More Wind and Solar Farms Thanks to a Pentagon Partnership

By working with the U.S. Department of Defense, NRDC is mapping the way for renewable energy production near military bases in the West.

Credit: Scott Loftesness/Getty

Clean energy and the United States Armed Forces should be, by any measure, the best of friends. The U.S. Department of Defense, or DOD, as one of the largest consumers of energy in the country, has a compelling interest in seeing wind, solar, and other domestic energy sources help reduce our dependence on foreign oil. In fact, the Pentagon is so committed to cleaner energy that it has pledged to tap renewables for a quarter of all the energy it consumes by 2025. “It was inspiring to work with military leaders and see how dedicated they are to this issue,” says Kit Kennedy, NRDC's director of clean energy and transportation.

Unfortunately, the military and renewable energy enterprises have sometimes clashed when it comes to siting specific projects. The big boom in renewable energy development in the past few years continues to grow, in part thanks to federal incentives. U.S. wind production in particular tripled between 2008 and 2012, and by 2030, it could account for 20 percent of our power, according to one estimate. But some of the land available for the large-scale projects to make that possible—the open, undeveloped deserts of the western United States—lies next to or near property controlled by the U.S. Army, Air Force, Marines, and Navy.

Here’s the rub: Wind turbines have the potential to interfere with military radar signals and also obstruct low-flying flight paths used for testing and training exercises by the armed forces. For solar farms, a potential issue is the sunlight reflection and glare, which can also interfere with radar and other military equipment. Plus, most of these projects require huge tracts of land, which can encroach on the buffer zones the military has sought to preserve in these regions since its bases and other facilities were first established.

Because the military conflict was often with a base located far from the proposed renewable energy site, often private developers had advanced well into their projects before learning of the DOD’s concerns about them. “What was happening was that developers would clear almost every hurdle they needed to before beginning construction, only to be halted at the 11th hour by objections from the Department of Defense,” says Helen O’Shea, director of NRDC’s Western Renewable Energy Project.

Not that those objections aren’t often valid. Base commanders and other military staff on the ground have very real concerns about radar systems, for instance, that have been adapted to detect aircraft even when they don’t have, or have disabled, transponders—a pressing national-security concern since September 11. “The military uses Doppler radar, which picks up metal objects in motion, and some systems, particularly older ones, are very sensitive to noise. You can see how a large wind farm would present concerns,” says NRDC scientist Matthew McKinzie.

Some high-profile projects were held up due to military objections just before construction was scheduled to begin. For example, the Shepherds Flat wind farm in central Oregon: In 2010, the U.S. Air Force nearly put a halt to the project because of worries that 338 nearby turbines would scramble its radar. The project moved forward when the air force figured out a way to upgrade the radar system, but only after high-level negotiations involving then–White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Plenty of other projects hit similar snags, even if they didn’t make TV nightly news.

Even as the White House was encouraging more clean energy, developers faced an information gap in critical areas of location and planning. “They didn’t know where or when to ask for information,” says Kennedy. “They would get in touch with the nearest military base and get the all-clear, only to find out very late in the game that something was a problem for another facility farther away.”

Fortunately, that’s no longer the reality. The DOD has now created its own Siting Clearinghouse, which can be used as the next step for developers who need more detailed input from the military itself after using the database.

Based on common interests, NRDC and the DOD began working together to create two innovative tools to help renewable energy developers choose sites for their future projects without interfering with the military’s legitimate interests. Called “smart from the start" siting, the model for this collaboration has been used by NRDC for years, though previous applications have focused on protecting sensitive habitat and mitigating conservation concerns during large construction projects.

NRDC experts drew from that experience in this new context. First, McKinzie and other staff worked closely with DOD colleagues to create the READ-Database, a digital mapping tool that developers can use to spot potential conflicts early in the planning process. Taking into account topographical factors, existing radar systems, flight paths, and conservation concerns, this tool helps developers get an early read on whether a potential location is a good bet, allowing them to approach the DOD with confidence early in the process.

“They can check in with the DOD at the Siting Clearinghouse and say, 'Do I have the green light? Do I have the red light?' ” Kennedy says. “Another common scenario, however, is actually a yellow light—an acknowledgment that the project will go forward but will require some adjustments, either on the part of the military or the developer. When you have situations like these, it’s so important to be working together early.”

Another key component is a detailed siting primer that the NRDC and DOD created to guide interested parties—both civilian and military—through the process. “It was a real breakthrough to work together and come together on these issues," Kennedy says.

Overall, hundreds of developers have downloaded the database tool since it was first launched in 2012, including all of the dozen or so major players in renewable energy development. This has helped head off untold numbers of snags, and smaller developers in particular can now use NRDC with more specific questions after using the database. Perhaps just as important, the project has established a productive partnership between the environmental movement and the military. “This is a win-win situation. We’ve opened up a dialogue and we’ve created a model for how we can work together to get to yes,” Kennedy says.

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