Federal Aviation Administration offers sneak peek into wind farm development

Guest Blog | April 6, 2016 | Energy Policy, Wind
Credit: Creative Commons, via Leaflet on Wikimedia Commons

This blog is part of the Southern Wind Energy Association’s Windy Wednesday series leading up to the wind energy industry’s largest annual event, WINDPOWER 2016, being hosted in New Orleans May 23-26. Registration and details available here. You can read the other blogs in this series by clicking on #WindyWednesday

How can clean energy advocates best prepare for wind energy development in the South? During the beginning stages of a proposed wind farm, there may be some general information on the project, but not all details are made publicly available. Or, a proposed project may be in such early stages of development that it has not yet been reported or announced. Without this information, advocates can struggle to prepare to answer key questions, concerns, and benefits of a project. Luckily, there is a simple online tool you can use to locate a proposed wind farm near you.

The wind farm development companies, communication tower installers and any company building any tall structure has to file a Notice of Proposed Construction with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to get clearance. The FAA looks for obstructions the tall structures might cause impairments to flight paths and radar. It can take the FAA several months to evaluate tall structures prior to their construction, so wind developers often file a notice to the FAA in the fairly early stages of a project – sometimes even before the wind developer has all the details sorted out.

You can locate this information on FAA’s website by viewing the “Proposed Cases” here. The search tool allows you to evaluate each state and sort by height to view the tallest structures proposed. As you’ll notice, many states all across the South have numerous extremely tall structures proposed – many past 1,000 feet tall. These structures may be buildings, or telecommunication towers, or wind turbines. Structures labeled “WTE” are wind turbines, usually 400-660 feet tall. This tool allows advocates to accurately identify individual turbine placement, number of turbines and even turbine heights of proposed wind farms, down to the latitude/longitude. From that information, you can potentially surmise what type of turbine the developers are eyeing.

For example, by searching North Carolina on the database and sorting by height, we can see that there are multiple wind farm projects on the horizon. The 2012 database shows that there are 102 “WTE” structures near Elizabeth City. By clicking on each turbine and looking at the map, it appears that the wind turbines will be located predominately on farmland. The FAA maps are fairly limited and do not include common features and aerial photography; but, a savvy user can enter turbine latitude/longitude into Google Earth to further evaluate a proposed site. For sites with many turbines proposed, an online batch geocoder can help generate KMZ or KML files for Google Earth.

TOP: FAA map of a single wind turbine. BOTTOM: Google Earth image of all turbine locations using imported latitude/longitude from FAA

Once the FAA finishes evaluating the structure, the turbines are moved to “Determined Cases,” where the “status” of each turbine provides information on whether the structure has been approved. Moving over to Alabama, we can locate 52 “WTE” structures in the northeastern part of the state. At 570 feet tall, the towers were each issued a “Letter of Determination” in 2013 concluding that these structures pose no hazard to air navigation.

By looking through many approved projects it’s clear that the FAA continues to approve these turbines even as the structures continue to grow in height due to new technology best suited for the South. And that’s an important factor for the wind energy industry across the country. Debate has raged over whether or not the FAA would approve wind turbines over 500 feet tall; however, as shown here in the South, we have already had a number of turbines >500 feet tall approved by the FAA.

The FAA tool also brings to light the amount of extremely large towers and structures that exist across the country. Anti-wind activists often use the wind turbines’ height as an argument to ban wind farms. All across the South there are structures that reach nearly 2,000 feet tall. Yet, the same anti-wind groups aren’t fighting 1,000-foot tall telecommunication towers.

The information from the FAA gives wind energy advocates, community members, and policymakers more tools at the very beginning stages of a proposed wind farm. Are there questions about viewshed? Benefits for specific property openers? The more information made available early on, the better prepared advocates can be. That being said, not all details are always made available through the FAA tool. As mentioned previously, wind developers may ask for FAA approval for the state-of-the-art wind turbine, but ultimately end up using a shorter turbine. Similarly, a developer may have not secured all the land leasing rights, and so the number of turbines and their locations may change slightly. Finally, the FAA approval process is just one procedure – FAA approval alone does not guarantee a wind farm will ultimately get built.

This is a fantastic tool to use as a first step to finding a potential wind farm near you and allows advocates to stay on top of the emerging wind energy industry in the South!

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