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Wind energy plans pose challenge to Navy testing

In the 400-foot-plus turbines that a wind energy company wants to build on his tree farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Hall Coons sees a chance at a steady stream of income – and an opportunity to untether his economic fortunes from the ups and downs of the lumber market.

But to the radar system at the Navy base across the Chesapeake Bay, the spinning blades of the towering pylons would look like aircraft – and interfere with the test range where the Navy studies how its planes appear to enemy radar, military officials say.

Plans to harness the winds that blow across the Eastern Shore for cheap, clean, renewable energy are arousing concern at Naval Air Station Patuxent River. And while the Defense Department does not have the authority to stop a project that interferes with the Navy’s tests, officials say the Pentagon could use its considerable influence to discourage or scale back wind farm development.

“We really don’t want to get to that point,” says Christopher Jarboe, who works to protect the test ranges at the base in Southern Maryland from encroaching development. “That’s why we’re trying to get the word out on our systems and what the impacts are.”

Two firms have filed paperwork to build wind farms in Somerset County, with scores of turbines reaching hundreds of feet into the sky to capture the currents that flow in from the bay. They are talking with dozens of farmers about leasing their land – and sharing the revenues from the power they generate.

County officials, who have welcomed the developers’ interest, are writing rules for commercial wind farms. The O’Malley administration is watching with interest.

“What we’re talking about is a potential billion-dollar investment in some economically disadvantaged areas of the state,” says Andrew Gohn, clean energy program manager for the Maryland Energy Administration. “It could save a lot of families’ farms, and build a lot of roads and schools.”

Officials with Naval Air Systems Command, which performs the radar studies at Pax River, say they support wind power. The military, the largest consumer of energy in the United States, has its own goals for expanding the supply of renewable energy.

But they say turbines tall enough to be seen by the ground-based radar – as the towers that Pioneer Green Energy wants to build on Coons’ tree farm would be – would disrupt testing in the restricted airspace that extends from Southern Maryland across the bay to the Eastern Shore and into Delaware and Virginia.

The turbines, they say, would introduce electromagnetic clutter in an otherwise clean environment.

The 3,000-square-mile test range is unique in the Navy – the only operation in the service capable of measuring the radar profiles of aircraft in flight.

NAVAIR officials, who have known for years of the potential for conflict between tests and turbines, have been meeting with energy developers and local officials to discuss their work. They have secured agreements with several counties to be notified when projects are proposed, so they may review plans and warn of possible impacts. They are in discussions with Somerset County about the wind energy ordinance.

“We’re working for national security,” says Jarboe, team leader with NAVAIR’s ranges sustainability office. “And this is a key component of that.”

The challenge is not unique to Maryland. A similar conflict has arisen in California, where Navy officials say wind turbines along the Mojave Desert have affected air-to-air radar testing at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

On the Eastern Shore, developers, officials and the military express confidence that conflicts may be settled to the satisfaction of all sides.

The director of a new Pentagon office created to review energy proposals cites statistics: Of the 249 projects flagged for “mission concerns” by the Defense Department’s siting clearinghouse, director David Belote says, 240 have now been resolved.

“It’s clear that the intent of Congress is for us to try to find the right balance” between military operations and renewable energy development, Belote says. “And unless there is an overriding reason to say ‘no,’ to do whatever is in our power to find a way to get to ‘yes.'”

But in Somerset County, a solution does not seem readily apparent.

Adam Cohen, vice president of development for Pioneer Green Energy, says the Austin, Tex. firm envisions dozens of turbines in Somerset County reaching 400 to 500 feet high.