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Published July 20, 2010, 09:49 AM

Aerial applicator notes ‘cost’ of turbine sitings

MEDINA, N.D. — Brian Rau isn’t anti-wind power, but says a wind industry that’s still under construction can create unforeseen trade-offs for farmers and dangers for aerial applicators who serve them.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

MEDINA, N.D. — Brian Rau isn’t anti-wind power, but says a wind industry that’s still under construction can create unforeseen trade-offs for farmers and dangers for aerial applicators who serve them.

Rau farms with two brothers and his father but makes roughly half his living as an aerial applicator in central North Dakota. He’s also serving a one-year term as president of the National Agricultural Aviation Association. He and his brothers, Bruce and Neal, and their father, Duane, don’t have wind turbines on their own farm, but they have been approached about it.

“People need to look at the positives and the negatives of wind,” Rau says in the hangar of Medina Flying Service, a business he and his wife, Elly, operate out of their farm headquarters south of Medina, N.D.

The Raus don’t have many wind towers in their crop spraying area yet, but some

are planned, and he’s concerned.

“There’s going to be a trade-off for agriculture, and not just for ag aviation, although that’s certainly important to me,” he says.

Chiefly, Rau thinks landowners should know that the meteorological data collection towers — the so-called “met” towers, with their anemometers — can be the most dangerous for crop sprayers. The wind turbines fields that will follow will make aerial application more expensive, less timely or even impossible.

Lately, Rau and colleagues across the nation have been energizing a grass-roots public relations campaign, warning about the downside of wind tower developments. The effort started early this year, especially by Terry Stieren of Prior Lake, Minn. He is executive director of the Minnesota Agricultural Aviation Association.

Rau says he’s spent two years informally talking with aerial applicators in the Great Plains whether they should even fly in and around such developments.

“Everybody would prefer not to,” he says.

Rau says the addition of wind turbines and met towers can add to an increasingly crowded airspace. The total number of obstructions is becoming important.

“I have a couple of fields that I will not spray because of transmission lines, cell towers and other obstructions,” he says. “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?”

Green power, good?

This “green” electrical power source in wind often is seen as a win-win for farmland owners, simply an extra income that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

The U.S. Department of Energy has projected that 20 percent of the nation’s electricity be supplied by wind power. The NAAA cites news sources that indicate 32 states have legally binding targets for renewable energy. The Governors’ Wind Energy Coalition, which includes governors from North Dakota and surrounding states, wants the federal government to require 10 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable sources — including wind.

A recent NAAA columnist says current typical compensation rate is $4,000 to $10,000 per year per turbine, depending on circumstances. Leases often run for 20- and 30-year periods, but some include automatic renewal clauses that may extend for up to 90 years, according to a column in a recent NAAA magazine on the topic.

But Rau says there are hidden costs that should be counted when deciding whether and how much farmers and landowners should be paid for allowing the development on their property. If aerial applicators refuse to operate among wind turbines, it could eliminate the possibility of “emergency” applications, when ground application is impossible.”

The situation can become most dangerous in crop pest emergency, in weather situation when ground applications can’t be accomplished in a timely fashion. Then, everybody wants aerial application at once.

In the long run, the situation will be worst when the wind tower field is placed in an irregular, nonlinear fashion, instead of in a straight line.

“Industry tells me they take the shape of the land and a computer model decides where they should go,” Rau says.

Flying around at 130 miles per hour among 400-foot wind towers may take longer because of the time to maneuver around the turbines. Aerial applicators who decide to treat those fields may have to carry lighter loads.

Rau says landowners need to expect that farmland without the towers may need to get first priority during times of pest outbreaks. In those cases, they may need to cover more acres more quickly, and the slower, turbine-laden fields logically would come last.

Rau says the biggest, most acute problem from a safety problem, however, is the threat of the met towers when the projects are in the beginning stages, exploring development. The met towers with their anemometers often pop up without warning or notification to aerial applicators, causing additional flying hazards. These towers are used to record anemometer data and prove the wind source.

“The met towers are just under 200 feet, so they don’t require them to be lit or marked,” Rau says. “South Dakota just got a state law passed that required marking. Here, in Stutsman County, about a year ago, we passed an ordinance to require that.”

The wind tower developers objected to parts of the South Dakota law, especially those that require a data base of their met tower locations.

“That would be public information of course, and other companies could see where they’e looking,” he explains. “There’s some resistance, but in general people see the need for marking the met towers.”

On the state level, the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission has put out letters of concern to various companies, asking for voluntary notification. Rau thinks the issue may come up in the 2011 Legislature. In most situations, the met towers shouldn’t have to be lit, but there are paint schemes and flags that could help aviators — agricultural and otherwise — avoid them.

Wyoming since March 2009 has required clear air for 2,000 feet. The state also requires the location of met towers be provided to the state, in a form that can be distributed to aviators, although ownership is not disclosed.

Minnesota ag avaiators are working to get met towers marked, although that isn’t required by statute, he says. Minnesota has a Wind Energy Aviation Safety Working Group. It has met since 2009 and has reached consensus on a set of lighting and marking standards for met towers and has developed a model zoning ordinance for met tower markings, painting and reporting. The Minnesota Association of County Planning and Zoning have acknowledged the working group’s concern. Groups are working out a mapping system to serve as a central repository where aviators could get tower location information in a streamlined reporting and mapping plan, according to the NAAA.

