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Improving news on radar roadblocks -- FAA clears wind projects

Two Illinois senators have entered the political fray surrounding wind turbines and radar, vowing to block the nomination of the Bush administration's new assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues a "conclusive determination" on whether the operation of wind farms under development in the US Midwest will interfere with radar systems. "The administration's promised response on windmill construction is long overdue. It is time for a straight answer," says Dick Durbin, one of two Democrats representing Illinois in the US Senate. "If there are real problems, we should find ways to mitigate, reduce or eliminate them, but our wind farm owners deserve an answer today."

The seeds of the radar controversy were sown January 6, when the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 was enacted. The legislation instructed the Department of Defense (DOD) to assess whether wind turbines would interfere with nearby military radar installations and submit a report within 120 days. On March 21, the DOD and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued an interim policy saying they would contest any wind installations in the "line of site" of their radars until the study is complete. The FAA defines line of sight as any turbine within a 60 mile radius of a radar centre or radar tower, placing much of the nation within the prohibited zone.

As a result, the FAA's Midwest regional office issued "Notices of Presumed Hazard" to wind projects across five states, effectively stopping work on a reported 950 MW in Illinois, 570 MW in Wisconsin and approximately 200 MW each in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Since the notices were issued, however, the industry and Department of Energy officials have had some success in getting projects back on track, says the American Wind Energy Association's Laurie Jodziewicz. Once the FAA became aware of the impact of the delays, she says it agreed to move forward with project reviews and approvals without waiting for the DOD study to be finished.

Case by Case

"Some of these projects were very close to construction. They are being installed in the Upper Midwest so they need to get started with the actual construction before the cold weather starts and then they are looking at the deadline of the production tax credit at the end of next year," she says. "I think the FAA became more aware of some of those issues and then really committed to actually looking at it on a case-by-case basis, regardless of this Department of Defense study."

Jodziewicz says she knows of at least six stalled projects that have been cleared by FAA and are moving forward. Another ten continue to be held up by radar concerns, although she expects that number to drop as the FAA completes its reviews. Several community wind projects were also affected, but Jodziewicz does not have information on the status of those.

All of the stalled projects are in five Midwest states. "It is a little unclear why that is the case because we did hear of projects being approved by the FAA in other parts of the country. Some of it might have to do with the topography. They are fairly flat areas and both the wind turbines and the radars tend to be on the higher areas in those places," says Jodziewicz.

The industry is now awaiting release of the DOD study. "One of the aspects of that study is that it is classified, so we aren't getting a lot of information about the study itself," says Jodziewicz. "The legislative language said is was to be complete in 120 days, although there weren't any consequences in the legislation if they didn't get it done. It is a complex issue to be looking at in 120 days. By that measure it should have been out in May, but we don't know exactly when it will be out."

In addition to looking at the impact of turbines on radar, the legislation instructed the DOD to examine possible mitigation measures. But even then, the study is just a first step. "The next question is what happens after the report is done. They aren't issuing guidelines or anything. It is just a report on the issues," says Jodziewicz.

One of the things the industry is pressing for is a process whereby developers can work with the military to deal with radar concerns. "There is no single point of contact right now, and I think they are also thinking about that too. How do we make it so everybody gets a chance to review projects before they get too far along so there aren't any surprises."

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