FAA's No Hazard to Air Navigation Determinations Challenged

As we discussed earlier in our post entitled "Offshore Wind Energy Turbines Pose No Threat to Air Navigation and Traffic Operations According to the FAA," the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) issued No Hazard to Air Navigation determinations for the Cape Wind offshore wind energy project located in the Nantucket Sound. The determinations mean that the project’s 130 wind turbines pose no threat to air navigation and traffic operations in the area.

Shortly after the FAA’s determinations were issued, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound asked the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to review the FAA’s aeronautical studies that led to the no hazard determinations. According to the Petition for Review, the Alliance questions whether the FAA complied with the court’s October 2011 decision in Town of Barnstable v. FAA, 659 F.3d 28 (D.C. Cir. 2011), which vacated the FAA’s earlier no hazard determinations for the Cape Wind project, and remanded the matter back to the FAA for further study and analysis.

The case is pending in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound v. FAA (Civil No. 12-cv-1363). This review will be closely watched by the wind energy industry and the states. If the FAA’s determinations stand, the Cape Wind project and offshore wind energy will move one step closer to development and operation.

Wind Turbines Effect on Radar Systems and Aviation Security

Special thanks to Sullivan & Worcester's Ari Hoffman, environmental intern, for assisting in the preparation of this post.

On June 28 and 29 in Ottawa, the Canadian Wind Energy Association (“CanWEA”) in collaboration with the American Wind Energy Association (“AWEA”) hosted the International Wind and Radar Forum. The Forum was designed to “further the relationship between key regulatory and industry players, while promoting an international dialogue about responsible, effective tools designed to identify and address any potential conflicts between wind energy and radar.” 

Tension between ensuring aviation security and expanding wind energy has arisen due to a wind turbine’s potential to interfere with the radio frequency waves emitted by radar systems. Wind turbines can defeat radar, especially when grouped into large wind farms, either by creating unwanted reflections or by blocking signals which can result in clutter on radar maps. Radar clutter prevents aircraft and surface air traffic controllers from determining the location, range, altitude, direction and speed of nearby objects, posing a safety threat. 

Due to concern over aviation security, the British Wind Energy Association (“BWEA”) estimates that there is 4.7 gigawatts of wind energy on hold in Britain and AWEA estimates that in the United States over 9.0 gigawatts of wind energy are on hold. These statistics are worrisome to the United States Department of Energy, which relies heavily on the use of wind energy to help reach the nation’s renewable energy targets.

A myriad of solutions to this problem have emerged. Earlier this year, the United States Department of Homeland Security awarded a $22 million contract to Raytheon, a leader in this field, to study how proposed wind farms would interact with existing radar systems. CASSADIAN, the defense and security division of EADS, developed a solution based on modifications to the radar antenna as well as signal processing. Further, SCANTA 4002 Radar, a system developed by Terma, is designed to separate smaller air objects from larger surface objects, such as wind turbines. This radar can be independently installed and integrated with existing radar installations. 

While some solutions try to change radar systems, Vestas is working to change wind turbine blades into radar-friendly stealth blades. Vestas believes the solution lies in coating blades with similar material used to produce stealth planes which are invisible to radar. Vestas announced on June 29, 2011 that the use of “stealthy” blades reduce radar clutter by around 99% or 20 decibels (The Guardian UK).

As wind energy expands, radar and blade technologies to avoid disturbances will become even more vital, especially to smaller aircraft that may fly along less traveled routes where large wind turbine farm development is more likely. As this issue progresses, please check back to this blog for future posts.