Absentees unaware?

Understandably, Rau says, applicators who work around turbine fields will charge more money.

Applicators who will fly around them say it’s best to “stay low” and not above them. Air is less turbulent down low and judging clearance above a moving blade is difficult. Some in the fixed-wing business are considering whether helicopter application may be an alternative for these areas.

“The whole helicopter business is a whole different business, and you have to look at whether it’s economical. It’s generally much more expensive to run a helicopter,” Rau says.

Rau’s business is most concentrated on irrigated farms in the Kidder County, N.D., area, where farmers grow potatoes and the rotation crops beneath them. The potatoes almost require aerial application because they often need a weekly fungicide application.

If the crops were to be ground-applied, there’d be too much compaction.

“That’s one place ag aviation has gotten some sympathy,” he says.

Growers understand the necessity for aerial application.

Rau says the problem isn’t unique to North Dakota. In Nebraska, for example, the seed corn companies are almost at wits end.

“They almost can’t fulfill their contracts without aerial application in real concentrated ag areas,” he says. “Ag aviation is very important in some of those areas.”

Rau says there are plenty of pending wind tower projects in a state that has been described as the “Saudi Arabia of wind.” He wonders if wind energy efficiency and reliability will put the brakes on the business, although tax credits have been extended juggernaut seems to be rolling on.

“I have talked to people who have thought about it and haven’t decided yet,” Rau says. “People haven’t considered the negatives.”

Rau thinks part of the concern is that much of today’s farmland isn’t owned by those who actually are farming it. Wind development contracts often are signed by absentee landlords who aren’t immediately or intuitively clued into the agricultural costs.

“Down the road, they’ll be clued in, once they discover that the land isn’t as valuable for agriculture,” he says “I think people simply aren’t going to be able to pay as much rent on land with these turbine. Oftentimes, the people renting the land get no benefit from wind turbines.”

Other problems?

Rau can think of numerous reasons why landowners may be reluctant to place wind towers on their land.

“I don’t like the word ‘wind farm’ because wind development is really an industrial process that has nothing to do with farming,” he says. “If you look up the definition, a ‘farm’ refers to agriculture. Ag refers to crop production and animal husbandry. Wind turbines are industrial, and their effect on agriculture is negative. If we had a coal mine out here, that would be economic development, too, but it would be a negative for agriculture. People call wind development a win-win for agriculture, but I don’t see it that way myself.”

Among the negatives Rau and other NAAA members and officials cite:

n Road interference: Rau says some of the sites he’s seen have built up extensive roads, which tend to make odd-sized fields around the turbines.

“Instead of an 80-acre field, people end up with two or three triangular-shaped fields. That’s more headlands, more soil compaction, less efficient use of seed and chemicals because of overlapped application,” he says.

n Satellite interference: Rau says it’s been reported by some ground applicators that their auto-steer mechanisms kick off every time they drive next to a transformer near the base of each of the wind turbines.

“It creates electrical interferences,” he says.

n Visual pollution: In some areas, the tower concentration is such that there are flicker and noise effects.

“I don’t think people are going to want to move into those areas, put up a home where a 400-foot wind turbine is, where a light flicker comes into your picture window,” Rau says.

Doctors are starting to identify medical syndromes from this exposure, according to the NAAA.

n Transparency concerns: One of the problems with this is that contract-holders often are required to sign a “gag clause” that prevents them from discussing details of their contracts.

“If they’re not allowed to talk about it, they’re not allowed to talk about the negatives,” he says. “You don’t know about it until they go up.”

n Field drainage: According to some Minnesota applicators, where subsurface field drainage is in place, the installation of maintenance access roads and underground fiber-optic cables as well as crane traffic can harm those systems. While wind companies pay for such damages, farmers need to make sure the contracts cover the entire cost of repairs and are specific to field drainage systems.

SD’s new law

The South Dakota law that was signed March 26 by Gov. Mike Rounds offers a good example of what should be done to protect low-flying planes, including aerial applicators, Rau says.

It requires that any tower 50 feet or taller located outside a municipality be marked, painted, flagged or otherwise constructed to be “recognizable in clear air during daylight hours.” It applies to the tower, guy wires and other facilities and is especially aimed at the “met” towers, meaning the meteorological data towers that precede the installation of wind turbines

According to an NAAA summary of the law, South Dakota law requires that:

n The top one-third of the anemometer tower must be painted in equal, alternating bands of aviation orange and white, beginning with orange at the top of the tower and ending with the orange at the bottom of the tower.

n Two marker balls must be attached to and evenly spaced on each of the outside guy wires.

n The area surrounding each point to where a guy wire is anchored to the ground must have a contrasting appearance with any surrounding vegetation.

n One or more 7-foot safety sleeves must be placed at each anchor point and shall extend from the anchor point along each guy wire attached to the anchor point.

n Marking requirements are immediate for new towers. Pre-existing towers have a year to come into compliance.

Lighting and an online registry of towers were not put into place because of cost and competitive concerns by the industry.

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