USA Today, June 8, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: In some sense, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has taken a precautionary stance toward wind turbines that may interfere with aviation radar. Precaution helps you protect the things you care about, and if protecting aviation radar is your goal, precaution can help you achieve it. Of course fully precautionary action would start with a public process for deciding goals and examining all reasonable alternatives for achieving them, so the DoD stance on wind turbines is not precautionary in the classic meaning of the term.]

By Alan Levin, USA TODAY

Worries that giant electricity-producing windmills may interfere with aviation radar have thrown several major wind-power projects into disarray and threaten to derail a rapidly growing source of domestic energy, industry advocates say.

In recent months, the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration have blocked or slowed several projects in Wisconsin, Illinois and South Dakota. Their concern is that the windmill blades could confuse a radar or obscure its view of aircraft.

Congress passed a law in January requiring the Defense Department to study whether windmills interfere with radar. The military opposes any windmill project in the path of long-range air defense radars until that study is completed.

Laurie Jodziewicz, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), says up to 15 projects are on hold after the FAA notified the industry group this year that they would create a "presumed hazard."

That designation makes it difficult to obtain financing and insurance for the projects, she says.

"It's very uncertain and very unclear why these things are happening now when it never happened before," Jodziewicz says.

"It's just another example of the situation where in the United States the renewable energy industry is always swimming upstream," says Michael Vickerman, executive director of RENEW Wisconsin, an advocacy group. "There are all these unforeseen obstacles that come along and slow things down."

The FAA and the military say they are not trying to halt construction of windmill projects but must ensure that the generator farms don't compromise aviation safety or national defense.

The main impetus for putting the projects on hold has come from the military. FAA radars can easily distinguish aircraft from obstructions such as windmills, but defense radars designed to spot airborne intruders are more sensitive to interference.

"Until the potential effects can be quantified and possible mitigation techniques developed, it is prudent to temporarily postpone wind turbine construction in areas where the ability of these long-range radars that protect our country might be compromised," Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez says.

Wind power generates slightly less than 1% of electricity in this country, but its share is growing rapidly, the AWEA says. Last year, wind was the nation's second-largest source of new power generation, after natural gas.

Lainez and FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown say their agencies are working with wind farm developers to smooth the application process. Brown cites the approval May 25 of a large project in Bloomington, Ill., that had been blocked.

Brown says the FAA has struggled to keep up with the influx of wind farm applicants. The aviation agency, which must rule on each windmill, received 4,343 applications last year, more than double the 1,982 it reviewed in 2004, Brown says. The agency expects as many as 10,000 this year.

The latest wind turbines stand several hundred feet high. Individual blades are more than 100 feet long. In some cases, the windmills could appear to be aircraft on radar screens or could create images that make it harder to spot planes.

Methods to minimize interference are available. Moving a proposed windmill, using computers to create smarter radars that ignore windmills, and using "stealth" technology to make windmills invisible to radar could solve the problem, Vickerman says.

The controversy over windmills in the upper Midwest follows a fight over a huge proposed project off Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Worried about possible radar problems at that project, Sen. John Warner, R- Va., inserted language into this year's Defense Authorization Act that required the study.

Warner didn't intend to block projects before the study was completed, says John Ullyot, a spokesman for the senator.