Pentagon objections hold up Oregon wind farm

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Map shows locations of Shepherds Flat wind farm and U.S. Air Force radar system in Oregon.
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010; 9:09 PM

One of the Obama administration's prime initiatives -- the development of sources of alternative energy to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil, create American jobs and combat climate change -- is being jeopardized by competing concerns of the Defense Department.

The Pentagon is threatening to scuttle what promises to be the world's largest wind farm, in eastern Oregon, arguing that the giant turbines could interfere with an Air Force radar system.

Caithness Energy had planned to break ground two weeks from now on the 845-megawatt, $2 billion Shepherds Flat wind farm near Arlington, Ore., an economically depressed rural community. But last month, Pentagon officials moved to deny the developer its final Federal Aviation Administration permit.

The move has sparked an intense lobbying battle and White House-led negotiations as senior Obama administration officials hope to avert a showdown that could cost 16,000 American jobs. The Pentagon's objections could put at risk three other major wind projects in the same region, along with proposed farms in states from Illinois to Texas. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the dispute "is not about one project. It's about the future of renewable, domestic, clean power."

The standoff centers on whether the blades of the Shepherds Flat project's 338 turbines would interfere with a radar system in Fossil, Ore., because radar signals reflect off the blades when they're in certain positions. The Pentagon, which did not respond to media queries, shut down national permitting for wind farms for several months in 2006 based on radar concerns, prompting a Sierra Club lawsuit. The FAA declined to comment on the matter.

The FAA sent notices to Caithness Energy, a company that has spent nearly four decades developing renewable energy projects, and an array of local landowners who plan to host wind turbines on their property, saying the structures pose "a hazard to air navigation." In the letter to landowners, the FAA indicated that the turbines would exceed "obstruction standards and/or would have an adverse physical or electromagnetic interference effect upon navigable airspace or air navigation facilities."

As a result of the FAA's permit refusal, work has halted on the nine-year venture. The Energy Department has stopped working on the project's loan-guarantee application; it remains unclear whether General Electric will finish manufacturing the turbines, which represented the company's largest renewable-energy contract of 2009.

Any significant delays in construction could kill the wind farm, according Caithness Executive Vice President Ross Ain, because the project, which would take 18 months to complete, will lose its eligibility for federal stimulus funds unless it's finished by the end of 2012. In addition, the farm is supposed to start supplying power to Southern California Edison by late next year, and the utility is under pressure to meet the state's strict renewable portfolio standards.

"We're extremely disappointed that the concerns raised by the Air Force at the 25th hour threatens to crater literally billions of dollars of renewable energy in the United States and tens of thousands of jobs in renewable energy," Ain said.

Several proponents of the project -- including Wyden and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), as well as Caithness and GE officials -- have lobbied the White House on the matter. Wyden has indicated that he will put a hold on the nomination of Sharon Burke, who is in line to direct the Defense Department's Operational Energy Plans and Programs, until the two sides can reach agreement.

Pentagon officials have met with aides to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, National Economic Council Director Lawrence H. Summers and White House energy and climate change adviser Carol Browner in an effort to resolve the impasse. Merkley was awaiting a call from Emanuel on Thursday afternoon and said if he didn't receive it that day, "he'll hear back from me."

The Pentagon's move has put in jeopardy three nearby wind farms being developed by Iberdrola Renewables. Together with Shepherds Flat, the projects would produce 3,000 megawatts, an amount of electricity equivalent to three nuclear power plants.

Iberdrola Renewables spokeswoman Jan Johnson said the projects had been found not to pose an air navigation hazard, but because of minor modifications, it is undergoing a second round of FAA review. "They're certainly taking a look at the issue of being close to the Fossil, Oregon, radar," she said.

Skye Krebs, a rancher whose land will hold part of the Shepherds Flat project, said he and other local residents are stunned by the turnabout.

"We don't take national security lightly," Krebs said in an interview. But, he added, "holding this project hostage at the last minute has caused a whole lot of hurt for a whole lot of people."

Less than two weeks ago, he said, one of the project contractors threw a barbecue for area residents. Krebs had started constructing a house with the "big dollars" he was getting for having wind turbines on his ranch. But last week, he told the men working on the house to stop.

"That's three jobs right there," he said. "I sent the people working on the house home last week because I just don't know how this whole thing's going to shake out."


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