AUSTIN - When 39-year-old twin brothers Jimmy and Joe Horn set out to build up to 80 wind turbines near Wichita Falls, the energy developers didn’t envision the blowback they would encounter from a powerful neighbor — the United States Air Force.
High-ranking officials at Sheppard Air Force Base quickly launched a counter-strike to warn that the towering wind turbines would interfere with radar, potentially obstruct flights and endanger jet training missions. The proposed 8,000-acre wind farm is mired in uncertainty.
The confrontation playing out in far North Texas is part of a widening dispute involving the military and the wind energy industry, two powerful forces that each generate thousands of jobs and pump millions of dollars into the Texas economy.
Community leaders in South Texas have also raised concerns about potential wind farm threats to Naval Air Stations in Corpus Christi and Kingsville while state and federal lawmakers push legislation to keep future wind projects away from military installations across the state.
Leaders of the wind energy industry are fighting back, denouncing the proposed restrictions as unnecessary and economically destructive.
“You’ll see billions of dollar of investment that doesn’t come to Texas” if the legislation passes, said Jeffrey Clark, director of the Wind Coalition, who maintains that the placement of wind farms should be made on a case-by-case basis rather than through a “one-size-fits-all” requirement.
Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, which is at least 50 to 100 miles from the nearest wind farms in distant counties, appears insulated from the current controversy, but local officials say they maintain a constant look-out for future encroachment.
“Wind turbines will always be a concern because of the need for energy and the viability of the industry,” said Fort Worth City Council member Jungus Jordan, who is president of the Texas Mayors of Military Communities, which works to protect the state’s 15 military installations. “We’ll never go to sleep over this because it’s a continuing concern. We want to make sure it’s never an issue.”
A regional land use study being conducted by the North Central Texas Council of Governments is assessing “potential compatibility issues” to determine what impact, if any, wind turbines, urban development and community infrastructure could have on Naval Air Station Fort Worth.
The review is an updated version of a regional land use study that was concluded in 2008 and has been expanded to encompass three smaller installations as far away as Lamar County in Northeast Texas, said Amanda Wilson, program manager for the NCTCOG.
The dust-up underscores the proliferation of wind turbines in Texas, which has made the Lone Star State the nation’s top wind energy producer. With at least 125 wind farms and more than 11,500 turbines, Texas hosts three times the installed wind capacity of any other state and boasts the nation’s biggest wind-energy work force, with nearly 25,000 jobs.
Much of the growth occurred under then-Gov. Rick Perry, a staunch wind energy advocate who is close to becoming President Trump’s energy secretary.
State tax incentives used to lure wind farm development have enabled rural counties and school districts to significantly broaden their tax base, receiving millions of extra dollars that many consider indispensable. And in contrast to the concerns over safety, many of the nation’s military installations, including Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, are becoming increasingly reliant on wind energy.
Nevertheless, officials at Sheppard and other installations worried about close-in wind turbines say the spinning blades can clutter their radar, giving a confusing picture to controllers often guiding more than 200 sorties a day.
The height of the structures, often just under 500 feet, could also be a potential obstruction to low-altitude flights, particularly in bad weather, says Lt. Col. Matthew Manning, a flight instructor and director of operations with the 80th Flying Training Wing at Sheppard.
“I can tell you from personal experience being in the back of an aircraft, training a student, the environment is very intense, so (with) any outside factor, it’s challenging,” Manning said in a telephone interview. “When we’re doing certain missions, we get down to just 500 feet above the ground, so you can probably do the quick math. These wind farms are right at 500 feet tall.”
Capt. Mike Steffen, commander of Naval Air Station Fort Worth, said the impact of wind turbines on operations varies from project to project.
“Some may impact radar systems or flight operations for military installations, while others may pose no threat at all,” he said in written responses to questions from the Star-Telegram.
“The best thing that local leaders, developers and Navy officials can do is engage early and often when wind farm developments are in the planning stage,” Steffen said. “When conflicts are identified early in the process, parties can work together to identify a compatible solution.”
