Among the rolling grassy slopes of the Montezuma Hills, statuesque wind turbines loom over wheat fields, cattle and sheep.
The approximately 700 turbines, each with three blades atop 400-foot towers, whirl amid the Delta breezes.
Thus, a couple thousand blades lumbering through circles of air 200 feet in diameter, are hard to miss.
Especially on radar.
That detail has Travis Air Force Base officials doing a double take at plans to expand the wind farm, which chews up the air east of the base. Air Force officials say a proposed plan to install more than 100 additonal turbines in the Montezuma Hills could cause problems with future aircraft-control radar at Travis.
And they know this because the turbines already whirling away are causing problems.
Travis isn’t alone in its concerns. The United States Department of Defense issued a report in 2006 citing issues with windmills and possible solutions to the problem.
Other nations, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and Norway have called attention to radar issues because of the turbines.
Travis’ Lt. Colonel Shawn Nelson said the blades of the turbines may lead to smaller planes appearing to drop off the radar screens while images of others may appear when they aren’t actually there.
The problem began occurring in the last couple years as Travis switched its radar from analog to digital. The new STARS (Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System) was installed in November of 2005, and the problems surfaced soon afterward.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2006 , however, that the turbines were identified as the culprit.
“It’s a problem that has been there for a while,” Nelson said. “We thought we were having radar problems. As we looked into it further, we found out it’s happening elsewhere.”
He said the size and the speed of the turbines are among the main causes of the radar distraction. Further adding to the problem is the fact that Travis will be adding an even newer radar system in 2008, which will be completely digital. Nelson said it is unknown whether the current turbines will affect the new system.
“That’s one of the questions I asked. The manufacturer can’t tell us what’s going to happen,” Nelson said. “We don’t know what the impact will be.”
Because of these concerns, the Solano County Planning Commission at an April 19 meeting voted to delay consideration of the additional wind turbines for six months.
The action was taken after the commission received a letter, written by the Travis base commander, Col. Steven J. Arquiette, to the Solano County Department of Resource Management, in which he said the environmental impact report on the turbines doesn’t “adequately address potential impacts to public safety that may result from degradation of aircraft control radar systems operating in the project area.”
The Solano Airport Land Use Commission has also voiced concerns. John Foster, chairman of the commission, said he had heard mixed information about the turbines, but noted thaat in April, the commission passed a resolution against the proposed expansion in the Montezuma Hills, based on Travis’ concerns.
Foster takes issue with the county’s Department of Resource Management which had said there were some problems with the radar, but approved the expansion nonetheless, with the caveat that the builders and Travis would work out problems before the turbines were erected.
“What does that mean?” Foster asked county planners before their vote to delay the project. “Approve it now, fix it later.”
Foster added that aside from trying to solve the problems for future turbines, someone should be looking into fixing the current issues.
“Solve the current problems,” he said. “Before anything goes forward, Travis should be satisfied.”
And Foster wonders how county officials could have been unaware of problems from the turbines, since such problems are being reported across the globe.
Solano County Planning Manager Mike Yankovich said he was aware that turbines had caused problems elsewhere, but was confident the issue didn’t occur on this project.
“We knew there had been problems (elsewhere),” Yankovich said. “It seemed those had been taken care of.” He said Travis had never complained about the turbines and the Federal Aviation Administration had issued the project a “no hazard determination,” meaning their weren’t any interference problems.
Yankovich said there were enough talks between the applicants, Travis and his staff, but the problem just hadn’t been discovered yet.
“It wasn’t because they weren’t communicating,” he said. “We have to rely on others for information.”
So for now, the wind farm expansion is on hold. County officials say they will use this time to talk with base officials and further research the concerns.
By Danny Bernardini
5 May 2007
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding