Wind energy plans pose challenge to Navy testing

Patuxent River Naval Air Station officials  are concerned about the development of wind turbines in the area of their testing ranges.

In the 400-foot-plus turbines that a wind energy company wants to build on his tree farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Hall Coons sees a chance at a steady stream of income — and an opportunity to untether his economic fortunes from the ups and downs of the lumber market.

But to the radar system at the Navy base across the Chesapeake Bay, the spinning blades of the towering pylons would look like aircraft — and interfere with the test range where the Navy studies how its planes appear to enemy radar, military officials say.

Plans to harness the winds that blow across the Eastern Shore for cheap, clean, renewable energy are arousing concern at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. And while the Defense Department does not have the authority to stop a project that interferes with the Navy's tests, officials say the Pentagon could use its considerable influence to discourage or scale back wind farm development.

"We really don't want to get to that point," says Christopher Jarboe, who works to protect the test ranges at the base in Southern Maryland from encroaching development. "That's why we're trying to get the word out on our systems and what the impacts are."

Two firms have filed paperwork to build wind farms in Somerset County, with scores of turbines reaching hundreds of feet into the sky to capture the currents that flow in from the bay. They are talking with dozens of farmers about leasing their land — and sharing the revenues from the power they generate.

County officials, who have welcomed the developers' interest, are writing rules for commercial wind farms. The O'Malley administration is watching with interest.

"What we're talking about is a potential billion-dollar investment in some economically disadvantaged areas of the state," says Andrew Gohn, clean energy program manager for the Maryland Energy Administration. "It could save a lot of families' farms, and build a lot of roads and schools."

Officials with Naval Air Systems Command, which performs the radar studies at Pax River, say they support wind power. The military, the largest consumer of energy in the United States, has its own goals for expanding the supply of renewable energy.

But they say turbines tall enough to be seen by the ground-based radar — as the towers that Pioneer Green Energy wants to build on Coons' tree farm would be — would disrupt testing in the restricted airspace that extends from Southern Maryland across the bay to the Eastern Shore and into Delaware and Virginia.

The turbines, they say, would introduce electromagnetic clutter in an otherwise clean environment.

The 3,000-square-mile test range is unique in the Navy — the only operation in the service capable of measuring the radar profiles of aircraft in flight.

NAVAIR officials, who have known for years of the potential for conflict between tests and turbines, have been meeting with energy developers and local officials to discuss their work. They have secured agreements with several counties to be notified when projects are proposed, so they may review plans and warn of possible impacts. They are in discussions with Somerset County about the wind energy ordinance.

"We're working for national security," says Jarboe, team leader with NAVAIR's ranges sustainability office. "And this is a key component of that."

The challenge is not unique to Maryland. A similar conflict has arisen in California, where Navy officials say wind turbines along the Mojave Desert have affected air-to-air radar testing at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

On the Eastern Shore, developers, officials and the military express confidence that conflicts may be settled to the satisfaction of all sides.

The director of a new Pentagon office created to review energy proposals cites statistics: Of the 249 projects flagged for "mission concerns" by the Defense Department's siting clearinghouse, director David Belote says, 240 have now been resolved.

"It's clear that the intent of Congress is for us to try to find the right balance" between military operations and renewable energy development, Belote says. "And unless there is an overriding reason to say 'no,' to do whatever is in our power to find a way to get to 'yes.'"

But in Somerset County, a solution does not seem readily apparent.

Adam Cohen, vice president of development for Pioneer Green Energy, says the Austin, Tex. firm envisions dozens of turbines in Somerset County reaching 400 to 500 feet high.

"In a rural wind speed-type site, you need to be capturing some of those higher wind speeds," he says. "We can't be shorter, because then the project loses its economics."

Jarboe shows a map of the Chesapeake Test Range, with concentric circles radiating from Pax River to show the height at which objects appear in the radar's line of sight. In much of Somerset County, that means anything taller than 400 feet.

"It's taken years to develop the system here," Jarboe says. "We're just trying to maintain this capability that we have, and hopefully guide development into areas where the wind energy interests can meet their goals."

