Here’s a crazy lede from a press release about Air Force wind turbines that came out earlier this week: “Change is blowing into Cape Cod Air Force Station as the 6th Space Warning Squadron receives two new wind turbines.” Crazy, because just a couple of years ago the U.S. Department of Defense expressed serious national security concerns about radar interference from wind farms, and now here they are plunking down a couple of wind turbines right in the middle of a radar station. However, before the alarm bells go off, take a look at what’s changed over the past couple of years.
Air Force Wind Turbines Save Money
First off, let’s note that the full lede in that press release goes like this:
“Change is blowing into Cape Cod Air Force Station as the 6th Space Warning Squadron receives two new wind turbines here saving an estimated $1 million in annual energy costs.”
The two turbines are expected to slash electricity costs at the station in half and pay for themselves in about twelve years. After that, they will provide the station with free electricity for up to 13 years, assuming they reach their 20-25 lifespan.
The press release is a bit vague on the details but apparently the station currently receives electricity from an oil-fired power plant. From that benchmark the Air Force expects that the two turbines combined will cut carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 2,000 metric tons per year.
Wind-Friendly Radar Stations
So, what’s changed? In this instance, perhaps nothing. There are different kinds of radar systems for different purposes. This one is for “space situational awareness” and for tracking sea-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles as well as satellites, and it’s possible that wind turbines don’t make a difference for that kind of system.
In general, though, wind turbines are recognized as a threat to radar operations, and by the mid-2000′s it became obvious that the growing wind industry in the U.S. was on a collision course with military radar systems. In response, the Department of Homeland Security commissioned a study on radar interference from wind turbines that was released in 2008.
The study noted that the conventional solution was location-based, meaning simply that wind turbines could not be located anywhere near a radar station.
That’s a rather primitive approach to solving a high-tech problem, and sure enough the study recommended exploring technological rather than geographical solutions.
Fast-forward just three years and you’ll see that one is at hand, at least in the UK. Within the past year, the UK’s Ministry of Defence has worked out a big deal with wind farm developers that has “unlocked” 4 gigawatts (GW) worth of blocked wind farms.
Wind Power for the U.S. Military
Something must be up in the U.S., too, because just last August the Department of Defense signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of the Interior to explore the potential for wind power and other forms of alternative energy on millions of acres of land at western military bases.
Meanwhile, a U.S. company called Aveillant has come up with a new radar system for air traffic control at airports that it calls a Holographic Radar, which uses 3-D imagery to distinguish between airplane wings and turbine blades.
In any case, if radar systems can be redesigned to coexist with wind turbines, perhaps a technological solution will soon be at hand to ensure that wind turbines can coexist more safely with birds, too.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.