San Benito crop duster Clyde Kornegay spends a lot of time flying fast and low, applying insecticides, fungicides and herbicides to the patchwork of cotton and sorghum fields dotting the eastern Rio Grande Valley.
He’s part of a class of pilots that are among the most talented, accustomed to maneuvering around subdivisions and avoiding trees and phone lines.
Lately, though, a new obstacle has caught him and other Sun Valley Dusting Co. fliers off guard.
As renewable energy companies catch on to the region’s Gulf Coast breezes, they have been quietly convincing landowners to let them erect high, narrow towers to measure the winds.
Since the Federal Aviation Administration regulates structures that are 200 feet or higher, it’s not uncommon for the towers to be, say, 197 feet tall.
From the ground, they’re readily visible. But not from the cockpit, with the pilot flying at 150 mph and dealing with a kaleidoscope of visual stimuli.
In the past 12 years, at least three low-altitude pilots have died from crashes with unmarked and unlighted towers.
A lawsuit in the 2011 death of California crop duster Steve Allen in September ended before trial with a $6.7 million settlement.
“Have I been taken surprise by one? Yes,” Kornegay said. “I have been going to make a field application on a crop-protection flight, and all of a sudden something that wasn’t there two days ago is there now. Because these things can go up fast.”
Known as meteorological evaluation towers, or METs, the dangers posed to crop dusters have sparked advisories by both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
At least a dozen states so far have passed laws mandating they be better marked – Texas isn’t one of them.
“The wind turbines themselves are these massive white towers with these big rotating fans. We can see that. They’re marked on maps, they’re on aerial charts,” Kornegay said. “The MET towers are going up unmarked and there’s no database. You can’t call a wind company and ask where they are because they won’t tell you.”
Texas is leading the nation in wind energy, with more than $23 billion invested in wind projects and more than $38 million paid annually for land leases.
By 2015, the industry is expected to nearly double its 1,700-megawatt capacity from turbines along the Coastal Bend, a $2.3 billion investment that will add enough power for 650,000 homes, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
State Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, plans to introduce a Texas bill to regulate MET towers in the upcoming legislative session.
“It just makes sense to get those things marked, and we’ll see if we can’t make that happen,” Workman said.
Jeffrey Clark, executive director at the Wind Coalition, an industry group, said wind farm operators hoped to work with Texas and other states contemplating legislation in hopes of consistency.
A tower that one day is testing wind in Kansas might be in another state another day, posing problems if one state wants red paint and another wants yellow.
“For us, it really comes down to, can we get some standardized requirements,” Clark said. “If we can keep it consistent from place to place, it makes it easier for us to comply, which means pilots are safer.”
Kurt Williams, president of the National EMS Pilots Association, was one of the signatories to a letter urging Workman to draft legislation. The letter called for towers to be painted in alternating bands of white and orange, carry high-visibility spherical markers, and be registered with the aviation division of the Texas Department of Transportation.
“In the helicopter air ambulance business, we do the majority of our work from the surface to 1,000 feet off the ground,” Williams said. “For us, approaching and landing and taking off from unimproved areas, a MET tower could be a hazard … especially in the dark as we depart a scene.”
The towers are a tool used to gauge wind at various heights and times.
Should the site prove viable, wind turbines can provide a nice side income for landowners. Depending on the amount of energy it produces, a contract can provide $10,000 to $16,000 per year per turbine.
The energy companies have an interest in keeping their site-scoping under the radar, which is one reason the towers historically have been a nondescript gray.
Besides the possibility of being undercut by another developer, there’s fear of third-party interests quickly leasing large chunks of land so they can become an intermediary, which drives up the price of the land.
“The wind business is so similar to oil and gas,” Clark said. “There is a certain amount of science and exploration that goes into finding the perfect locations for wind farms. And in the same way an oil and gas developer tries not to advertise exactly where they’re looking, wind developers … they are competitors so they’re trying to find the best locations for wind farms without tipping their hand.”
“It’s hard to put up a structure this tall and keep it from being public,” Clark said. “It’s really more of not wanting to advertise.”
In the end, he said, safety comes first and wind industry leaders feel there are ways to make the towers visible to pilots without broadcasting exploration efforts.
“If there are ways that we can keep the proprietary information private and make the pilots safer, we’re going to do that,” he said. “And we’ve found ways to do that in other states.”
John Pappas, interim director of the Texas A&M University Energy Engineering Institute, said part of the problem could be FAA rules that encouraged developers to keep the towers lower than 200 feet. That makes regulation of short towers a state-by-state issue.
“If the permitting process requires them to release proprietary information, then maybe the permitting process needs to be adjusted,” he said. “And if the process takes too long for what the industry needs, then maybe the permitting process should be adjusted.”
In the meantime, Pappas said, the industry was waking up to its potential liability with the towers.
“There have been accidents and I think they have been attributed to the pilots not being able to see them in time,” he said. “I think the industry now knows there’s a problem and they’re doing something about it.”
Already, Kornegay, the Valley crop duster, has noticed markings on some towers, with paint that appears fresh. He’s concluded those are towers that last were erected in states that already had MET regulations on the books.
“This is not a federal thing. It’s a state thing, and so different towers are marked differently,” he said. “If they took a tower down from Colorado down here, the whole thing would probably painted and have lights on it. But if they brought it from a state that had no regulation other than the FAA recommendation, it might not.”
The letter to Rep. Workman didn’t seek a requirement for lighting, something Bruce Landsberg, senior safety adviser for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said was crucial. “What you really need are really big strobe lights on these things,” he said.
“We’re paying attention, don’t get me wrong,” Landsberg said. “But the idea of being able to see something like that at that speed … the odds of spotting it in time and being able to avoid it are not that great.”
There’s a reason police use flashing lights, Landsberg said – they catch the eye’s attention.
“Our physiology, the human eye’s physiology, is designed to see things that move,” he said. “You know what, we’re talking about human life here as opposed to commercial activity. … I just don’t think paint is particularly effective.”
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