The United States shouldn’t have to choose between national defense and wind power.
That seems to be the bottom line of a situation involving a huge wind farm in eastern Oregon. Only weeks before construction was to begin on the 845-megawatt, $2 billion wind farm, the U.S. Department of Defense stepped in last week to halt the Federal Aviation Administration’s final permit for the project, saying the wind farm’s giant turbines will interfere with the Air Force’s radar detection system.
It’s not as if either the FAA or the Defense Department should have been caught off-guard by this situation. The project had been under development for nine years. Concerns about wind farms and radar have been raised for years. A study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and released in January 2008 even outlined possible solutions for the situation including modifications to the wind turbine blades or updating aging radar systems that have trouble distinguishing fast-moving blades from aircraft.
Throughout these years, federal officials have encouraged the development of renewable wind energy to reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Yet, after investing millions of dollars in a project that would place 338 turbines in Oregon, developers are being told they must wait as long as 60 days while another group of radar experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studies the problem.
The delay may result in the loss of federal stimulus funds that had been approved for the project and has put a huge contract with GE to manufacture the turbines on hold. Officials with Caithness Energy, which was developing the project, estimate that halting the project could cost up to 16,000 U.S. jobs.
The nation has an obvious security interest in its military radar systems operating properly, but it should be trying harder to overcome the problems created by wind turbines. According to Washington Post reports on the issue, the British Defense Ministry is ordering a long-range air surveillance radar from Lockheed Martin that is compatible with wind turbine blades. The technology is available.
The developers of the Oregon project have a right to be frustrated by this situation. If the Defense Department knew it was unable to modify or replace its radar systems to prevent interference from the wind farm, it had an obligation to step in sooner before so much time and money was invested in the project.
For the long-term, federal officials from a variety of agencies have a responsibility to take advantage of available technology that will allow military radar and wind farms to peacefully co-exist. Properly functioning radar and increased energy independence both are important national security concerns.