OKLAHOMA CITY — Military leaders will now have more say where wind producers can build turbines under federal legislation designed to protect the air space where pilots conduct training exercises.
Military leaders have complained about wind turbines rising hundreds of feet into the sky and encroaching upon protected flight corridors and into the paths of low-flying planes. At times, Air Force officials said they have abandoned routes and taken other evasive action to avoid striking the windmills.
The military has long-used those pre-designated corridors to conduct low-level altitude training exercises, but in recent years found itself fighting to share the skies with the burgeoning wind industry.
Over the past decade, some developers have constructed towering turbines within those protected routes, and officials said there was little the military could do to stop it.
In the past, training and military readiness weren’t considered national security issues, said Michael Cooper, past chair of the Association of Defense Communities and chair of Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission.
“This legislation, though, says that now that readiness and training do rise to the level of national security and at the end of the day, the secretary of defense can intervene and say ‘no' to a development,” Cooper said. “This was a great step in protecting (and) not negatively impacting our military installations.”
The law requires that the Department of Defense be consulted on applications for new energy projects in an effort to minimize the impact on military operations and national security. Developers must also file their development plans at least a year before they start construction of a project within a military training route.
The law was recently signed by President Donald Trump, but is still awaiting funding, said U.S. Congressman Steve Russell, R-Oklahoma City, who championed the legislation.
Russell said many wind producers have ignored the corridors nationwide and are putting profitability ahead of national security.
“If they’re going to go out and do that without any regard to those training areas, they’re going to be stopped,” he said. “People have to understand national air space belongs to every American, not one American.”
Russell said his legislation will prevent the wind industry from “willy-nilly putting up as many windmills as they can.” That strategy is not only risking the lives of pilots across the country, but also the health of Oklahoma’s military installations, which could face closure if there’s nowhere left to conduct training operations, he said.
Oklahoma’s wide-open skies and protected flight corridors have long been a major selling point for the U.S. Air Force, which operates three major bases in the state — Tinker in Midwest City, Vance in Enid and Altus in Altus. The Army also conducts flight training operations from Fort Sill in Lawton.
In all, the military provides more than an $18 billion annual economic impact in Oklahoma, Cooper said.
“Air space is our No. 1 most important asset in the state of Oklahoma,” Cooper said. “You don’t want to negatively impact or destroy one identity just so you can have another industry. We can have both.”
John Collison, a spokesman for the American Wind Energy Association, a national trade group that represents the wind industry, said developers don’t want to interfere with military training routes.
They support the federal effort, he said.
Collison said wind developers already consult base commanders before they start construction, but this law will help ensure turbines aren’t constructed in the paths of pilots.
“We as a wind industry want to make sure we are working harmoniously, hand-in-hand with our military,” he said. “Nobody in the wind industry wants to mess up military training routes. There’s a lot of wind to go around in the state.”