Dispute over Schuylkill Co. wind farm exposes fissures in Pa.’s push to meet renewable energy goals

The proposed 175-megawatt wind farm would sit approximately 15 miles north of Fort Indiantown Gap in neighboring Lebanon County

By: - Wednesday February 23, 2022 7:15 am

Dispute over Schuylkill Co. wind farm exposes fissures in Pa.’s push to meet renewable energy goals

The proposed 175-megawatt wind farm would sit approximately 15 miles north of Fort Indiantown Gap in neighboring Lebanon County

By: - 7:15 am

Part of Rausch Creek property that would be the site of the proposed Anthracite Ridge wind farm. Turbines would be situated on the tops of either hill side. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Part of Rausch Creek property that would be the site of the proposed Anthracite Ridge wind farm. Turbines would be situated on the tops of either hill side. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

A proposed wind farm in Schuylkill County is pitting investors and renewable energy advocates excited about the project – and its economic benefits – against military and governmental officials who are concerned that the project poses a threat to military operations at a nearby base. 

The proposed 175-megawatt wind farm, which would sit approximately 15 miles north of Fort Indiantown Gap in neighboring Lebanon County, is the product of years-long talks between Schuylkill County-based Rausch Creek Land L.P, which owns the land where the proposed wind farm would reside, and Doral Renewables LLC, the project’s developers. 

“The project has been under development for many years, and we’ve been working on it for over three,” Nick Cohen, the president and CEO of Philadelphia-based Doral Renewables, told the Capital-Star. 

The project recently has come under fire from state military officials who say the project causes safety concerns for helicopter pilots and jeopardizes the future of aviation training programs at the Lebanon County installation that’s home to the Pennsylvania National Guard and the Air National Guard’s 193 Special Operations Wing. 

The proposed wind farm has been dubbed Anthracite Ridge, for the coal-laden stretch of hilly land in Hegins, Porter and Frailey townships in western Schuylkill County where it would reside, if federal military officials give it the nod. 

While federal officials ultimately will decide the fate of the $300 million project, federal law requires that military installations, developers and other affected parties, evaluate and attempt to mitigate any safety concerns or other risks associated with the project. 

“It is an objective of the Department of Defense to ensure that the robust development of renewable energy sources and the increased resiliency of the commercial electrical grid may move forward in the United States, while minimizing or mitigating any adverse impacts on military operations and readiness,” according to a DoD webpage explaining its standards for such projects. 

A review, conducted by federal military and transportation officials, first “seeks to have [the] military institution and the wind developer work together for mitigating solutions so that the base’s mission is not compromised,” Cohen said. 

However, Cohen and Rausch Creek Land Use Director Rob Feldman claim that Pennsylvania military officials have chosen an oppositional position to the project, rejecting several proposed compromises, and instead have chosen to take their concerns to local and state officials. 

In an Oct. 16, 2021 letter to the Hegins Township Zoning Board reviewed by the Capital-Star, lawyers representing the Pennsylvania National Guard (PANG) and the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs (DMVA) objected to the wind farm’s potential economic impact on the base, arguing that “the Army will not hesitate to move [its training sites] Eastern Aviation Training Sites (EAATS) if PANG cannot satisfy the Army’s mission and training requirements.”

“That's a narrative that they have out there that all the jobs will be lost at the base, if the wind farm happens. And that could not be further from the truth,” Cohen said. “Not a single job would be lost. And, we're certain that we can achieve a compromise solution that does not impact their training in a material way.” 

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania National Guard, told the Capital-Star that the project "would affect four landing zones, all of which are north of Second Mountain in Dauphin and Schuylkill counties."

The letter from the military attorneys also argued that the proposed wind farm posed “a physical hazard to aviators,” raising concerns about the safety of the helicopter pilots because of the amount of space available to safely navigate around the turbines and the surrounding hillsides.

Cohen and Feldman said they have proposed several possible solutions, which they believe address the the safety concerns, including reducing the number of wind turbines from 83 to 40, a 51 percent reduction in the number of turbines, acquiring additional land to create an alternate flight path, and including Federal Aviation Administration-approved lights on the turbines to protect pilots using night vision, according to documents viewed by the Capital-Star. 

Capital-Star screen capture of the original layout of the Anthracite Ridge wind farm project from a July 2021 presentation by Doral to members of Gov. Tom Wolf's staff. Red dots indicate the location of turbines.

Capital-Star screen capture from the same July 2021 presentation to members of Gov. Tom Wolf's staff. Green dots indicate the location of wind turbines.

"It’s never been about contesting any aviation safety or military training effectiveness judgment rendered by the committed professionals we respect so much," Feldman said. "Simply put, Doral LLC presented a mitigated layout that, according to standards put forth by Fort Indiantown Gap, simply omitted turbines near enough to present a threat."

Still, the letter to a local entity has Cohen perplexed, he said. 

The Hegins Township Zoning Board, the only one of the three affected townships that doesn't defer to Schuylkill County for zoning matters, ultimately has no authority as to whether or not the proposal will be approved or rejected by federal officials, Cohen said, but it doesn’t help garner local support for the project.

“It's almost as if they're afraid to see what the Department of Defense is going to say. I mean, if we're really serious, what do they have to worry about?” Cohen asked. “If the Department of Defense agrees with them, then the wind farm will be officially objected to by the Department of Defense. So why meddle with local politics?”

