A bill in the Texas Legislature that would prohibit wind energy developers from receiving tax credits if they developed a wind farm within 34.5 miles of a military base received support and opposition Tuesday during a hearing at the House Ways & Means Committee.
Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, presented House Bill 445 to the bipartisan panel. The bill was filed after officials at Sheppard Air Force Base and the Sheppard Military Affairs Committee approached him with concerns over the potential development of wind farms in neighboring Clay County – one near Petrolia and Byers to the north east and another near Bluegrove to the southeast. He said during his presentation, which was broadcast on the Legislature’s website, that when he met with a developer from Horn LLC, the developer told him he shouldn’t be concerned because the Department of Defense and Federal Aviation Administration have a process regarding such a situation.
Frank said municipalities with military installations are concerned about what happens around the base. Sheppard could be negatively affected by the development of the two wind farms, specifically on its flying training mission.
He said Texas leads the country in the production of wind energy, which he said he supports and wants to continue to see grow.
“But, the nature of a very fast growing industry is it is encroaching on another very important industry, the second largest industry in the state – $136 billion military,” he said. “That’s just the economic impact. Obviously, there’s the national defense part that’s pretty important as well.”
Frank said he supports using tax incentives or credits for economic development purposes in the state, but not when those developments threaten an economic driver like military installations. That’s why the bill doesn’t prohibit the development of wind farms within that radius. Rather, it simply keeps developers from benefiting from tax credits.
According to a graphic on the representative’s Facebook page, not only does the military provide a significant economic impact for the state, but it also provides more than 230,000 direct jobs and another 800,000 indirect jobs, figures that were provided by the Texas Comptroller. Numbers from the American Wind Energy Association show wind farms provide a $3 billion economic impact while employing about 1,170 in direct jobs and 24,000 indirect jobs.
Several showed up in support of HB 445, including Lt. Col. Matthew Manning, director of operations at the 80th Operations Support Squadron at Sheppard, and Wichita Falls Mayor Stephen Santellana.
Manning said the proposed wind farm in the Petrolia-Byers area is about 12 miles from Sheppard, while the one in Bluegrove is about 21 miles from the base. He said their concern is how wind farms will affect radar in aircraft and air traffic control systems on the ground. Radar, he said, is their primary tool for approaches during bad weather as well as showing where other aircraft in the air space are located.
He said the radars will pick up “false returns” from the turbines, which would make it difficult for controllers to know the difference between the turbines and aircraft. For pilots in the air, it obscures their vision as to what, according to radar, is actually around them.
It would also affect vectoring altitudes, which is the lowest altitude that controllers can give aircraft clearances during direct routing. Manning said if 500-foot-tall wind turbines are put in, that would result in Sheppard having to raise its vectoring altitude, which would result in lost training missions and days during weather when clouds are at 500 feet.
“The bottom line is that wind turbines within 25 miles from Sheppard Air Force Base cause significant impacts to our radar, our ability to separate aircraft from vector aircraft to final,” he said. “Inside 12 miles, that impact becomes critical. It degrades our pilot training and puts military and civilian aircraft at risk.”
Santellana said after returning to Wichita Falls Wednesday afternoon his focus was to talk about the economic impact Sheppard has on Wichita Falls, surrounding communities and the state. He shared statistics such at the base’s $803 million annual economic impact to the area as well as direct and indirect jobs created.
He said he could continue throwing out statistics but it boils down to one reality: A lot of wind energy developers aren’t from military communities and they lack the understanding of an installation’s impact.
“Ours is simple. We are a military town,” he said. “If it affects the mission of Sheppard, it affects Wichita Falls – plain and simple.”
Dave Belote, a defense and energy consultant with Apex Clean Energy and a retired Air Force colonel, spoke in opposition to HB 445. The 1991 graduate of the 80th Flying Training Wing’s Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program at Sheppard said some of what was being testified in support of the legislation was based on misconceptions and inaccurate facts.
“This is a solution in search of a problem,” he said. “… This is all about a single bad actor that completely garbaged up the system.”
The “bad actor” to which Belote was referring was Horn Wind LLC.
Belote said representatives from the service branches, including the Air Force, are part of a FAA board that looks at potential hazards when it comes to flight safety. He said if any member of that board does not check off a project with a “Determination of No Hazard,” the project cannot get financed and cannot get insurance.
The bill was left pending in committee.
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