Wind power is a growing industry in the United States, offering up 17 billion kilowatt hours annually. According to one source, a single megawatt wind turbine running for a year can eliminate 1,500 tons of carbon dioxide, 6.5 tons of sulfur dioxide, 3.2 tons of nitrogen oxides, and 60 pounds of mercury. But not everyone is a fan of wind energy. As the New York Times reports, the U.S. Department of Defense has emerged as a key opponent to wind turbine farms. Wind turbines cause unacceptable levels of interference for military flights and more, largely because of outdated radar technologies.

 

No serious aerial incidents have yet occurred because of wind turbine interference. But as the NY Times reports, the moving blades look like airplanes on most radar systems. They create blackout zones on radar or can interfere with weather reports. Groups of wind turbines can appear as storms on the radar, making weather reporting for pilots full of inaccuracies.

Much of the problem lies in U.S. radar systems, which have less processing power than a typical laptop computer. Many of the radar systems used today date back to the 1950s and have a limited ability to deal with interference. So far, experts have been unable to fix the problem. Peter Drake is a technical director at Raytheon, provider of radar systems. As he told the NY Times, “a wind turbine can look like a 747 on final approach. We don’t want to have the software eliminate a real 747.”

Consequently, the U.S. military has developed an adversarial relationship with those who have existing and proposed wind farms. Gary Seifert studies the radar-wind energy clashes for the government. As he told the NY Times, “The train wreck is the competing resources for two national needs: energy security and national security.” The military proposes that the radar interference poses an objectionable risk to training, testing and national security.

Wind experts worry that the military’s opposition to wind power will damage an already foundering industry. Vestas Wind Systems, the world’s biggest wind turbine maker, recently lost almost a quarter of its value in trading. Some say this crash was largely due to instability in the banking system. In 2009, around 9,000 megawatts of wind projects were delayed because of radar concerns from the military. Experts are concerned that this opposition will cause more banks to back off on funding wind energy.

The Energy Department is hopeful that new technologies will soon solve these issues of interference. Software patches, gap-filler radar, and alternative configurations for wind farms have been proposed. But authorities worry that these are more good intentions than actual solutions. In the meantime, the fate of wind power remains uncertain.

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