Can Aerial Applicators and Wind Energy Developers Learn to Coexist?

Agricultural Aviation, November/December 2009

When Probasco Flying Service brought Gaylon Stamps in as a pilot during the summer of 2008, operator Mitch Probasco handed Stamps his spraying assignment and offered a word of caution. “There’s several towers around here, and I can’t tell you where they all are, so just be careful.”

Stamps hails from Panhandle, Texas; Probasco Flying Service, located in Floydada, Texas, was unfamiliar territory. Mindful of the warning, another piece of advice came to Stamps’ mind: Ferry above five and stay alive. The PAASS slogan is a familiar one for Stamps, who doubles as a PAASS presenter.

“I’d done a pretty good job keeping my eyes open until one day when I was circling a field trying to ‘make the map fit,’ making sure I was in the right field,” Stamps said. “I was in a heavy AT-502 circling to the left and looking out the left window. For some reason, I looked up. Just ahead about a hundred yards or so and 20 degrees to the left was one of those dang towers!”

Stamps rolled out of the turn and into a slight right bank to miss the tower. If he had continued with his turn, it might have been a different story. Stamps downplayed the incident, saying it wasn’t “that close a call,” but it certainly got his attention. “It was close enough my heart started to pound in my shirt and I felt a real rush of adrenaline! And any time either of those two effects happen, it’s too close for comfort.”

Getting a scare from an unmarked and unmapped tower is just one of many hazards meteorological testing towers, wind turbines and communications towers pose to aerial applicators. The problems are well documented, and they are becoming more and more prevalent as towers and turbines proliferate on ag land.

Amid mounting safety and accessibility concerns, NAAA, its state and regional partners and aerial applicators around the country have taken up the cause of advocating the industry’s concerns to policymakers, commodity groups and aerial application customers. These efforts aren’t new, but there are signs progress is being made.

Wind is In

It has been an uphill battle. In the eyes of policymakers, investors and many farmers, wind is definitely in. Although wind currently supplies less than 2 percent of the country’s energy, it is growing more rapidly than any other energy source. The U.S. Department of Energy has suggested that wind energy could supply up to 20 percent of the nation’s power by 2030.

Last year, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) examined the state of wind power in the U.S. According to the June 2008 report, federal wind energy policy has focused primarily on a production tax credit (PTC) as an incentive for businesses to operate wind facilities. New investments dried up after the economy tanked and the renewable energy PTC expired at the end of 2008.

On Aug. 31, the Wall Street Journal reported that financing for new wind facilities was picking up again after an almost six-month lull thanks to a new federal program that started July 31 and runs through the end of 2010. As a result of the program, which is part of the federal stimulus package, the government will provide “a cash rebate for 30 [percent] of the cost of building a renewable-energy facility, awarded 60 days after an application is approved.”

Demand for the rebate could rival that of another government cash incentive, the cash-for-clunkers program. Requests for $800 million in grants were submitted during the first four weeks of the cash grant program, a government spokesperson told the Journal. Compare that to the $3 billion the Energy and Treasury departments have said they expect to spend on the entire 17-month program.

Aside from financing incentives and other applicable federal requirements, local and state jurisdictions play the most important role in siting and permitting wind energy projects.

CRS’s Report for Congress identified three key siting and permitting issues as potential drawbacks to wind power: wildlife constraints, aesthetic and social issues and radar/aviation security issues. Concerns about aviation safety and the potential lack of access to prime agricultural land were absent.

Another drawback is the fact that significant new transmission infrastructure may be needed to send wind-generated power to where it needs to be. According to the Department of Energy, 12,000 miles of new transmission lines would need to be constructed in order for wind to supply 20 percent of the country’s power by 2030.

Of course, there are several compelling reasons to expand the production of wind power. In terms of economic benefits, two popular reasons cited are that it will create “green jobs” and help rural development by giving landowners income from land leases. Citing a 2004 GAO report, CRS stated that farmers and ranchers “typically receive from project developers $2,000–5,000 per year for each turbine on their land.”

Getting Ag Aviation’s Message Out

That’s the upside landowners hear about. That easy money could come at a steep price some day. In the future, if wind towers continue to sprout up across America’s ag land like stalks of corn, it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to access a farmer’s land to treat it via aerial application.

NAAA’s efforts to educate policymakers about the impact of wind power development on agricultural aviation are beginning to pay off.

Over the summer, NAAA met with the USDA’s Rural Business Cooperative Service and the Rural Utilities Service and urged the USDA to educate farmers and landowners about the industry’s concerns that placing wind energy towers on cropland may jeopardize the safety of ag pilots and restrict their ability to treat farmland with aerial application.

NAAA also wrote to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, expressing similar concerns about the Department of Energy’s policies promoting wind energy. The DOE’s Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program replied in September with a letter emphasizing its commitment to “the responsible development of wind power.” The letter highlighted the wind program’s work “with the agricultural community to provide farmers and ranchers with timely and accurate information on the benefits and challenges of wind power” and welcomed NAAA’s input. NAAA is following up with the Wind and Hydropower Technologies Program and continues to reach out to legislators and other relevant entities.