In a secure control room at Pax River, technicians keep watch over computer screens that show planes flying in and around the Chesapeake Test Range. This is where the Navy studies how its aircraft, manned and unmanned, appear to enemy surveillance.

"I want to know how I'm presenting myself nose-on, what I look like broadside, what I look like going away from you," NAVAIR test manager Larry D. Miller says. "We're trying to measure the signature of the aircraft and then determine what kinds of countermeasures and tactics" — dropping chaff, jamming enemy surveillance, flying evasively — "are required to protect that aircraft in a hostile situation."

The radar system, Jarboe says, "is very precise, and it's very sensitive, and therefore it's very susceptible to interference from wind turbines."

Pioneer Green Energy aims to build a $150 million, 150-megawatt wind farm with as many as 70 turbines on land leased from farmers and other landowners.

Another company, Delsea Energy of Toms River, N.J., is seeking approval for at least 100 megawatts of wind energy on land leased around Marion Station, business development manager Steve Volkert says. That project would cost about $100 million.

Somerset County, by some measures the poorest in the state, has welcomed the proposals.

"We have heard support from the community," county planning director Gary Pusey says. "We see it as a great opportunity."

The county planning staff has agreed to forward wind energy proposals to Pax River. NAVAIR officials have asked that the county require wind developers to contact them directly, that turbines over 200 feet be subject to Defense Department review, and that an application be denied if the deputy secretary of defense concluded it posed a threat to national security.

Coons, who works land that has been in his family for four generations, sells loblolly pine trees to local sawmills for lumber — a business that has suffered amid the national downturn in new construction. He is talking with Pioneer Green Energy about leasing land for three to six turbines that could generate between $8,000 and $15,000 — each — in rent and royalties annually.

"We think it's something that would fit in really good with the tree farming," he says. "We envision still maintaining our forestry operations. As opposed to say, 'Well, if you got really desperate, you could sell the land for a housing development.' We really don't want to do that."

Coons says he is aware of the Navy's objections.

"They have no operations in Somerset County, except maybe in the air," he says. "So Somerset County's economy is certainly not benefiting in any way whatsoever from their operations.

"We're kind of getting stuck with some of the costs and none of the benefits."

Cohen, of Pioneer Green Energy, questions the impact on Pax River.

"We're 30 miles away," he says. "That's a pretty far distance in terms of radar-to-turbine interaction."

Cohen suggests there might be computer programs with which the Navy could filter out the turbines. Jarboe says such software remains "years away."

Still, Cohen and Jarboe both speak of working out any conflicts. Jarboe points to discussions with the City of Crisfield, also in Somerset County, where officials are planning a single turbine to power a wastewater treatment plant.

"We met early with the city, we discussed what was going on, what our concerns were," he says. "As that process developed, they decided that they would go with a shorter system. … It fell below our line of sight."

Crisfield Mayor P.J. Purnell says the Navy's concern was one of a few reasons he and the City Council decided to reduce the size of the turbine. The move also reflected a decision to generate power only for the plant and not other city facilities, he says, and a belief that a larger pylon "would be kind of a stark thing on the horizon."

Belote, of the Pentagon siting clearinghouse, says his office aims to find solutions. Before defense officials may object to a project, he says, they must "analyze every potential mitigation" — in the case of wind turbines, for example, turning them off for a period of time, or developing new radar programs or processes to mask interference.

"So it really behooves us to be very open and to look for ways to get to 'yes' if it's at all possible," he says. "We will have a big discussion amongst developers, local or state officials, base and regional personnel and a handful of us in the Pentagon about how we can compensate for whatever problems might be caused. …

"As soon as we get there, we'll write them a letter that says there's no DoD objection."

And if they can't get there?

"The secretary of defense has moral suasion," Belote says. "I would tend to think that if we go through a process where the deputy secretary of defense writes a letter and confirms that something creates an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States, which is the standard in the law, then hopefully, any permitting body and, you know, any industrial organization would take a look at that and say, 'Okay, let's not go forward.'"