An outdated Air Force radar in Fossil is holding back nearly 4,000 megawatts of proposed wind energy across Eastern Oregon and Washington, according to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
Wyden is now asking top officials at the Pentagon and Federal Aviation Administration to replace the system with technology that can overcome interference, or “clutter,” created by turbines.
In a letter sent May 21 to Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, Wyden said the Fossil radar is increasingly seen as an impediment to local wind energy development, which has grown into a leading source of revenue for many rural communities.
The Obama administration has also made clean energy and reducing carbon emissions a top priority. To that end, Wyden said Oregon has answered the call by nearly quadrupling its wind generation between 2008 and 2013.
But developers continue to run into roadblocks with the Fossil radar, a long-range surveillance system jointly managed by the Department of Defense and Homeland Security. It is also used by the FAA for air traffic control.
Numerous wind turbines have been tagged by the FAA as a “potential hazard” for obstructing or blocking the radar’s ability to monitor airspace. The system was last given a software upgrade in 2010 to avoid stalling the 845-megawatt Shepherds Flat Wind Farm in Gilliam and Morrow counties.
However, Wyden said the administration must replace the entire Fossil radar to avoid scuttling other wind projects.
“I appreciate the significance of your agencies’ responsibilities in Eastern Oregon, and I strongly support your efforts to ensure national defense and safe skies,” Wyden said in his letter. “I do not, however, believe that these missions should preclude further development of wind energy resources.”
The Defense Department did not respond Thursday to a request for comment. Allen Kenitzer, spokesman for the FAA’s Northwest Mountain Region in Renton, Washington, said they have received Wyden’s letter and will respond in a timely manner.
Meanwhile, wind developers are left with uncertainty over moving forward on projects that could interfere with the radar and scare away potential investors.
Jerry Rietmann, an Ione farmer and CEO of Wheatridge Wind Energy LLC, is currently in the process of permitting a 500-megawatt wind farm in Morrow and Umatilla counties, though he said more than 70 percent of the project’s 292 turbine sites have been identified by the FAA as potential hazards.
Despite meeting with leaders in Washington, D.C., Rietmann said they haven’t been able to come to a solution. It’s been a huge source of frustration, he said, but he remains positive moving forward.
“It’s hard for me to believe, at the end of the day, there isn’t a reasonable solution to continue wind development in the region,” Rietmann said. “If not, then I guess we made a good bet and lost.”
It is not known exactly how much it would cost to replace the radar, but Sherman County Judge Gary Thompson said it pales in comparison to the billions of dollars in potential investment from wind companies looking to locate in rural areas like his.
Sherman County is Oregon’s second-smallest by population, with just 1,765 people. Thompson said the county is now home to more than 1,000 megawatts of wind generation, bringing in more than $8 million in annual revenue.
“It’s our biggest industry, currently,” Thompson said. “In county revenue, it surpasses farming substantially.”
That money has already gone toward building a new library and Oregon State University experiment station in Moro, Thompson said. If something isn’t done about the radar, it could essentially put a cease-and-desist on new wind farms and cut into their economic growth.
Wyden agreed, saying the issue threatens to place rural Oregon and Washington in “economic sacrifice zones.”
“Updating the radar system in Fossil will allow communities in rural Oregon to keep growing their economies and taking advantage of the clean energy resources that are so abundant in our state,” Wyden said. “I’m urging the Obama administration to update this system — as it did with Shepherd’s Flat Wind Farm — to keep the skies safe, give rural Oregon a boost and advance low-carbon, renewable wind energy.
Contact George Plaven at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4547.