportunity to landowners and municipalities – mostly in ‘Red States’ – that have the misfortune to fall within the randomly drawn 30- or 50-mile radius of a military base.

Some Air Force Bases Have Actually Deployed Wind Facilities On-Site

It is also worth considering the fact that some military facilities specifically involving aircraft and radar have actually sited wind turbines on the military bases themselves.

In fact, Joint Base Cape Cod (JBCC) installed three 1.5 MW and two 1.68 MW wind turbines, with the first turbine going back to 2009. During the planing of the first turbine, JBCC had an F-15 flying mission. Following the BRAC military base consolidation exercise, the F-15 mission was moved to another base, but JBCC continued to support the U.S. Coast Guard’s search and rescue mission, the Massachusetts Army National Guard’s helicopter training mission, and Air Force Space Command’s radar mission.

In a conversation this week, Rose Forbes, the Air Force Remediation Program Manager at the base responsible for three of the five turbines, commented that she first got the idea for putting turbines on the base from her colleagues at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne Wyoming, where the first wind turbine was installed in 2005, and three machines now churn out 3.3 MW of power.

 Forbes observed that not only are there five turbines on the Cape Cod base, but that numerous other turbines exist outside the base within a perimeter of five to 10 miles, and cause no difficulties for the missions.
Image: EPA - Air Force personnel doing some hands-on work

Image: EPA – Air Force personnel doing some hands-on work

Forbes indicated that during the wind development process for the JBCC turbines – whose total height, including the blades, reach almost 400 feet from tip to ground – she approached all of the branches for comments and input.

None of the agencies expressed any particular concerns with the first wind turbine. When we went to put up two more turbines, the Coast Guard didn’t want more in the southwest corner of the base where the first turbine was installed, so we installed them behind the radar facility in a no fly zone.  We received approval from all the different agencies for the location behind the radar facility. Following installation of those two turbines, the Air Force Space Command installed two more turbines in the same area behind the radar facility.

As far as issues with radar interference on the Cape Cod Base, Forbes reiterated that it was the radar facility itself that put in the last two turbines. And as far as air safety, Forbes stated, “None of the pilots that I spoke with expressed any concerns with crashing into turbines.”

Forbes commented that the turbines have proved to be a good investment for the American taxpayer, with an estimated 10-year payback (this would be a lot shorter with today’s far lower costs of wind machines) with the optimally located turbines yielding up to $700,000 per year. “Its definitely worth doing. Our three wind turbines offset 100% of the energy used by our remediation systems.”

As the U.S. Air Force itself noted in a 2014 publication proclaiming the advantages of the radar wind project, wind turbines are,

“partially powering one of the largest ground-based missile warning radars in the United States…The radar operates around the clock and has a 3,000-mile reach down the east coast and over the Atlantic Ocean. Although its main purpose is to detect submarine-launched ballistic missiles, PAVE PAWS (Phased Array Warning System) also tracks satellites in low-Earth orbit.”

The Air Force publication indicated that the two wind turbines dedicated to PAVE PAWS help offset a $1.6 million annual electric bill, with most of that dedicated to the radar itself.

The Logic For The Legislation Simply Does Not Make Sense

So here is a brief summary of the main facts of the matter (leaving aside the economic development argument and simply sticking to the security-related issues):

  • some legislators – both at the state and national level – are arguing for a simplistic, one-size-fits-all, red-line approach to prohibit wind turbines within a 30-50 mile radius of air bases;
  • the DOD already has a well-vetted, robust, and frequently deployed process to review new wind projects; and,
  • existing Air Force bases, including a critical radar facility, have expressly built wind turbines next to radars and flight training bases in order to support the bases and mitigate their energy costs.

The reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions…