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Wind farm developers face head winds

Nathalie Weinstein
Dolan Media Newswires

Portland, OR — Construction of new wind farms in Oregon usually begins in spring, when developers hope for dry weather. But this spring, developers are concerned about more than just rain.

The Federal Aviation Administration last month sent a notice of presumed hazard for Caithness Energy’s Shepherd’s Flat wind farm in Arlington, saying one of the project’s 303 turbines could interfere with transmissions from a Department of Defense-owned radar station in nearby Fossil.

Now, a study to determine whether the turbine could interfere with signals from the radar station will hold up the Eastern Oregon project well into summer. And wind developers, such as Chris Taylor, chief development officer of Element Power, worry that their projects may be delayed in the future.

“The troubling thing is this project was developed properly and responsibly,” Taylor said. “We need a system (with the FAA) that allows you to tell early on where the problem areas are. The fact that they came at the 11th hour is what is really problematic.”

Laura Brown, spokeswoman for the FAA, said Caithness Energy filed a notice with the FAA in September 2009, but a notice of presumed hazard wasn’t issued by the FAA until March 1, a few weeks before project construction was scheduled to begin.

Caithness had poured concrete for Shepherd’s Flat and bought all of the turbines it needed from General Electric, according to John Audley, executive director of the Renewable Northwest Project, a nonprofit that performs advocacy work for Oregon’s clean energy industry. Now those turbines are waiting at a terminal in the Port of Tacoma.

“Investors are in a Catch-22 here,” Audley said. “The window for construction is very narrow. You have to start building now to be done by October, when the rain starts, and then be sufficiently completed by the end of the year to qualify for federal tax incentives.”

One of the difficulties in planning a wind farm project, Taylor said, is that developers will go through dozens of potential turbine layouts between concept and completion to ensure that the turbines are generating the most energy possible.

But Taylor said the FAA lacks the resources to review multiple designs. Instead, it asks developers to submit an initial layout and use that to determine whether the project presents a hazard. Later, a wind developer has to resubmit the project for final approval if any changes have been made. As a result, it could be rejected.

“The concerns stem from the fact that this project sought and was given approval by FAA and they went back for final approval with minimal changes, the opinion changed,” Audley said. “That’s hard on a business making investments and financing decisions.”

“The irony is, you could stick with the unoptimized layout that has been approved by FAA and build a less efficient wind farm,” Taylor said. “We need a system that allows you to tell early on where the problem areas are. Something like, anything under 450 feet tall is OK. That’s the clarity we need.”

The increase in wind projects seeking the OK from the FAA has challenged the federal agency. Brown said that in 2004 her office saw 4,000 applications for wind turbines each year. Today, it sees 30,000 per year.

“We have been telling the wind turbine industry for a number of years that we need eight to 12 months to do these reviews,” Brown said. “We recognize that the developers want to proceed quickly. But since we have to review every single turbine, on a project that involves hundreds of turbines, that’s a bigger task.”

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