Steffen chairs the Texas Commanders Council, composed of the leaders of the state’s military installations. Without identifying specific legislation, Steffen said the council “supports positions and legislative initiatives for early communication and coordination of wind energy projects.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate Majority Whip, has filed legislation that would make wind farms ineligible for federal production and investment tax credits if they locate within 30 miles of a military installation. The bill, filed in late January, would apply to future wind projects.
In Austin, state Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, has introduced legislation that generally parallels Cornyn’s approach at the state level by eliminating state tax abatements for wind farms within a 30 mile radius of military sites.
Potential for disaster
U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, and state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, call for an outright ban on wind farms within 25 miles from a base. Miller is a one-time military pilot who served as a commander of the former Dallas Naval Air Station that became part of Naval Air Station Fort Worth when it was created in 1994.
Although there have been no crashes linked to wind turbines, Miller said a potential disaster is a “real possibility. The flight safety issue is what I’m most concerned about because I’m a pilot and I understand all that.”
In turn, leaders of the wind power industry at both the state and national level are vowing to vigorously oppose the legislation, warning that the initiatives could severely reverse the advance of a green form of energy that increasingly provides electricity to Texas homes and businesses, including the General Motors plant in Arlington.
Wind energy advocates plan a press conference at the auto plant on Thursday to tout the growth of wind power in Texas.
Clark, of the Wind Coalition, said he plans to “educate” lawmakers by arguing that there is already a “strong and robust” evaluation process in place on wind farm applications, including reviews by the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Forbidding wind farms within 25 miles of a base, Clark said, would have prohibited at least 28 per cent of the wind farms in Texas, which he said are already operating within those boundaries and have caused no interference to the bases.
The Texas House Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Committee conducted interim hearings on the issue, soliciting testimony from an array of military leaders, environmental advocates, wind farm executives and others on both sides of the debate.
In a report to the 85th Legislature that convened in January, the committee recommended that lawmakers explore the creation of buffer zones around military installations with air operations to prevent encroachment that would hinder “vital missions” at the base.
Fueling the discussions is concern that Congress is moving toward another round of base-closings — officially known a BRAC, or Base Realignment and Closure — that could dismantle Texas bases judged to be substandard in contributing to the overall value of the federal government’s national security needs.
“Encroachments — whether architectural, environmental or technological — have a deleterious impact on the value of an installation during BRAC considerations, even more so when they directly hinder a vital mission of the installation,” committee members wrote in their interim report.
Committee members warned that potential closures or curtailments of Texas military bases “gravely threatens” the state and local economy. The state’s military installations generate an estimate $137 billion in combined economic benefits, experts say.
Military officials have taken an uncharacteristically out-front role in challenging wind farm projects headed their way. After Sheppard officials learned of the proposed project by Horn Wind Project Management LLC, they reached out to community officials and fanned local opposition against the project, according to accounts in the Wichita Falls Times Record News.
Two high-ranking Sheppard officials, appearing at a town hall meeting, warned that the Department of Defense could opt to move the training mission elsewhere in what would be an economically devastating blow to Wichita Falls and smaller communities, the paper reported.
Col. Burke Beaumont III, commander of the 82nd Mission Support Group at Sheppard, testifying at the interim legislative hearings, told lawmakers that close-in wind farms can have a negative impact on training because of radar distortions and other factors.
Jimmy and Joe Horn, whose family-owned company is based in Windthorst, about 25 mies south of Wichita Falls, unveiled the Clay County wind farm in the summer of 2015, proposing up to 80 windmills on a site that would come within 15 miles of Sheppard’s eastern boundary. The brothers, both of whom are combat veterans of the Navy, have a family farm in the area but live elsewhere; Jimmy Horn is a resident of Austin and Joe Horn lives in Flower Mound.
Jimmy Horn said the project is under study by the Federal Aviation Administration. He said he is also in “direct dialogue” with the base to try to resolve the issue.
If the project stays on track, he said, it would produce hefty benefits for the area economy.
“It’s good money for the county, it’s good for the schools, as long as we can find a solution with the Air Force Base,” Horn said. But, he added, “if we can’t find a solution, we’re not going to build it.”