A solar tower nearly twice the height of the Empire State building. Hundreds of spinning 200-foot-tall wind turbines. A 500-mile high-voltage power line from central New Mexico to southern Arizona.
Those are among the projects the renewable-energy industry sees in Arizona’s future.
But for the U.S. military, that vision translates into fears of unusable airspace, equipment failures and plane-crash risks.
Across the country, the burgeoning green-energy industry has faced military concerns about threats to the safety of its pilots and high-tech operations. Air Force officials, in particular, are wary. They say solar projects can obstruct flight paths and reflect sunlight into pilots’ eyes, wind farms can jam radar, and transmission lines can disrupt testing equipment.
Energy developers in states such as Oregon, Nevada and California have spent years and made costly changes to projects to satisfy military objections.
No projects in Arizona have caused problems for military installations, but there are potentially dozens of energy-development plans on the state’s horizon. Aggressive renewable-energy goals in Arizona and California, plus wide-open land and year-round sunshine that are attractive to the solar industry, mean military bases here could soon raise similar concerns.
The potential problems echo drawn-out battles that have been fought in the Valley over encroachment of new housing subdivisions near Luke Air Force Base. For more than a decade, officials at the Glendale base warned of concerns about suburban rooftops rising nearby, and government officials moved to limit builders.
When it comes to renewable energy, the Pentagon effectively can kill any project by raising concerns during the permitting process.
For example, structures taller than 200 feet require a Federal Aviation Administration permit. The FAA gets feedback from other government agencies, including the Defense Department and Homeland Security. If Defense says there is a conflict, the project is essentially dead.
“If they determine it is a hazard, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to raise financing for your project,” said Tom Vinson, senior director for federal regulatory affairs with the American Wind Energy Association. “The bank is going to want to see that FAA clearance.”
The emergence of renewable-energy projects means the debate over private development vs. military needs is going to continue.
In anticipation, political leaders, military-base officials and economic-development boosters have agreed Arizona should seek to grow its renewable-energy industry while protecting longtime military bases, which add billions of dollars to the state’s economy.
A screening process rolled out by the Department of Defense to streamline review of solar and wind projects could help.
Vinson said the Defense Department has been working much more closely with the industry since Congress last year required the department to work with renewable-energy firms to minimize conflicts, ensure that projects get built and find ways to mitigate any issues they cause for the military.
“The landscape has changed significantly,” he said. “Conflicts certainly could flare up on individual locations … but both sides have worked well together.”
Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs, a staunch supporter of Luke Air Force Base, which is on the western edge of her city, was an early champion of state and military officials planning for renewable-energy projects. Both military and solar efforts should thrive in Arizona, she said.
“This is not about denying renewable-energy projects. This is about finding compatibility,” she said. “You don’t want to bring in a brand-new industry and tell your (multibillion-dollar) military industry, ‘Sorry, you have to go away.’ ”
Renewable-energy developers say they recognize the need to work with military bases if they are going to be successful building projects in the West.
Monitoring for problems
In a darkened, high-security room at Luke Air Force Base, radar controllers huddle around black screens.
Their eyes track clusters of blue rectangles that inch past each other: miniatures of the F-16s, commercial airliners and pleasure planes crisscrossing the Arizona sky.
The radar controllers can trust that the locations of aircraft are largely accurate as they direct traffic, talking to pilots over the radio, to prevent collisions. But the radar isn’t foolproof.
Despite sophisticated computer equipment and multiple radar towers across the Valley, the West Valley’s Estrella and White Tank mountains and bad weather can hamper some of the radar feeds.
The potential addition of wind farms in the area could increase that effect.
Like mountains, wind turbines several hundred feet tall can cause “holes” so that controllers can’t detect aircraft in those areas. The spinning blades may cause radar to display false aircraft locations.
Travis Air Force Base in Northern California, which manages more cargo and passengers than any other military air terminal in the United States, confronted that issue in 2007.
Developers planned more than 800 wind turbines more than 4 miles from the base.
