SALT LAKE CITY — An ambitious mapping tool officially unveiled Tuesday is designed to help renewable energy developers navigate potential conflicts with the U.S. Department of Defense when they plan a new project.
The geographic information system database will help developers discover early on if towering wind turbines would interfere with line of sight for radar systems or if the structures would stand in a military flight path.
Such up-front knowledge is especially critical in the West, where large swaths of federal land are occupied by test and training ranges, military bases and sophisticated weapons systems that often require remote anonymity.
The READ Database was created by the Natural Resources Defense Council in partnership with the defense department to capture essential agency activities that include low-altitude, high-speed military flight training routes, as well an extensive inventory of weather and surveillance radars within the United States.
Such conflicts with military infrastructure can cause significant delays or derail projects. In a Tuesday teleconference hosted by the NRDC and defense department, one such example in Utah was referenced — a wind project planned for Harmony Mountain, northwest of New Harmony in Iron County.
NRDC's senior scientist Matthew McKenzie said wind turbines were planned in southern Utah in a project area directly at a turning point along a military flight path. The proposed turbines also were in the line of sight for military radar systems.
While the developers ultimately shelved the project, defense officials say that by and large, most proposals go on to achieve success with the right kind of early planning and compromise.
Such negotiating worked out the problems with a solar project that threatened to interfere with communication systems at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base and the Test and Training Range.
David Belote, executive director of the defense department's Siting Clearinghouse for such projects, was base commander at the time.
He said Tuesday that layers of agencies and institutions had to get involved to address the compatibility issues — from the Pentagon, to congressional representatives to tech wizards from MIT. In the end, a compromise was reached over the Crescent Dunes Solar Project, and its site was moved 35 miles away from the edge of test and training range, Belote said.
Overall, the DOD has enjoyed a good track record in giving its stamp of approval to renewable energy projects that have potential to impact military operations.
In July, the agency gave a green light to more than 90 percent of 249 proposals, including a wind project in Hawaii, the Horse Lake Wind Project in California and Big Otter Wind in Montana.
The Montana project, McKinzie said, would on its face seem doomed, especially given the project's proximity to Minuteman missiles and three separate radar systems.
"This looks tough, but it was approved," McKinzie said, stressing that the capability issues were worked out early.
"This is an opportunity for the Department of Defense to not only provide in an open format where there might be issues with mission compatibility, but helps us to be good stewards of the land entrusted to us by the public," said Frank DiGiovanni, the defense department's director of Training Readiness and Strategy.