Valorous Congressmen, Tilting at Windmills

, Energy analyst | April 24, 2017, 12:05 pm EDT
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Tilting at windmills. Illustration by Charles A. Doyle.

Over the past few years, under the banner of preserving military readiness and strengthening homeland defense, legislators at the state and federal level have pushed bills aiming to ban wind turbines from vast buffer zones around military installations. Given that wind turbines and radar can interact, you might just think it appropriate to be grateful for their foresight.

The trouble is, before anyone earns a final spot in the pantheon of patriots, a pesky little thing called facts can trip up even the best of heroic narrative arcs. And these legislative Quixotes? They’re trying to “save” us from an issue the military has already solved. In the process, they’re threatening to cause actual harm to our nation’s military standing.

So here, a quick fact-check about wind and radar, including clear and strong assurances that yes, we have a process in place that works, and no, the proposed remedies don’t help military readiness—they hurt it.

Back story: Wind! Where’d that come from?

Wind power has been on a total tear these last few years. We admittedly talk about this transition a lot, but it bears repeating because it’s: 1) still just incredible, and 2) how this story begins. To wit:

Installed wind power has sky-rocketed in the past decade. Over the past five years alone, wind has represented nearly a third of all new installed generating capacity. Credit: AWEA 2016 Market Report, U.S. Capacity and Generation Summary.

When any new technology bursts on the scene, it can take some time for our institutions to catch up. Just so for wind and military siting protocols.

In the early to mid aughts, the military reviewed wind farms as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) review process of projects over 200 feet in height. There was a steep learning curve, and as more and more projects were proposed, the uncoordinated case-by-case review process became increasingly unwieldy. This led to long lag times, late-stage decisions, and a general sense of uncertainty about procedures and outcomes.

Parties on all sides grew frustrated.

How to fix a problem? With a solution.

In response, the Secretary of Defense established the Department of Defense (DoD) Siting Clearinghouse in 2010 to create a “timely, transparent, and repeatable process” of project review. Congress followed shortly thereafter with legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY2011 (Sec. 358) that formalized the roles and responsibilities of the Clearinghouse, including—critically—shifting the burden of proof from developers to the military.

Specifically, the new law required that the military issue a “determination of unacceptable risk” (i.e., reject a permit) only after showing that a proposed project—including with the addition of any possible mitigation measures—would result in an “unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States.”

With the push to coordinated review, and the shift in emphasis toward developing solutions that allowed for the dual achievement of military and national energy priorities, resolutions quickly sprang forth. These have included turbine siting and design modifications, as well as radar hardware and software upgrades or adjustments.

Status check: Green on go

How has the system fared? Remarkably well. A quick cruise through a report to Congress on 2014 Clearinghouse activities provides an illustrative example.

In 2014, the military formally reviewed 2,594 energy-related projects, and cleared 2,332 (the report notes that a staffing hang-up caused a temporary lag in processing, but that by January of the next year the backlog had been reduced).

Of these, 22 percent were wind projects.

Under the provisions of the Mission Compatibility Evaluation Process, if an initial screen suggests that a project poses a potentially adverse impact to military readiness, a Mitigation Response Team (MRT) is formed. An MRT involves convening relevant military stakeholders and project applicants to identify and consider possible mitigation options. In 2014, 14 MRTs were formed, and 5 binding agreements were established. Of the final public agreements, mitigation solutions included applicants:

  • Adjusting the siting of specific turbines, or paring down the number,
  • Paying for the addition of hardware or software to radar systems to mitigate impacts, and/or
  • Agreeing to curtail turbines (i.e., temporarily halt operations) should an emergency event occur.

So why are we having this conversation again?

The program works. Review timelines have been dramatically reduced, transparent formal (and informal) review processes exist, and—crucially—applicants and affected military stakeholders have an outlet for discussing concerns and mitigation options. If either finds the solution unacceptable, they can walk away.

So why, then, are a select number of state and federal legislators now proposing new siting requirements in the name of military readiness, when the military is saying (in its characteristically understated manner) that things are working well?

DoD continues to meet the objective of section 358(a) by ensuring “that the robust development of renewable energy sources and the increased resiliency of the commercial electrical grid may move forward in the United States, while minimizing or mitigating any adverse impacts on military operations and readiness.” [emphasis added]

Still, were we to entertain for a moment the critics’ take that the military has simply been saying things are okay to be “politically correct,” we would immediately see the fallibility of their proposed fixes.

  • Bad idea #1: Alert the DoD to development plans and evaluate potential military impacts. This would be a good idea, except for the fact that the requirement already exists. The current permitting process requires that the military screen projects. These new proposals would waste time and generate redundant paperwork and processes for the military and applicants alike, all in service of achieving that which already exists.
  • Bad idea #2: Ban the development of any wind turbine within a set distance of military installations. This idea, according to the military itself, is wholly unhelpful, with the DoD stating: “generic standoff distances are not useful.” By comparison, the present method of targeted, careful assessments of individual proposals has allowed the military and wind developers to find implementation pathways for the vast majority of projects. Further, when the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) conducted an analysis of the proposed 30 to 50 mile standoff buffers, they found that 35 percent of the current wind fleet operates within these zones without having harmed military operations, and that:
    • $33 billion – $51 billion in private capital investment would not have been made,
    • $50 million – $79 million in annual land lease payments would not be distributed to people like farmers and ranchers, and
    • $3 billion – $9.5 billion in additional capital investment for under-construction projects would have to be abandoned.
  • Bad idea #3: Ban tax credit eligibility for any wind project falling within a standoff zone. If the banning of turbines in a standoff zone is unhelpful, then simply discouraging such development by eliminating tax credit eligibility for projects in these areas is, quite obviously, even more of a sham. These proposals would not provide the military with any more power than it already has, nor would it necessarily stop wind development in these areas.

The mission of Cape Cod Air Force Station, home to a PAVE PAWS (Phased Array Warning System) radar, is newly supported by onsite wind turbines. Credit: Daniel Piraino (flickr).

These obstructionist proposals will succeed in wasting people’s time and jeopardizing vast sums of investment capital, but they won’t improve military readiness. Worse, they directly undermine the military’s stated mission of decreased energy dependence, including through increased renewable energy development. Perhaps more than any other entity, the military recognizes the cost of fossil fuel dependence, from supply chain vulnerabilities all the way up to conflict repercussions from the real and serious threat multiplier of climate change.

The military wants to make this work. So instead of hurting their efforts, help them. Support the build-out of renewable energy resources by calling for more investments in the research and testing of mitigation solutions, not by undermining the mission compatibility evaluation process that the military supports.

Drop the misplaced gallantry, and come back to reality. We need our legislators to put their trust in facts, not myths, and help our nation overcome real challenges, not imagined.

Posted in: Energy

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