Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Unintended Consequences: Opposition to Cape Wind Likely Results in Widespread Impact on U.S. Wind Power Development

Last week news hit the blogosphere of the latest hiccup facing the development of wind power in the United States - a sudden concern over how wind power projects may affect military radar installations. This week, RenewableEnergyAccess.com (REA) reports that an interesting back-story is starting to emerge, leading to accusations that politics have played at least some part in bringing as many as 15 wind power installations in the Midwest to a temporary halt. And the ripples being felt in the farm belt may have originated over a thousand miles away in the waters off Massachusetts...

According to REA, the current radar issue stems from The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, signed into law January 6, 2006 (PL 109-163). That act contained a last-minute amendment inserted by Senator John Warner (R-VA) that required the Department of Defense (DOD) to study and report on the effects of wind projects on military readiness.

By all accounts, the original Congressional language was aimed at one project, Cape Wind, a 420 MW offshore wind project proposed off the coast of Massachusetts [see previous post on the Cape Wind controversy]. However, DOD and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have apparently decided to expand upon the original study directive and apply it to all proposed wind power installations in the United States.

REA reporsts that Warner has been associated previously with legislation that would be harmful to wind power - particularly the Cape Wind project.

The REA article continues:

"Senator Warner says he's for wind power, but his actions betray that," said Michael Vickerman, Executive Director of RENEW Wisconsin, a nonprofit group that promotes renewable energy in the state. Wisconsin is among the Midwest states where the radar issue has put some projects on hold.

"It's not just a military matter, that's what's really bothering us," said Vickerman, who reflects an opinion bubbling up in wind power circles that radar issues have been used to put the brakes on wind power development.

Since the proposed Cape Wind project falls within local radar view, it too may be put on hold at least until the DOD study is complete. But if political motivations were behind Warner's amendment, this entire issue may prove to be a case of unintended consequences because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) actions stalling wind projects have mostly occurred in the Midwest.

In light of the required study, regional FAA officials issued notices of "Perceived Hazard" to approximately 15 wind projects, putting the brakes on, at least temporarily, to well over 1000 MW of wind power. Vickerman says the stalled projects include 950 MW in Illinois, 570 MW in Wisconsin, and 200 MW each in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Why FAA officials in regional offices in the Midwest, not the Northeast, have been putting the most projects on hold is being chalked up to a simple lack of consistent interpretation of the law by these FAA offices.

Some wind power developers like Dave Luck, head of business development for EnXco, can see how people in the wind power industry came to the conclusion that politics have played a role in the radar issue.

"It's hard to dismiss that, given one of the sponsors of the bill," said Luck, referring to Warner. But Luck admits it would be impossible to prove the move was politically motivated. Furthermore, he doubts the FAA actions in the Midwest had anything to do with local, or NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition because wind power faces relatively less local opposition in the Midwest than in the Northeast and coastal communities.

"I just don't see the rationale for this being a cloaked NIMBY issue," said Luck, in an interview at a recent wind power conference. "If that was the case, you'd have farmers up in arms. There would literally be a backlash."

Luck says farmers have been some of wind power's greatest supporters. Wind power, he said, is a curious new form of rural development that's being welcomed with open arms in much of America's heartland.

When asked if Luck would expand his operations into offshore wind power, where attitudes in the U.S. have been downright caustic, his face visibly changed as he said, "I'm not going to fight that battle, it's not worth it."

Someone who has been fighting that battle is Mark Rodgers, Communications Director for Cape Wind. He recently circulated some gumshoe reporting from a local Cape Cod publication, the Cape Cod Voice, that he says offers documentary substantiation on the political point many in the wind power business have been making with respect to the origins and motivations behind Warner's radar study amendment.

The article (link provided below) reports that a registered lobbyist for the organization that formed to oppose Cape Wind, The Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, basically claimed credit for the Warner Amendment of last year on air navigation.

"It is truly unfortunate that Cape Wind opponents are having such a harmful effect on the entire wind industry," Rodgers said in an e-mail.

But while many in the wind power industry are busy trying to uncover, and prove, if any political motivations are behind radar concerns stalling wind power, politicians themselves are starting to feel the pressure from their local constituents.

Most recently, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), representing one of the states where the FAA notices has put projects on hold, succeeded in getting the Bush Administration to remove the hold on a North Dakota Project. Dorgan said many projects, including those that are unlikely to interfere with air navigation, have received the FAA notices.

At a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Dorgan called on the Administration to work with wind turbine developers to address concerns in the future, saying he would offer legislation to fix the problem if officials continue to "needlessly delay" important renewable energy projects.

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