After Travis officials raised concerns, energy companies, local government and the military formed an alliance to study the potential effects of the wind farms. The alliance agreed to upgrade military radar equipment and added radar feeds from other sides of the wind farm to minimize the radar hole.
The process took three years.
Tall solar towers are another potential risk, according to the Air Force.
Some thermal-based solar projects produce power through heat generated when thousands of mirrors reflect sunlight onto a tower 200 feet tall or higher. The Air Force worries that such towers can create obstacles in the middle of low-altitude flight paths and foil sensitive testing equipment with their heat.
California-based solar developer SolarReserve LLC nearly had one of its projects killed near Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada a few years ago after the base objected. With the project first proposed about 5 miles from the base, military officials suggested another location farther away.
SolarReserve obliged and began planning the 650-foot-tall solar tower about 20 miles from the plant.
But the Air Force came back and said that location would not work. Military officials asked the Interior Department to reject the SolarReserve project, which was planned on federal land, and went to county politicians to push for stricter development limits that largely would have prohibited wind and solar towers.
SolarReserve had to make its case for the project in Washington, D.C., to the secretaries of the Air Force, Defense, Energy and Commerce, and spent several hundred thousand dollars on an independent study of how the tower might affect radar.
The company finally won the base’s support after Congress put intense pressure on the military to cooperate and the company hired experts to find ways to minimize potential impacts. That project could be running by 2013.
Other military concerns around the country include transmission lines that may cut through Air Force training ranges and whose electromagnetic fields may disrupt testing equipment; energy projects with lots of metal that may interfere with radar; and reflective solar troughs that may create glare.
Realizing the potential for conflicts ahead, the Natural Resources Defense Council in November released an online mapping tool that allows renewable-power plant developers to identify sites unlikely to interfere with military operations or environmentally sensitive areas. The NRDC did so in hopes of helping renewables develop.
Streamlined approval process
Both developers and military leaders have learned it’s best to work together early to avoid costlier changes later.
The goal is for developers to approach bases at the “napkin planning stage,” said Deborah MacNeill, who works with renewable-energy companies at Nellis Air Force Base’s public partnerships office. “We don’t want the developer to do land purchases or go through extensive analysis and studies only to find out there might be a Department of Defense concern or a Nellis concern,” she said.
Though bases like Nellis and Luke have for years worked early in the planning stages with housing developers, renewable-energy projects just a few years ago were at risk of falling through the cracks because officials like MacNeill used to stay alert for projects only within about 10 miles of a base. Renewable-energy projects may be proposed for many miles away but could still affect a base’s flight patterns.
Now, MacNeill’s search extends beyond Nevada to California, Arizona and Utah.
As renewable-energy projects have been delayed, pressure has mounted on the Department of Defense to give renewable-energy developers more direction on where to build.
Members of Congress, eager to tout green-energy projects and jobs in their districts, have led the charge.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., for example, backed SolarReserve and wind projects near Nellis. He called on the secretary of the Air Force in meetings and public letters to create a one-stop office for developers to receive a thumbs-up or -down on projects.
That one-stop shop was finally created last year. When Congress passed the fiscal 2011 National Defense Authorization Act, it required the Pentagon to form an office to work through a backlog of projects in just a few months. The Energy Siting Clearinghouse cleared the backlog last summer and, for the first time, renewable-energy developers now have one military office to contact before launching a project.
The retired Air Force commander at the helm of the Pentagon’s new clearinghouse knows firsthand about renewable-energy conflicts. David Belote was in charge of Nellis Air Force Base in the midst of the SolarReserve tower difficulties.
The goal is to protect the military’s training abilities while supporting renewable-energy development, Belote said, because defense officials understand the need for energy security.
The clearinghouse allows developers to avoid contacting various bases on their own. Developers’ applications automatically go to the FAA, Pentagon and local bases for input.
The Pentagon now has just 30 days to make a determination. And the bar for raising an objection is high: Military officials must prove a risk of mission failure.
So far in Arizona, the results have been positive. Last summer, the Pentagon green-lighted eight renewable-energy plants and red-flagged none.
