The director of a group that represents wind farm developers in Oklahoma says its members are going with the flow when it comes to a new requirement to get clearance from the U.S. Department of Defense before building any new or expanding any existing wind farms inside the state.
A requirement for wind farm developers to run those plans past the Defense Department’s Military Aviation and Installation Assurance Siting Clearinghouse, via the Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission, formally adds an additional step to the process.
It was added to an existing statute that governs the placement of wind turbines near airports inside of Oklahoma. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the measure in early May.
“After the effective date of this act, construction or operation of a proposed wind energy facility or proposed wind energy facility expansion shall not encroach upon or otherwise have a significant adverse impact on the mission, training or operations of any military installation or branch of military,” the statue’s amended language reads.
Developers already were clearing their plans with the Federal Aviation Administration to assure their projects weren’t causing any navigational hazards, and many of those reviews had involved the clearinghouse, industry officials and regulators said.
And Mark Yates, Oklahoma director of the Wind Coalition, said this week it had no objections to formalizing the requirement.
“At the end of the day, the Wind Coalition worked with the Legislature and the military to find an amenable, reasonable solution,” Yates said.
“We believe the process will be efficient enough that it won’t impair future development.”
National security concerns
Discussions to add the requirement began last year before the Oklahoma House’s Transportation Committee, which heard from military officials concerned about turbines, wind energy experts who saw no need for further regulation, and agricultural groups worried about their private property rights.
The basic message committee members heard is that training’s importance had been elevated by Congress to a national security concern, and that the siting of wind turbines was an issue.
The measure, co-authored by Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Mike Schulz, Sens. Casey Murdock and Frank Simpson and Rep. Charles Ortega, was proposed this session and received overwhelming support, with not a single House or Senate member voting against it.
In Oklahoma, the requirement for its Strategic Military Planning Commission to become formally involved was included to speed reviews of proposed projects, commission Chairman Mike Cooper said.
The new language requires wind farm developers to submit their plans to the commission (through the Oklahoma Corporation Commission), and for the military planning commission to notify local base commanders of the projects and to notify the Defense Department’s clearinghouse in writing.
Cooper said the requirement easily can be handled by the planning commission, which originally was created to help local communities work with bases to grow and enhance their missions as the federal government evaluated which ones to keep as part of its Base Realignment and Closure process initiated after the end of the Cold War.
“Oklahoma’s number one asset when it comes to its bases (after runways, hangars and other facilities and services) is the availability of its airspace,” he said. “You either decide to protect it, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you aren’t going to have mission.”
Cooper said that while wind development so far hasn’t eliminated area bases’ abilities to conduct training, he did say there are some cases where built wind turbines had created some issues.
Cooper said part of the requirement’s goal is to ensure there’s complete communication between wind developers and base’s military staffs.
“We want them to build, but we don’t want them to build in a spot where it would impact a base’s mission capability.
“At the end of the day, no one wants to ruin a national defense asset,” Cooper said.
Since 2011, the Department of Defense’s Siting Clearinghouse has reviewed proposed renewable energy projects near military bases to ensure wind, solar and transmission line infrastructure don’t interfere with training operations.
The federal statute that established the siting clearinghouse requires the organization to take one of three actions within 30 days of getting notified of a pending project.
The clearinghouse can determine the project poses no adverse impact on military operations and readiness, it can determine it will have an adverse impact but won’t require any kind of mitigation, or it can determine that mitigation is required.
Data obtained from the clearinghouse website shows the number of formal reviews on projects it has conducted range from 502 in 2011, where it only was established for part of the year, to 4,208 in 2016.
Steve Sample, the clearinghouse’s deputy director, said each review covers a specific project ranging from just a single or a few structures to many.
Sample said previous clearinghouse reviews of Oklahoma projects have been prompted through notifications from the Federal Aviation Administration.
It reviewed 19 projects in 2015, more than 60 in 2016 and 45 last year, he said.
A friction point
The Oklahoma statute already has created friction in western Oklahoma, where Shelly Newton, Hinton’s mayor, recently organized a field trip to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas, for reporters.
In extending her invitation, Newton stated in an email that a planned expansion of NextEra Energy Resource’s Minco wind farm violates the new state law and compromises national security.
The expansion would “entirely obstruct a vital military training route used by the base,” she stated, adding the base representatives had been unaware of the NextEra’s expansion plan until she alerted them.
Cooper said the project likely posed a concern because about 60 percent of training airspace for Sheppard is above western Oklahoma.
NextEra spokesman Steve Stengel answered Newton’s concerns by stating his firm routinely works with federal officials to conduct needed reviews.
“NextEra Energy Resources values and respects our country’s military installations all across America and we regularly work with Vance, Altus and other bases in Oklahoma,” he wrote as part of an emailed response.
Meanwhile, the clearinghouse’s Sample noted it also has reviewed NextEra’s expansion plan and found some potential adverse impacts to Sheppard’s training activities.
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“The Military Aviation and Installation Assurance Siting Clearinghouse established a mitigation response team in April to assess the impacts and any reasonable and affordable mitigation strategies,” Sample stated in an email.
“NextEra is a partner in this effort and is working with the Air Force to identify solutions. The Clearinghouse and the Air Force will coordinate the progress with both Federal and State authorities, although any prediction of the outcome is premature.”