Troubles keep mounting for a proposed wind farm in Eastern North Carolina that already faces questions about whether it will harm the local bald eagle population.
In the latest round of complications for the Pantego Wind Energy Project, U.S. military officials in Wayne County have disclosed that the 49-turbine wind farm would imperil the daily bombing runs of low-flying fighter jets at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
The Pantego project, which requires clearance from the Department of Defense, is set for a Sept. 10 briefing before a Department of Defense review panel called the Siting Clearinghouse. A ruling is expected within a week outlining steps the Pantego project could take to eliminate interference.
The rotating blades on the wind farm’s turbines would extend 492 feet into the air, giving over-flying jets the thinnest margin of clearance. The turbines would be erected in an area where Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles swoop in at 500 feet as they approach the Dare County Bombing Range.
The wind farm, proposed by Chicago-based Invenergy on 11,000 acres in Beaufort County, would be the first of its kind in North Carolina. It was approved by the N.C. Utilities Commission in March, but it still requires environmental and military approvals before it can move ahead.
The proposed location of the turbines also could interfere with military radar used to track the F-15E practice runs, according to a letter Col. Jeannie Leavitt, commander of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson, wrote to Gov. Bev Perdue in July. The letter was submitted to the Utilities Commission this month by the Wayne County Chamber of Commerce, which supports the Air Force installation as a vital contributor to the region’s economy.
Leavitt’s letter suggests that the state’s wind-swept flatland, considered to have some of the best wind resources on the East Coast, may not be an appropriate place to mix wind turbines with military operations.
“I believe that wind farm development in any part of eastern North Carolina has the potential to harm the training missions of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and potentially other Department of Defense users of the airspace near the planned projects,” Leavitt wrote.
A month after Leavitt wrote her letter, Perdue issued an Aug. 18 executive order directing state authorities to prevent land use that is incompatible with U.S. military installations in the state.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission has its own concerns. A preliminary estimate shows the Pantego project, with 164-foot-long blades that spin at more than 100 mph, could kill between 3.4 and 20.7 bald eagles a year that fly through the area to forage and hunt.
The Invenergy wind farm is also undergoing an Obstruction Evaluation Analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration. That analysis is being coordinated with a military review by the Siting Clearinghouse, said Dave Groberg, Invenergy’s vice president for business development.
“We are committed to avoiding impacts to the Air Force’s training activity in Eastern North Carolina,” Groberg said. He noted that Invenergy has met with military representatives from the Siting Clearinghouse and the Air Force “on multiple occasions to facilitate this review of the Pantego project.”
Michael Aimone, executive director of the Siting Clearinghouse, said the panel has reviewed 1,000 projects in the past two years, of which about 200 have been flagged for further review. But the Pantego project is one of a handful that has been referred to the highest level of review, the Mitigation Response Team. Only about 10 projects are being reviewed at this level, Aimone said, and Pantego was the first to require this review.
Aimone said he will not know the details about the Pantego review until the Sept. 10 briefing. He said potential solutions could include changing a flight pattern, changing the location of turbines, and making technical adjustments to radars to eliminate visual clutter caused by turbines.
“We’ve never not agreed to something that will solve this problem,” Aimone said.
Risks well known
Seymour Johnson Air Force Base spokeswoman Lt. Keavy Rake said raising the flight altitude is not an option because pilot training requires simulation of real bombing missions, which are flown at 500 feet.
All basic training for F-15E jets in this country takes place at the Seymour Johnson base. The installation is home base to 94 of the nation’s 219 F-15E fighters, which have a price tag of $31.1 million each.
The questionable mix of military fly zones and industrial-scale wind turbines is well known. The risks are outlined in detail in the Governor’s Land Compatibility Task Force Report, issued in May.
“Wind turbines and other types of tall structures such as cell phone towers create low altitude collision hazards,” the report said. Radars create “a stream of false targets (bubbles)” that muddle radar reception.
“It increases the likelihood of collisions, and makes it more difficult for on-site defense forces to identify potential threats in time to react effectively.”
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