Wind Power Meets a Formidable Obstacle

What is the biggest impediment to the roll out of environmentalists wind powered future? Is it finance in this cash strapped world, is it lack of suitable windy places, is it that the economic viability is based on subsidies that could be withdrawn or scaled back as they have been in Spain?

No, according to a NY Times article reporting on projects in three major southwestern states. The problem is the US military. Or to be more precise objections from the military and FAA that wind turbines can interfere with radar. Apparently wind turbines can look very similar to storm activity on weather radar making it hard for air traffic controllers to give accurate weather information to pilots. In other cases the military has complained that as a result of existing developments in the Tehachapi Mountains to the west of a major military installation in the Mojave desert, they cannot test airborne radar used for target detection on F/A-18’s and other aircraft creating no-go, or at least no-test areas. Various cases appear to have impeded low level flying, low level high speed maneuvers, radar testing and development, etc. Modern turbines can reach 400ft into the sky and to be economic have to be sited at the windiest place on the hill – the top.

In 2009 about half of proposed wind turbine projects were abandoned or delayed because of radar related concerns raised by the military and FAA, a total of about 9GW was constructed out of about 18 GW planned. Nor is it just the vast military testing grounds of California, Arizona and Nevada. Projects in the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon-Washington border and in the Great Lakes region have met the same fate.

Part of the problem appears to be that filtering out the wind turbine clutter is challenging when some of the radar systems date back to the 1950’s and have outdated or limited processing capability. Technological fixes are possible but are piecemeal and potentially unsound. On radar, “a wind turbine can look like a 747 on final approach, Peter Drake, technical director at Raytheon, a major provider of radar systems is quoted as saying. “We don’t want to have the software eliminate a real 747.

May be the answer is a levy on all wind power projects to go towards upgrading radar systems so the two can live in harmony, like the nuclear industry paying for radioactive cleanup or the banks into a financial services insurance fund? Personally I am somewhat horrified to hear radar provision in 2010 is still in part relying on equipment from the 1950’s, when the Airforce spends $160m on an F22 Raptor ($350m including the cost of development) or US$2bn on a B-2 bomber shouldn’t the radar used to test, train and direct them be at least 21st century?

–Stuart Burns

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