Wind turbines causing concerns at Naval Air Station Fort Worth

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramJune 11, 2012 

— Capt. Robert Bennett is worried about a problem he doesn't have.

Bennett's concern is the construction of a 250-foot-tall wind turbine near Naval Air Station Fort Worth without his input. Wind turbines and their massive spinning blades can play havoc with the radar that military air traffic controllers use to guide aircraft in and out of the base.

For now, it's only a potential problem for Bennett, the base commander.

No turbines big enough to create a headache have been built in the area, which is not the case for other commanders in West and South Texas, two of the best places in the nation to generate electricity from Mother Nature.

Proposed wind developments in California are similarly causing heartburn for the Defense Department.

"The Navy fully embraces green energy," Bennett said. "But it needs to be compatible development so that we can maintain our training capabilities. That's where the discussion has to start."

Texas is the nation's leader in wind generation, with thousands of turbines generating close to 31 million megawatt-hours of energy, 7 percent of the state's overall production. The Defense Department also enthusiastically backs alternative energy and is seeking ways to cut costs for electricity and foreign oil.

But inevitably, complications arise, and giant wind turbines can affect the military in practical ways.

Radar basically works when an antenna focuses radio waves into the air. Some of that energy returns to the antenna, where it is read by a receiver as an object moving through the air. Thus, an air traffic controller can "see" the airplanes.

Nonmoving objects, no matter how tall, are ignored by the radar.

When those energy particles hit 100-foot blades swooshing through the air, it fragments the radio waves and sends them in multiple directions and disrupts the information sent back to the receiver. Air traffic controllers sometimes see an "aircraft" that does not exist, or they might not see an aircraft that does exist.

Outside of how defense budget cuts will affect their personnel and training, no issue seems to be of greater concern to Texas base commanders than wind turbines.

The Texas Commanders Council, founded by Bennett in the fall, has met with the Texas Military Preparedness Commission in Austin, conferred with civilian aviation authorities and spoken to senior state legislators about how they can have input before a project begins.

One proposal is to try once again to pass state legislation that would give military commanders more notice of projects.

"I have never heard an installation commander say anything negative about wind turbine development," said Paul Paine, a former commander of the naval air station and the chairman of the preparedness commission, which advises Gov. Rick Perry on defense issues.

"They just want a voice in coming up with a solution that works for everybody, so the developer gets a great green-energy project and the commander doesn't have any degradation of his training capabilities."

The industry's view

Eric Bearse, a consultant with the nonprofit Wind Coalition in Austin, which represents the industry point of view, said that the current process of military notification works and that industry leaders remain wary of dealing with state authorities in addition to federal agencies.

"I want to emphasize that under the current process, the wind companies work with the FAA, which then reaches out to the military to notify them and determine if there are any issues that arise," Bearse said.

"The industry is willing to spend ample time addressing the concerns that military base commanders may have. At the same time, we follow the procedures outlined by federal aviation officials to make sure any and all safety concerns are addressed."

Three times in the last 18 months or so, developers filed applications to build single commercial-size wind turbines within a few miles of the naval air station. All three were ultimately withdrawn after Bennett talked to the developer about his concerns.

The city likely would not have approved the two applications for projects in Fort Worth, said Randle Harwood, city planning and development director. Anyone building a wind turbine taller than 35 feet would need a variance, he said.

"As staff, we would be very hesitant to support a variance request ... for a wind turbine that large," Harwood said.

Bennett and other military commanders aren't looking to kill projects, they said. They can't do that anyway. He isn't even allowed to have an opinion about the merits of a project. Only higher-ups in the Defense Department can offer an opinion.

But he would prefer to have a voice in the process sooner than he does now.

"In unincorporated land, we don't have that review process like we would in a city," he said. "How do I find out about the project? What conversation do I get to have with the developer before money is sunk into a project?"

Paine said the Texas Military Preparedness Commission has "zero interest in trying to pursue the establishment of zoning for counties."

"What we are looking into is trying to establish some rules so that installations are notified about development that could cause them safety problems," he said.

"It's not about denying developers the right to build power generators or trampling on private land rights. This has to do with safety, about putting people's lives in jeopardy."

Ahead of the issue

The military is in front of the issue in North Texas, said Bill Welstead, acting aviation director for Fort Worth. He said Bennett has recently met with civilian aviation authorities about whether any degradation in radar would affect operations at Alliance Airport, Meacham Airport or Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

"A consortium seems to be developing to stay ahead of this issue," Welstead said.

"There's a lot of interest there. The military is taking the lead, but in time, I think we'll find that we will come together."

Wind turbines are a significant concern in South Texas, where hundreds dot the landscape and more are planned near Naval Air Station Kingsville, a major tactical jet training base for Navy and Marine pilots.

New proposals from three energy developers call for turbines even closer to the base, including some 10 miles immediately south of the runways and even closer to the east.

"I've tried to predict how bad it could get and not compromise our mission," said Capt. Mark McLaughlin, the base commander. "That is the million-dollar question. I've got a mission, and that is to provide the environment where the Navy can train the jet pilots who end up on our aircraft carriers. We have a quota to meet. We can't have something that will disrupt the pipeline to provide pilots for the fleet."

McLaughlin said he has programmed his radar to "ignore" information from near turbines, which is not an ideal solution.

His controllers handle not only military aircraft but also civilian aircraft in a large swath of South Texas airspace, he said. He tries to find other solutions by working with the project developers, whom he described as "nice people."

The problem, he said, is that he often has to play detective to learn about projects.

"We've never had a wind farm developer knock on our door first," he said. "We've always had to find it out on our own."

The legislative view

State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, is chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee and a member of the Business and Commerce Committee, and has pushed to diversify the state's energy portfolio.

She said the state must "strike a good balance" on the interests of the wind industry and the military.

"This is not an either-or situation," Van de Putte said. "There are many instances around the country where wind turbine developers have been able to mitigate some of the effects on radar, but that notification piece is a critical component."

Legislation in 2011 would have required developers to give several months' notice of an upcoming project to the state Public Utility Commission, which would notify commanders. But it failed to clear both houses of the Legislature. The bill could be revived in 2013, Van de Putte said.

Bearse, of the Wind Coalition, said his organization would wait to see specific legislation before declaring support or opposition. But he said the industry prefers to deal with the federal government on the issue, not a state agency.

"Our position is we want to work with our federal partners, who have the expertise when it comes to regulating the airspace," he said.

Absent a rule change from the FAA or congressional involvement, Van de Putte said, the state must step in and make sure it protects its installations' interests.

"The Wind Coalition in Texas is afraid that the notification is just the first step toward a permitting process," she said. "We know a permitting process would add time and money to a project, and that's not what we're talking here. We're talking about notification.

"I just don't think that these two missions -- maintaining a strong defense and alternative-energy development -- are mutually exclusive. It just will take a thoughtful, focused strategy and a lot of disclosure."

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