To Spray or Not to Spray?

Author:  Brian Rau, NAAA President
Agricultural Aviation, May/June 2010
Across the Great Plains and in some other areas an ongoing informal discussion among aerial applicators is taking place about whether we should work in and around wind turbines. My trade area is slated for several large wind projects in the near future. Knowing that this may be coming, I have spent the last two years visiting with other applicators about operating agricultural aircraft around these 400-foot obstructions. I do not have the answer to the above discussion, but I would like to share some information that I have accumulated by listening to others on this subject.
The first obvious thing that stands out when talking to applicators regarding spraying in and near wind sites is that all would prefer not to. Their responses usually become much more explicit when considering the possibility of having an increasing number of turbines to work around. This is an important point to bring to a grower’s attention if he is considering placing turbines on his land or renting land that already has turbines. Often aerial applicators are called upon to protect crops in an emergency situation. During these times there are usually many growers in the area who require aerial application services at the same time. If an applicator already has more work to do than he can get done in a day, highly obstructed areas will probably be done last, if at all.
It is important for our industry, when discussing this issue, to consider that the person you are having a discussion with may be talking about a very different type of wind site than you have in mind. If the turbines are less concentrated, or placed in a linear fashion, it is easier to work around them. Some applicators will work in one site but not in another, or will be able to work on the outside of a site, but not in the center. I have seen some sites that most would agree are not workable at all.
The total number of obstructions in the area of the field is also important. I have a couple of fields that I will not spray because of transmission lines, cell towers and other obstructions. Add 100 wind turbines to the township and there will be dozens of fields that I will not be spraying. How many obstructions can you keep track of at one time? Most who fly in and near wind sites say it is best to stay low and fly around the turbines and not above them. The air is less turbulent down low and judging clearance above a moving turbine blade is difficult. However, staying low exposes you to obstructions that you are normally above. Is the terrain flat or rolling? I have always found elevation changes makes dealing with obstacles more difficult.
Would bringing in a helicopter help? As a fixed wing operator, this is a question that I posed to several rotor wing guys. The answer seems to be “maybe.” If the issue is obstructions around the outside of the field, a helicopter can stay in closer to the field during the turns. If the obstructions are in the field, a helicopter may not have an advantage. There are many other factors to consider with a helicopter, as it is a different type of operation than fixed wing. Even if a helicopter would be helpful regarding the obstructions, they may not be viable depending on the type of work you do.
Most who do work around wind turbines charge more. The most common number I have heard is 50 percent more. Some are considering charging an hourly rate instead of a per-acre rate. This makes sense since the pilot would have less pressure to rack up acres and could take the time to plan each pass. Should an operator carry higher levels of liability insurance? If operations continue around wind turbines, eventually there will be a collision. The new wind turbines are getting larger and more expensive with a price of $3 million each. How much damage will result and who will be liable if a collision occurs? Unfortunately, we know the most likely outcome to the aircraft and pilot.
What should be done about the issue of wind turbines and aerial application? NAAA is doing what a national organization should do which is to affect change in Washington. NAAA has met with and continues to meet with the USDA, FAA, members of Congress and the American Wind Energy Association to present our concerns to them. Many express concern about the situation and appear to be sympathetic; the problem is these same people will not go further and express those concerns to others or make any statement that might appear (or be used to make them appear) to be anti-green energy by their constituents.
Local is our best answer to wind energy. Ultimately, growers and landowners will have to value our services more than they do the income from placing wind turbines on their land. These people do have to be informed. Each operator has a customer list and has some type of access to local media. NAAA has developed a series of radio and print advertisements that members may use to inform customers and the media. Care should be taken regarding who is targeted with these advertisements as some may see this information as an incentive to find a different way to do the application (such as a high-clearance ground sprayer) and still receive the income from the wind turbines.
I have seen something similar happen with a commodity association. This association, rather than publish information that may appear to be anti-green, has tried to present growers with other options to aerial application. There are other negatives in addition to the effect on aerial application of which we can make our customers aware, such as: decline in land values, smaller fields, interference with auto steer systems and possible health effects from the low frequency noise and light flicker problems1.
Where is the wind energy business going? Some in the wind energy business say that investment money is drying up for wind energy. T. Boone Pickens has cut his grand plans by half. A developer just outside of my trade area missed his construction start date last summer and has cancelled a formal hearing with the state Public Service Commission. Information about the small amount of energy that is actually produced is starting to be made known. Wind energy, no matter how big the site, has zero watts of dispatchable power (power that can be depended on). This raises havoc with the electrical transmission system and is starting to be noticed2. What Washington will do to promote wind energy is always a concern and an unknown. At least the president is mentioning the word “nuclear” in some of his energy talks. 
1 Public Health Impact of Wind Turbines, Minnesota Dept. of Health, May 22, 2009
The Brewing Tempest Over Wind Power, Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2010
2 Natural Gas Tilts at Windmills In Power Feud, Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2010
The Economy Hits Home: Energy and Environment, The Heritage Foundation, October 6, 2009