LINCOLN, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Chris Miller spent 20 years at the Lincoln National Weather Service office. He’s seen the impact that wind farms can have on doppler radar data.
But one instance stands out in particular.
The storm that made the 2018 Taylorville tornado passed right through a wind farm in northwest Macon county.
“When it did that the doppler radar velocity images were corrupted, they were unusable for 15 minutes,” Miller said.
Those fifteen minutes can make all the difference when tracking severe weather. The NWS kept the radar in effect, despite the radar showing no activity. The hunch paid off.
“When you’re trying to make warning decisions for people in the path of that storm, every minute counts. So 15 minutes is a long time to have essentially no data.”
A new wind farm proposal in Logan County is raising red flags for Miller. The county already has four wind farms. Each one causes problems for the radar, but meteorologists have found ways around those issues.
“Any additional wind projects in Logan County are going to have a huge impact,” Miller said.
Over one thousand other people signed a petition opposing the project because of the potential problems to the radar.
The problem isn’t just that it’s more turbines in the county. It’s mainly the proposed locations of the turbines.
The proposal includes 60 turbines, and over half fall within what the National Weather Service calls the “mitigation zone”. Turbines in that area can cause even bigger problems for the Lincoln doppler radar.
The companies that proposed the project — Top Hat and Invenergy — agreed to shut down the turbines in the case of severe weather. It’s what is known as a curtailment agreement.
“We are being proactive,” Project Developer Michelle Pavan said at the meeting Thursday.
Top Hat and Invenergy agreed on over 40 specific terms with the National Weather Service and the county. The agreements are meant to minimize the issues the turbines cause on not just weather, but also wildlife and property owners.
But it is just a handshake deal, with little to no penalties if they don’t follow through.
After a public forum on the matter Thursday, the county board is considering adding teeth to the agreement.
“The board might even decide to put some teeth into that a little bit. I don’t know if it’d be maybe a monetary fine or something if they don’t comply, but we are still working on that,” County Board Chairman Emily Davenport said Thursday. “And we’re gonna make sure you know, they know it’s very serious.”
The National Weather Service did give the go-ahead on this project, but there is nothing in Federal law that would allow them to stop it if they didn’t like it. The NWS has several zones around the doppler radar, but they are purely advisory. Companies can propose to build around the mitigation zone all they want, and if local governments say it’s ok, the NWS can’t stop them.
So instead, they opt for making agreements and compromises, such as the ones made in Logan County. Experts say the curtailment agreements could help, but even if the turbines are off, they still contaminate data on the radar, just not to the same extent.
And even if they do turn them off, if it’s not quick enough, it ultimately won’t make a difference, according to WCIA chief meteorologist Kevin Lighty.
“So that’s the big question,” Lighty said. ” How quickly can we shut these things down so the data is not contaminated? Is it 5 minutes? Is it 25 minutes? That is the big question. We asked Top Hat this and they didn’t have an answer for us just yet, but they are going to get us that information. But storms can pop up really quick, and we need these shut down in a decent amount of time.”
The Logan County Board has made plans to vote on this proposal on November 16th. That meeting will be at 6:00 p.m. in the third-floor Courtroom at the Logan County Courthouse in Lincoln.
In an interesting twist learned only after the election on Tuesday, half of the Logan County Board will roll off and be replaced with newly elected officials, but that is not expected to happen until after the current board votes next week.