CORPUS CHRISTI – Three or four times a day, an alarm goes off at the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi, warning of a tornado in San Patricio County.
In a dark air traffic control room at Naval Air Station Kingsville, a shadow looms on the radar screen over Kenedy County.
There is, of course, no tornado and no phantom lurking on the horizon.
But the wind farms that trigger these radar images are real, and they’re causing a collision between clean energy, military and public safety priorities.
The wind industry worries that proposed laws intended to keep turbines from interfering with military installations would thwart business in Texas, the nation’s leading wind energy state.
Weather forecasters and military officials fear turbines, which look like planes and storms on radar images, could lead to failed public warning systems and cripple the Kingsville base’s mission to train jet pilots.
For the Coastal Bend, the economic fallout of any check on the exponential growth of the industry reaches beyond the developers and the landowners who can earn around $5,000 a year on a lease for one turbine.
Shipments of wind turbine equipment through the Port of Corpus Christi in 2008 and 2009 generated $39 million in direct revenues and 256 jobs for regional businesses, according to a study by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi economics professor Jim Lee.
As more developers pursue Coastal Bend wind projects, the potential for radar clutter rises. More than 400 turbines already have risen in San Patricio and Kenedy counties. They can produce about 1,065 megawatts, enough to power roughly 300,000 homes.
According to information compiled from government and industry sources, developers are proposing new projects in the Coastal Bend that total at least 2,445 megawatts, which could mean 800 to 1,600 more turbines.
Dottie Roark, a spokeswoman for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the agency that collects information on new wind projects, said many of the proposed farms never will be built for lack of financing, technical obstacles or other reasons.
But developers also may be considering projects the council doesn’t yet know about. That’s because state rules don’t require wind project developers to give any form of public notice until they request a connection to the state’s power grid. Even then, the information at ERCOT is geared toward people with a deep knowledge of electricity markets. Names of companies and locations of projects – except for the name of the county – aren’t revealed until late in the process unless a developer gives permission.
Wind developers say this arrangement promotes clean energy development and helps companies compete for leases on coveted land in a business where location means everything. Developers like the Coastal Bend because it has access to long-distance transmission lines and steady winds that are strong on hot afternoons when statewide electricity demand peaks.
Radar clutter has bred tense, delicate relationships between stakeholders who don’t want to be seen at odds with their counterparts – viewed as anti-clean energy or anti-military, for example – but who nonetheless have huge economic, environmental and safety interests to protect.
Within the National Weather Service, a careful balancing act is under way.
“There are people within the weather service who don’t want these wind farms anywhere near the radars,” said Ed Ciardi, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service Radar Operations Center in Norman, Okla., and one of the service’s leading wind farm clutter analysts.
Ciardi said despite the internal disagreements in the weather service, it has striven to work with wind developers, encouraging them to work out siting issues as early as possible.
“They don’t have to work with us,” he said. “In order not to cause them issues, we protect any data that could compromise them in a competitive way.”
That can mean not publicly disclosing potential wind farm sites unless forced by a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act, Ciardi said. Even then, the information usually is exempt from disclosure, he said.
In turn, the wind industry provides valuable information to the weather service. John Metz, warning coordination meteorologist for the weather service in Corpus Christi, said E. ON Climate and Renewables, owner of the Papalote Creek wind farm in San Patricio County, provided wind speed data after a rare January tornado cut a 20-mile swath across the Coastal Bend, ravaging trailers in the North Bay area and wrecking homes and a school in Robstown.
Some wind developers are agreeing to shut down turbines when severe weather approaches, Ciardi said.
When a weather radar
scans a wind farm, it interprets the movement of the blades as precipitation. The instruments are sensitive enough to detect bird flocks, so a wind farm – with 100 or 200 sets of blades that each stretch the length of a 747 jetliner and spin more than 100 mph at the tips in a 20 mph wind – can look like a tornado-breeding monster.
At Papalote Creek, the radar thinks it’s raining all the time. Under the right conditions, the blade movement triggers a tornado alarm, Metz said.
The radars can’t be programmed to ignore the wind farms because that could cause forecasters to miss a true storm. So far, there have been no weather warning delays or missed warnings in Corpus Christi, Metz said. The wind farms here are beyond a critical 10-mile range, allowing the radar to see easily beyond the turbines. But at least one proposed farm, near Petronila, is at the edge of the 10-mile radius.
Nationwide, wind farms haven’t caused forecasters to miss warning the public, but there have been instances of false warnings, Ciardi said.
“We’re still on the early stages of wind farm build-out,” he said. “Right now we’re only 10 percent of where the United States wants to be 10 or 20 years from now. Ten years from now, there’s likely to be more wind farms surrounding our radars, and I think that’s where we’re worried.”
It’s also a worry for Naval Air Station Kingsville, the commanding officer, Capt. Mark McLaughlin, said.
Proposed wind farms have the potential to create false radar returns throughout the airspace pilots use on their approach to the Navy base, McLaughlin said. Already, radars can lose track of planes when they fly into certain areas covered with false radar plots caused by turbines. Controllers then have to increase the distance between jets for safety.
“Increased separation means fewer training flights and decreased ability to perform our mission,” McLaughlin said.
Naval Air Station Corpus Christi officials did not respond by Friday evening.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, trying to protect the base – Kingsville’s largest employer – filed a bill that would require wind developers to notify the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and military installations of plans to build turbines within 25 miles of an installation. State Rep. J.M. Lozano, D-Kingsville, filed an identical bill in the House.
Patrick Woodson, chief development officer for E. ON, said the law would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy. Developers already are required to notify the Federal Aviation Administration of a wind farm project 45 days before construction, and it takes weeks to get FAA approval, he said.
Developers spend years erecting towers to test the wind and signing leases with landowners.
“There’s no secret plot here to construct wind turbines without telling anybody,” Woodson said.
Mark Hannifan, vice president of development for Tradewind Energy, said the bills provide no specific timetable for notifying the commission. Notifying too early could hurt competition, and the 25-mile requirement would take away too many potential wind farm sites, he said.
“This bill will send (wind developers) packing out of the state of Texas and send everybody packing out of the Coastal Bend.”Greg Wortham, director of the Texas Wind Energy Clearinghouse trade association, said new state regulations aren’t warranted because the FAA already has oversight and concerns over wind farm clutter are overplayed.
“The radar issue has been abused by people who just want to create an issue,” he said, “because their real story is they just don’t like wind turbines.”
Some technical solutions are on the horizon. Defense contractor Raytheon has plans to roll out new software algorithms as early as 2012 that would help military radars distinguish aircraft from wind turbines.
Patrick Paddock, an operations specialist and radar expert at Naval Air Station Kingsville, said those solutions would require years of testing and procurement processes before the military could begin to implement them. Even then, “because of the physics of this specific radar, software mitigation alone is probably not going to solve all of the problems,” he said.
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