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Wind industry wants safety law changed; Group says it is too costly to alter existing towers

A state law designed to protect low-flying aircraft from air hazards could inadvertently hinder efforts to expand South Dakota’s wind industry, a wind-energy advocate said Monday.

“This will severely hurt wind development in South Dakota,” said Steve Wegman, director of the South Dakota Wind Energy Association.

At issue is a year-old statute that requires anemometer towers – known as met towers – to be striped in alternating colors, and to have sleeves and visibility balls mounted on their guy wires. There also are new requirements for perimeter fencing.

The law is meant to protect low-altitude aircraft, mainly crop dusters and helicopter pilots.

The problem with the law, Wegman said, is that existing towers weren’t grandfathered in. As a result, developers who own met towers are being required to take them down and retrofit them, which can cost $5,000 or more – a prohibitively expensive proposition for many.

“Towers are going to come down. They’re not going to go back up,” Wegman said.

Met towers range from 30 to 100 meters tall. They’re used to measure wind speeds before building new projects. They first started popping up in South Dakota in the early 1990s, and the 200 or so that now dot the state are crucial to future development, Wegman said.

“Without good data – collecting data takes anywhere between five to nine years – you can’t get financing,” he said.

Another problem with the law is that visibility balls add weight and collect ice, making tower failures more likely. That possibility has led some met tower manufacturers to stop providing warranties for products that require visibility balls, he said.

Rod Bowar, president of Kennebec Telephone Co., which installs met towers, said he understands the need for the rules but worries it could keep the smaller players out of the wind business.

“And I don’t think that’s probably healthy, long term,” he said.

Add it all up, Wegman said, and it’s one more reason to develop wind projects elsewhere.

But pilots and aviation regulators say the marking rules are necessary to keep pilots safe.

“We think they’re a good thing,” said Bruce Lindholm, program manager for the South Dakota Office of Aeronautics. “They’re helpful for aviation safety.”

John Barney, president of the South Dakota Pilots Association, said his organization isn’t opposed to the towers, but making them more visible “is just common sense.”

“We have lobbied the FAA about making it mandatory that these towers are marked or lit in a way that would not pose a hazard,” he said. “Unfortunately, up to the present, anything under 200 feet in altitude doesn’t fall under current regulations.”

He’s optimistic the FAA will change its policy, pointing to the case of a crop sprayer in California who was killed last month when he clipped a met tower and his plane went down. This is why grandfathering in existing towers simply won’t do, Barney said.

“Quite frankly, those are the towers that are going to kill somebody,” he said.

At the national level, the Federal Aviation Administration has opened a docket to examine the issue.

“When you have a crop duster out there flying in the fields, making steep descents and abrupt turns, seeing one of these pop up out of the middle of nowhere can be a challenge,” FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said. “We’re very concerned about them,” she added.

Lobbyists for the state wind industry, meanwhile, are pushing House Bill 1128, which would grandfather in existing towers. The original bill was defeated, but lawmakers stripped out the language and created a new bill – a process known as hog housing. The new version passed out of committee Thursday.