DEFENSE

Facing legal pressure, Pentagon shrinks backlog of challenged renewable energy projects

Clashes between military radar and renewable energy catapulted into the limelight last year when plans for a massive Oregon wind farm snagged on Pentagon objections.

Military brass eventually approved the project, but lawmakers did not forget the outrage wrought by that showdown -- or similar conflicts that preceded it. And in the fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, they did something about it.

Tucked into Section 358 is a provision that demands the Pentagon vote up or down on the more than 200 renewable energy-related projects that have run aground over Defense Department concerns about how they might impair national security. That backlog must be evaluated by early July, according to the law.

Before the legislation, the pressure was on developers to prove why a project could work without impeding Defense Department equipment, said Dave Belote, the director of the Pentagon's new energy siting clearinghouse. Now, he explained, the Defense Department must prove why a proposed wind farm or solar array would harm its work and indicate why such problems could not be overcome. The law is also designed to ensure that the department will take steps to register its concerns earlier in the siting process.

Whirring wind turbines create "clutter" that can impair an older radar's ability to identify and track aircraft. Electronic signals from solar projects and transmission lines may also impede military equipment, according to some military complaints.

Since President Obama signed the bill into law in January, Pentagon decisions on the fate of renewable energy projects must hinge on whether the proposed projects represent an "unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States."

Shifting the burden of proof

Those 10 words have to be uttered by personnel within the top ranks of DOD and be backed up with a report to Congress detailing DOD's concerns and why mitigation options would not be feasible. Holding up a renewable energy project under this new system is an "excruciating process" that requires a lot of work and coordination, said Belote.

In early May, 15 stalled projects made it through the Pentagon ether -- with DOD signing off on five wind, five solar and five transmission line projects that were held up because of Pentagon concerns, according to Defense Department officials.

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The Pentagon declined to release details about the proposals, citing business competitiveness reasons since the companies are still deciding whether or not to move forward. Two of the solar projects and one transmission proposal were in Nevada, they said. The rest are dotted across the country.

But the Pentagon still has 250-plus projects stuck in the backlog -- and 184 of them are proposed wind turbines. Some of these sidelined plans date back to 2006, said Belote.

A member survey from the American Wind Energy Association last year indicated that about 10,500 megawatts of wind power has been either delayed or abandoned due to the objections of federal agencies -- with the bulk of concerns coming from the Pentagon.

The change in process gives industry some comfort, said Tom Vinson, director of regulatory affairs at the American Wind Energy Association. "We like the idea of elevating the response in the Department of Defense to make sure the process has been clearly vetted and that due diligence has been done before DOD issues an answer," he said. In the past, he said, it was difficult to know if developers had consulted with all the appropriate personnel throughout the Defense Department.

Stopping last-minute objections

With the new process, Belote -- the former commander at Nellis Air Force Base during its own 2009 renewable energy dispute over the nearby proposed 110 MW solar project from SolarReserve -- is charged with thumbing through the renewable energy applications and making recommendations to top-level Pentagon officials about how to proceed with each one.

Before this law, military complaints often came during the final stages of planning -- usually when Federal Aviation Administration personnel first laid its eyes on plans. Then, it might issue a "notice of presumed hazard" on behalf of the Pentagon.

Now, company officials are instructed to call Belote early in the process to talk through any concerns and help streamline the process. As the director of the clearinghouse, Belote enters information about the project into a closed database that various national security officials can examine for any conflicts. He then reports back to the secretary of Defense and other decisionmakers with recommendations about if certain projects should receive a stamp of approval.

Shepherds Flat wind farm, based near Fossil, Ore., was arguably the most famous project stalled by Pentagon objections in its eleventh hour.

That venture, developed by Caithness Energy and slated to be the largest wind farm in the world, was held up by the FAA after the Pentagon indicated it had concerns about how it would affect nearby radar (E&ENews PM, April 30, 2010).

More fixes in the works

Once scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicated radar system updates could mitigate the problem, DOD approved it. The controversial 845 MW farm -- backed in part by $100 million from Google -- is now slated to be completed in 2012.

"Shepherds Flat is case in point that there are technical fixes for 80, 95 percent of these things," said Belote.

Caithness did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the project and its current status, but General Electric Co. spokeswoman Milissa Rocker, said that construction is already under way and the project is expected to meet its 2012 target. GE made the 338 turbines included in the wind farm.

Current analysis lists technological fixes that would allow renewable energy options like wind turbines to exist alongside radar -- like moving a proposed project to another location or simply ignoring the area around the turbines on the radar. Other solutions include installing more modern equipment on the radar, or placing multiple radars around the proposed site to ensure the area can still be surveyed.

To head off future construction-stopping conflicts between radar and renewable energy, another provision in the Defense Authorization Act also allows for renewable energy companies to make voluntary payments to DOD covering the cost of radar upgrades to mitigate disturbances from renewable energy neighbors. But that option, according to Vinson and Belote, has not yet received a trial run.

Like the other provisions of this law that delve into radar-renewable energy issues, Vinson said these options are still too new to judge how they will pan out. So far, however, wind energy companies are "feeling optimistic," he said.

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