Establishing a Wind Placement Policy

State ag aviation associations that have adopted wind placement policies are encouraging members to do the same and inform their customers that aerial spraying could be reduced or eliminated if wind turbines are erected on their property.

Someone who has been very active on this issue in Wisconsin is Damon Reabe and the Reabe family. With the help of his father Tom, Reabe runs the Waupun, Wis., location of Reabe Spraying Service. His uncle, J.R. Reabe, operates the company’s Plover, Wis., division. Uncle Jeff Reabe operates the Plainfield, Wis., unit, and Bob Reabe, another uncle, supports all three outfits.

With several wind turbines in its flying area, Reabe Spraying Service began formulating a company policy early this decade. Damon said the policy “prohibits application of plant health products to production fields within the lateral boundary of a wind energy facility,” as well as fields located “within one half to one mile outside of the lateral boundary of a wind energy facility, depending on the wind direction.”

Reabe Spraying Service doesn’t mention the policy on its invoices. At first, the Reabes simply told customers about it. That changed last March. “We became more actively involved in March of 2009 when it was brought to our attention wind energy developers were misrepresenting our position regarding operations in wind energy facilities,” Damon said. “We assume this was unintentional.”

Shortly thereafter, the Reabes sent a mailer to all of their customers explaining their company policy and the reasons for it.

“Many of our customers simply did not understand why our policy prohibited operations in wind energy facilities,” Damon said. “The stand-alone letter was an effective tool [that garnered] a lot of positive feedback from our customers thanking us for taking the time to explain our position.”

Local Zoning Victories

NAAA members have also worked with local zoning authorities on marking and placing of meteorological testing towers. Brian Rau, owner of Medina Flying Service in Medina, N.D., was able to convince his county officials to require new met towers to be lighted or marked.

The process started over a year ago when Rau wrote a letter to his local newspaper explaining the industry’s concerns about met towers and wind turbines on prime ag land. After the letter was published, a county attorney invited him to a zoning meeting where developers were seeking approval to install new 60-meter met towers. At 200 feet, the FAA requires towers to be lighted. Sixty meters is the equivalent of 197 feet.

The discussion began at a subcommittee, went to the full zoning committee and finally to the Stutsman County Commission. “Along the way, I needed to be there to bring up the concern that met towers [raise] and to offer suggestions,” Rau said.

There was general agreement at each step in the process that towers should be marked and lighted, according to Rau, and county officials considered applying the FAA requirements to structures under 200 feet. “The wind companies really balked at that because where most of these met towers are going up, they don’t have power to them,” he said.

Rau presented NAAA’s tower marking guidelines, which stipulate that towers erected with guy wires should be marked with two visible warning spheres on each guy wire, highly visible sleeves on the lower end of the cables and properly lit. Ultimately, the zoning authority gave companies the option of lighting new towers or using marking that doesn’t require any electricity, Rau said. Those regulations apply to new tower structures in Stutsman County, not preexisting ones.

“Up until even the very last meeting where the full commission approved this, there were representatives from wind energy there suggesting that this wasn’t necessary,” Rau said. “If I hadn’t even been there at the last one, it probably would have gotten dropped.”

Common-sense Solutions for an Inconvenient Problem

One way to lessen the chance of surprises like the one Gaylon Stamps got would be to have a searchable database of all tower locations. Structures over 200 feet require FAA notification, but companies don’t have to report the locations for anything under 200 feet.

“Unless it was required by law, I don’t believe you can get an accurate database for location of met towers,” Rau said. “They’ll do what’s required by law, but they’re not going to voluntarily give up that information.”

Wind energy companies have balked at providing a database of met towers because they don’t want competitors to know what areas they are considering developing. Rau noted that one company in North Dakota did volunteer that it had more than 100 met towers in the state, but it did not want to provide the latitude and longitude coordinators for a database.

In general, wind power companies do like to hold their cards close to their vest, but some members have gotten advance notice from wind companies. NAAA President Doug Chanay received a fax from Kansas-based Zephyr Wind Power over the summer providing the coordinates for a meteorological tower being constructed in his area. Zephyr’s notification stated: “This tower will stand approximately 195 feet tall and will not be equipped with lights to indicate its location or height. Guy wires will be used to stabilize the tower, and these will not have any additional markings on them. The tower will be red and white in color.”

It’s likely there isn’t a single solution; it is going to take a multipronged approach at the macro and local levels in order to reach a sensible middle-ground solution with wind energy proponents. This includes targeting commodity groups and enlisting the support of third parties to advocate on the aerial application industry’s behalf.

“We have to get information to the different commodity groups in hopes that they’ll get it to the growers,” Rau said. “The growers and landowners are the ones that can make a difference on this issue.”