ENID, Okla. — The Skeleton Creek wind farm project, initially planned to be up and running by the end of 2019, has been pushed back by a year as talks over air space between NextEra Energy Resources and Vance Air Force Base continue.
“There’s a number of factors ... and certainly our interactions with the Air Force base are very important and a big part of that,” NextEra spokesman Bryan Garner said, adding that “other considerations” also contributed to the revised timetable.
The wind farm is now expected to complete sometime late 2020, while the solar farm and energy storage facility, the two other pieces of the three-part Skeleton Creek project, are still on schedule for 2023.
Despite the delay, Garner described the conversations between NextEra and Vance as “productive.”
Wind accounts for nearly a third of Oklahoma’s energy production, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Able to put out 8,072 megawatts through 44 sites, the state ranks third in the nation in production, behind Texas and second-place Iowa.
Meanwhile, the military remains the state’s number one employer by far, with an estimated 69,000 residents on Department of Defense payroll. Vance AFB contributes over 2,300 to that total, according to the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.
With wind business burgeoning, and more turbines towering atop the plains all the time, concerns about air space are bringing industry and defense together at the table to divvy up the sky.
The two began discussions in December 2018. There are several matters Vance has brought to NextEra’s attention, including “concerns regarding air traffic control radar blockage, NEXRAD radar impingement, line of sight considerations and traffic pattern obstructions.”
The National Weather Service is also weighing in on the negotiations, according to Vance AFB.
“At this time, the DoD and NextEra continue to fine tune the Skeleton Creek project proposal to mitigate risks to flight and public safety,” a statement from the base said.
No Easy Task
“I’m not against wind development, in fact neither is the military. We just don’t want it to take away from our mission capability,” Mike Cooper, Oklahoma Strategic Military Planning Commission chairman, said.
The goal of the OSMPC, his goal, is in large part to protect and improve the military’s ability to train, equip and otherwise prepare for whatever duties are required of it.
Given that much of the military presence in Oklahoma is Air Force, that has meant helping air bases preserve the territory they need to conduct operations.
“If you further degrade your mission capability, guess what? We’re not going to have Vance Air Force Base, Altus or Tinker or Fort Sill,” Cooper said. “Air space is the number one military asset in the state of Oklahoma. Anything we can do to enhance that, protect it, we have to do.”
It hasn’t been an easy task. With the recent passage of a bill he helped create, Cooper said things will be different going forward, but the journey to this point was turbulent.
“The legislation that we’d previously passed, we thought we had what we wanted, but still we had companies that were building without any approval, so we had to figure out what more needed to be done,” Cooper said.
Some training routes already have been lost. At least two routes to the south of I-40 have been closed due to construction of wind farms in the area, Cooper said.
In May, NextEra nixed plans on the Minco V wind farm project in Caddo County after facing opposition from the OSMPC, which argued the planned farm was in the way of an Air Force training route. The company also pulled the plug on another project in Washita County.
Both efforts were scrapped after an OSMPC-supported bill passed May 2019, requiring wind development proposals to receive approval from the FAA, and Department of Defense verifying that the project won’t hinder base operations.
“We did have to intervene on (Minco V) and the attorney general stepped in and we were able to get it stopped ... but that’s one of the reasons why we had to create the legislation, is to make sure we don’t have to do that,” Cooper said.
“What you have since this legislation is good, honest negotiations and work between the wind industry and the military to get the right answer.”
Room for a third
Neither Vance nor NextEra have shared what changes will be made to the Skeleton Creek wind farm.
The total footprint of the project, the wind farm, solar farm and energy storage facility, will include Garfield, Alfalfa and Major counties, NextEra said in July.
Once completed, the “largest combined wind, solar and energy storage project in the U.S.” will add 500 megawatts to the regional power grid, plus another 200 megawatts from the energy storage facility for up to four hours, if fully charged.
Alterations to Skeleton Creek requested by Vance are not expected to affect the energy production and storage capacity figures announced in July.
There’s no reason both sides can’t get what they want, Garner said. NextEra already has two wind operations running near Vance, Breckenridge and Armadillo Flats wind farms, “compatible with the safe operations of the Air Force base.”
“That’s a big concern of ours. We want to make sure that we’re good neighbors and good partners,” Garner said. “We understand that they’re an important part of this community, and we want to make sure that wind energy and our future facilities will be as well.”