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As wind farms expand across the country, some are facing new opposition. Military bases complain the tall turbines interfere with their training. Joe Wertz of StateImpact Oklahoma reports.
JOE WERTZ, BYLINE: The C-17 is the pack mule of the U.S. military. It's designed to lift and transport troops and tanks and even helicopters. It's an enormous aircraft that casts an ominous, looming shadow as it taxis to take off.
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WERTZ: Every U.S. C-17 pilot is trained here at the Altus Air Force Base in southwestern Oklahoma. Flight Instructor Adam Bergoo says a key part of that is teaching rookie pilots to fly close to the ground.
ADAM BERGOO: That's one of our military missions - is to fly low level because that basically reduces the risk of detection and getting shot at by the bad guys.
WERTZ: The western part of Oklahoma is an ideal place for military flight training because the skies are wide open, or at least they used to be. Bergoo says one of his training routes is now partially blocked by a wind farm.
BERGOO: That has kind of encroached maybe into a third of the route corridor. So say that route corridor is 5 miles wide, and now we have 2 miles of that blocked by wind turbines.
WERTZ: Top brass at Altus and another air base are sounding the alarm with local officials and lawmakers. Some business leaders are also complaining. They want to keep the airspace open to attract aerospace companies and entrepreneurs who need a place to test drones. Oklahoma lawmakers are considering requiring new wind farms to get approval from the state's Aeronautics Commission. The wind industry opposes that.
JEFF CLARK: Creating a new state bureaucracy is not the way to go.
WERTZ: That's Jeff Clark with The Wind Coalition.
CLARK: This is a role for the federal government. The Pentagon frankly and the FAA are very skilled and knowledgeable, and they have the expertise to manage these things.
WERTZ: Wind farms have run into trouble with military installations in other states, too. The Department of Defense has blocked projects in North Carolina over concerns that wind towers would interfere with a bombing range and military radar. The state recently barred wind farm permits for 18 months. And this year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill to prevent wind industry tax exemptions for any project within 25 miles of an airbase. Clark says new technology means wind farms are popping up in locations companies would have skipped just a decade ago. The industry suspects there's another reason the conflict is gaining momentum.
CLARK: Anti-wind groups have figured out that this is an issue that they can use to drive a wedge between communities and to raise concern even if those concerns aren't warranted.
WERTZ: Lawmakers who support restrictions dispute this. All wind farms must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA also encourages wind companies to consult with military bases before that. Military officials can block wind farms if the turbines threaten national security, but Altus Branch Chief Heath Sirmons says that bar is too high.
HEATH SIRMONS: Training at Altus Air Force Base doesn't generally rise to that threshold. Very few things rise to that threshold.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).
WERTZ: In the control tower at Altus Air Force Base, airmen armed with headsets and computer terminals guide a C-17 onto the tarmac. Once airborne, the trainees will fly for hours, rehearsing approaches. Captain Bergoo, the flight instructor, says once a wind farm interferes with the training route, it's useless.
BERGOO: Having that ability to stay low and fly low and teach and do all the other things that are required for that is pretty vital.
WERTZ: The pilots trained here will deploy to carry critical cargo on missions around the world. Bergoo says the entire country depends on Oklahoma's open air space. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.
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