Pentagon Streamlines Approval for Energy Projects
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jul. 26, 2011 A Defense Department clearinghouse for renewable energy projects has approved 229 of 249 projects proposed in 35 states and Puerto Rico, Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III said last week.
“These projects represent 10 gigawatts of renewable energy generation capacity in wind energy alone,” Lynn said at an Army and Air Force energy forum.
“Our action removes a major stumbling block for developers who are trying to attract financing, showing the department’s commitment to supporting the president’s vision for energy … without compromising our national security,” the deputy secretary said.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted during a speech at the same forum that the Defense Department has played a crucial role in developing technologies, including the GPS system, the Internet and semiconductor electronics.
“As an early investor and adopter, [DOD] has actually advanced those technologies that have become the core wealth generators … of today,” he said.
Chu likened the development of renewable energy technology to a second industrial revolution. “We still need the energy and the power to propel our military, our economy, our world -- but we need to do it in a cleaner way,” he said.
And, the Defense Department will continue to play a seminal role in stimulating the clean energy revolution, Chu said.
David Belote, DOD’s siting clearinghouse executive director, said the year-old organization exists to provide speedy assessment of renewable energy projects’ effects on military capabilities.
Before the clearinghouse was formed, the Air Force and other agencies spent 15 months negotiating over a solar project that started operating in 2007 near Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., said Belote, who was the air base wing commander there at the time.
“Where the company first proposed building, it was going to have some significant electromagnetic interference issues on test and evaluation operations at the Nevada Test and Training Range,” he said.
Belote said that solar, and especially wind power, installations can cause electromagnetic interference and other issues for military electronic sensing devices. Wind turbines can measure 500 feet from base to blade tip, and “large spinning things” cause particular issues for radar systems, he said.
During both the Nellis project debate and later negotiations over the Shepherds Flat Wind Farm in northern Oregon, intense congressional pressure led the Air Force to consult MIT Lincoln Laboratory, whose experts said, “This can be fixed,” Belote said.
The potential halt of the long-planned projects was due in part to the regulations the wind industry uses, Belote said. Federal Aviation Administration and DOD approval of large-scale energy projects at the time wasn’t required until 30 days before construction. That period now is 45 days.
The wind farm was a $2 billion project that had been in the works for five or six years, Belote said. “The Senate was plenty irritated that the military, late in the game, was asking to block it,” he added.
Ultimately, DOD agreed to field test MIT’s solutions and withdrew its objections to both projects, Belote said.
A third project involved the area around Travis Air Force Base, an area of “huge wind potential” in Solano County, Calif., and may be the model for how to go forward, he said. Two major wind energy corporations, the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District, and officials at Travis Air Force Base and the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command joined efforts to ensure radar coverage of flight operations while allowing wind farms to be built near the airfield, the clearinghouse executive director said.
“They did something called a mosaic, or triangulation, and they took two other radars within 60 or 80 miles, and put them together so they could see behind the wind farms as they were constructed and not lose track of aircraft around the pattern,” Belote said.
“The closest turbine to the Travis tower is 4.6 miles away,” he added.
Last summer, with a growing list of proposed renewable energy projects near military installations, DOD officials hired the newly retired Belote to lead the new siting clearinghouse and speed review of renewable energy projects.
The three main areas his staff studies, he said, are the impacts of proposed projects on military readiness and training, test and evaluation capabilities, and homeland defense: long-range radar surveillance, border surveillance, coastal surveillance and critical vulnerability surveillance.
Belote said his staff took the approach of working collaboratively with other federal agencies, the military services, solar and wind industry associations and nongovernmental environmental organizations.
By early December, industry representatives had agreed to approach Congress jointly with clearinghouse staff members to set review guidelines, he said, but that plan was derailed when President Barack Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act in January.
“It was much more stringent than we would have hoped, and set a very high bar for DOD to assess projects and to be able to object to projects,” Belote said. The act, he added, set a 180-day timeline for DOD to complete preliminary reviews on all the energy projects that had been delayed or deferred because of the department’s objections.
“We had 270 days, an additional 90 days, to figure out … a nationwide approach to wind, solar [and] geothermal in terms of high, medium and low military mission impact areas,” he said.
Belote said the act also limited DOD’s allowable objections to renewable energy projects to “unacceptable risk to national security,” while only the secretary of defense and three other top department officials can file such objections.
The clearinghouse staff then set to work to determine the size of the backlog and categorize projects. Projects with no significant risk of military mission failure would be rated green; projects with some risk but with logical mitigating strategies would be rated yellow; and “red” projects would be those with significant risk of mission failure and no apparent mitigating strategies.
“We ended up with 249 projects in the backlog,” he said.
Working with the military services, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Bureau of Land Management to review the backlog, clearinghouse staffers had by late May completed initial assessment of all projects, Belote said.
If all four of the military services, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, and defense readiness, test, and installations experts rated a project as green, “we trusted them,” he said.
The clearinghouse reviewed all yellow and red projects and returned them to the services with suggestions for mitigating risk, with a 30-day deadline for final review.
“We ended up coming back with 229 green, and 20 yellow or red,” Belote said. “Knowing what we have done to get to where we are, seven or eight [of the 20] will probably, after a little more work and study … go straight to green.”
Another seven or eight “amber” projects will likely be rated green if the developer agrees to some mitigating steps, he said.
“Move a handful of turbines, lower the height of some, maybe just remove a handful from a project, so that we preserve some military capability,” Belote explained.
Of the 229 projects already approved, 13 involve more than 100 wind turbines, five exceed 200, and two, in Michigan and Utah, may include more than 300, according to clearinghouse records.
Four or five of the 20 projects not yet approved “will probably stay bright red, because they are close to some critical, unique capabilities,” he said.
The clearinghouse board of directors, made up of senior defense officials, met on Day 180 of the review and approved the group’s results, he said.
Belote said his staff is now reviewing new project requests and compiling guidance on how to standardize ratings of future projects. They also are accepting requests from industry for early consultation, so developers can better forecast possible issues with planned projects.
“[And] we are working with [the Energy Department] … to do an interagency field test and evaluation of all the potential mitigation solutions, because we’ve discovered 80 to 90 percent of the issues surround wind turbines,” he said. “But the physicists and radar engineers understand what’s going on, so with some money and some political will, we can solve this.”
Belote said he believes technological advances and industry efforts will resolve interference issues within two to five years.
“There are a few places in the country that we need to keep electromagnetically pristine,” he said. “[But] we have taken big steps at being able to determine, in a publicly defensible, peer-reviewable way, what we need for military mission capability.”
Energy security and energy independence “are equally facets to national security as are military readiness, test and operations,” Belote said.