Projects to meet energy needs
Until now, Arizona’s desolate patches of desert with little but scrub brush and blue sky were almost forgotten. Vacationers drove through them on their way to California, and Air Force pilots could train over them with nothing in sight.
But when energy developers laid eyes on the land, they saw gold. The nearly year-round sunshine, level ground and proximity to energy-hungry California make for ideal conditions to build renewable-energy projects.
Utilities in Arizona and California get a small amount of power from renewables today but face requirements to intensely ramp up their reliance on big wind and solar plants in the next 10 to 15 years.
Dozens of wind- and solar-power plants are being considered around Arizona, and many must come to fruition if utilities are to meet the states’ renewable-energy goals.
Arizona requires utilities to get 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2025, and California has an even higher standard.
Many of the best sites for solar plants that could feed power to California are in Arizona.
In the past few years, several projects have gotten under way in Arizona, and already they are under the watchful eye of the military.
SolarReserve, the company that moved its project at Nellis Air Force Base’s request, has two solar towers under development in Arizona: outside Gila Bend and near Quartzsite. Company officials say they have checked with Air Force officials to ensure compatibility.
“We learned from Nellis,” said Andrew Wang, SolarReserve’s director of development. “Our experience with Luke has been a good one.”
The Quartzite project already has military approval, and the Gila Bend project won approval before the clearinghouse was created, he said.
Wang said that the company makes sure to contact the military first, even if the FAA doesn’t signal a conflict, which was the case with its delayed project in Nevada.
“The issue I’ve found is that the military has been out in these open spaces for a long time, and they are used to having all that space to themselves,” Wang said. “When there are other things that encroach on their borders, they start casting an eye and seeing how it might affect their mission. They are not against renewable energy, but (they believe) maybe on a project-by-project basis it needs to be evaluated.”
NextEra Energy Resources has two wind farms in northern Arizona and has assessed several others it could develop.
The company’s Yavapai Wind Project will be 25 miles south of Seligman and is expected to generate 99.2 megawatts of electricity when the wind is just right. One megawatt is enough electricity to supply about 250 homes. The project is still seeking various permits.
NextEra also built 62 wind turbines in the Perrin Ranch Wind Energy Center north of Williams. The project was one of the first to receive approval from the Defense Department’s new streamlined Energy Siting Clearinghouse.
The company always checks with the Air Force before building near a base, said Perrin Ranch project director Matt Gomes.
“The first time we ran into this was in Abilene (Texas) in 2004 in a project immediately adjacent to Dyess Air Force Base,” he said.
The project was nearly ready to begin constructing turbines when the Air Force raised concerns and NextEra had to make changes to the turbine layout.
EnviroMission Ltd. of Australia is developing a 2,400-foot-tall concrete solar-power chimney near Quartzsite that would be one of the tallest structures on the planet, nearly twice the height of the Empire State building.
The chimney would use a 4-square-mile greenhouse to heat desert air and funnel it to the power plant. Hot air rising through the chimney would spin turbines to make electricity.
President Chris Davey said that after getting a warning from the Air Force on an earlier project, the company no longer is pursuing a tower in California. But the military is always his first stop, especially when planning a project that would reach so high, he added.
EnviroMission recently reported it has received a commitment for financing, but construction has not begun.
Because the project’s layout has not been finalized, it has not received Defense Department approval, Davey said. Privately, though, some Air Force officials express concerns.
When it comes to future projects, the Pentagon’s Belote says Arizona’s main challenge is likely to come from solar towers, since the solar industry will be larger than wind in Arizona.
One other project the military intends to watch is the planned SunZia transmission line, which would connect wind and solar plants to power substations from central New Mexico to southern Arizona.
The high-voltage power lines would pass by sensitive equipment at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and the Buffalo Soldier Electromagnetic Test Range at Fort Huachuca in Arizona, so military officials have attended meetings with the developer, conducted research and suggested route modifications.
“We’re asking a few questions,” Belote said. “But all the indications are that we will be able to coexist.”
The transmission line was approved by the clearinghouse, dependent on the route changes, last summer. Construction could begin in 2015.