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Wind farms could hurt border radar

WASHINGTON – Could wind farms in Northern New York unwittingly help drug smugglers?

That is a question the federal government may have to tackle if the Department of Homeland Security does as Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., has asked, and deploys military-grade radar along the U.S.-Canadian border to nab low-flying aircraft. The Defense Department has warned that wind turbines interfere with radar and has opposed their placement near military installations.

Turbines’ effect on radar hasn’t been a big issue along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, where developers have eyed a number of locations for wind farms. That could change if DHS deploys the more sophisticated radar – something Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano strongly hinted last week could happen.

“It’s certainly something we study,” said James H. Madden, project manager for Cape Vincent Wind Farm, where 84 turbines are proposed.

Mr. Madden said the issue has not surfaced at Cape Vincent, and he was not familiar with DHS’s possible plans for radar. Adjustments in radar software can often fix the problem, he said, depending on the type used.

Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that wind turbines could disrupt radar as much as 20 percent of the time, blocking microwave signals and creating false positive readings. The results were in a document submitted to the House Armed Services Committee and reported by the Armed Forces Press Service.

At the time, the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration objected to a proposed 338-turbine wind farm in Oregon. Officials dropped their opposition after researchers discovered they could reduce the threat by adjusting the radar’s settings.

In 2008, the Mitre Corp. studied the issue at the request of DHS and found that turbines could cause false detection of aircraft and other problems. Although the Pentagon favored blocking wind farms in radar zones, the Mitre researchers backed adjustments in both radar systems and design of wind turbines to reduce the risk. More modern radar may be more flexible in dealing with such issues, they wrote.

“There is no fundamental physical constraint preventing detection and mitigation of windmill clutter,” the authors wrote. “The technologies of wind turbines and radar can coexist.”

The New York Times also reported last year that the FAA’s concerns had put some 9,000 megawatts of proposed wind energy on hold nationwide.

In the north country, the Army last year objected to a 350-foot wind turbine at Indian River High School, citing the school’s proximity to Wheeler-Sack Army Airfield.

Mr. Schumer announced last week that Ms. Napolitano had agreed to deploy military-grade radar along the northern border, in response to his request. He had cited increased drug smuggling along the border.

A transcript of the conversation with Mr. Schumer at a hearing last week indicates Ms. Napolitano did not exactly commit to deploying military-type radar but agreed with the senator’s assertion that it would be a good idea.

She declined to be specific in an open setting and said the department is working with the military “on radar and other related issues and technologies and efforts on the northern border” and that the process is moving “very rapidly.”