The Capital-Star reached out to a Pennsylvania National Guard spokesperson who said they did not wish to elaborate on the position outlined in the letter to the Hegins Township Zoning Board. 

“If the Clearinghouse and the developer cannot identify and agree upon feasible and affordable actions to mitigate the proposed energy project’s impact on military operations and readiness, the Clearinghouse notifies the Secretary of Defense,” U.S. defense officials told the Capital-Star in an email. 

“The Secretary of Defense then would consider several factors and decide whether the proposed energy project would result in an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States. If such a finding is made, the Secretary of Defense must transmit that finding to the Secretary of Transportation," the email reads.

U.S. defense officials noted that the DoD has objected to one energy project through the FAA process. That objection occurred in 2014 and the proposal was located in Somerset County, Maryland. 

At the State Level

The project’s supporters, meanwhile, have taken their fight to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

In a December 21, 2021 letter to Wolf, proponents, including the advocacy groups PennEnvironment, PennFuture, the Pennsylvania Conservative Energy Forum, as well as other religious, business, and environmental groups called on Wolf to insist Pennsylvania officials under his purview cease their local efforts to oppose the project.

“We ask only that you ensure that state agencies under your jurisdiction follow this process, which is dictated by federal law, and do not engage in advocacy outside of the process that could interfere with it,” the group wrote of the federal mitigation procedures.

“Specifically, we ask that you direct PANG and DMVA to suspend any advocacy with local zoning and permitting authorities, and to rescind past arguments against the proposal until such a time that the DoD … can reach an informed conclusion as to whether and how any alleged project impacts to military operations can be mitigated,” the letter continued.

Robert Altenburg, PennFuture's senior director for energy and climate, signed on to the December letter. He told the Capital-Star this week that he hasn’t received a written response from the Wolf administration. 

However, Tom Schuster, clean energy program director for the Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania chapter told the Capital-Star that his group has received a “preliminary response” from the administration and that it is working with the administration to address the matter. 

In an email, Wolf administration spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer repeated arguments made by both the Guard and the DMVA in its October letter to Hegins Township officials, even as it attempted to distance itself from taking an official position on the project. 

“First and foremost, it’s important to note that the Wolf administration has no say in this decision,” Rementer said. “The final determination is ultimately a decision of the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veteran Affairs and National Guard simply offer boots on the ground support, in accordance with Army policy, to DoD and the FAA.

"Fort Indiantown Gap hosts the largest National Guard Rotary Wing aviation program in the United States and is the second busiest heliport in the U.S. Army," Rementer wrote. "Of the three proposed wind farms by Anthracite Ridge, only one poses a threat that would render the airspace unusable and result in a detrimental impact on the readiness of the U.S. Army and national security. 

"Since December 2019, DMVA has met with the project developers a multitude of times to work through mitigation opportunities. However, instead of attempting to work with the administration on corrective measures that would be acceptable to the DoD and the FAA, the developers continued to ask the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to compromise the safety of its aircrews and accept the dangers of operating flights in proximity to wind turbines. While Gov. Wolf is continually supportive of renewable energy opportunities, he could not support an endeavor that places national security at risk. And, ultimately, it’s not his to support,” Rementer said.

In response, Cohen expressed concern about the administration’s source of information - state military officials at the DMVA and PANG. 

“I am certain that the Governor’s Office has not received accurate information about what has happened,” Cohen said. “We would never expect him to support anything that would compromise national security.”

Cohen also disputed the Wolf administration’s claim that developers “continued to ask the Pennsylvania Army National Guard to compromise the safety of its aircrews and accept the dangers of operating flights in proximity to wind turbines.”

“We never asked them to compromise safety,” Cohen told the Capital-Star in an email. “They objected to 100 percent of all mitigations that we proposed.”

Economics 

While the base and the wind farm’s developers continue the back-and-forth, Cohen believes the project could be an economic boon for the county.

Cohen expects that if the project is approved, it will bring 250 construction jobs to the area for a two-year period. After construction is completed, the wind farm will need about a dozen employees to run it. 

Cohen said he anticipates Doral will invest $100 million in contracts with local vendors, including construction work and other support services. 

But even before the project could begin, Cohen said multi-million-dollar investments have been made in the local economy. 

Doral has “already invested over $10 million with local, environmental, and environmentalists and scientists and various studies and legal work required to develop a project,” Cohen said. “So it's already had an economic impact.”

Still, Cohen understands the difficult position local officials are faced with. 

"But it's hard for local officials to approve the project when they're told that all of the jobs at Ft. Indiantown Gap will be lost and that national security rests on their shoulders,” Cohen said. “I think that's a heavy burden if you're a local official to think that you're responsible for national security.”

Of the more than 143,000 residents of Schuylkill County, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 10,700 are veterans. 

2020 Census data also reports that 12.7 percent of the county’s population lives in poverty. 

What it means for Pennsylvania’s Renewable Energy Future

The continued dispute over the proposed Anthracite Ridge wind farm could spell trouble for Pennsylvania’s efforts to welcome renewable energy projects. 

Since 2019, Wolf has touted the Regional Greenhouse Gas initiative, also known as RGGI, as a way to limit greenhouse gas emissions in Pennsylvania and move the commonwealth away from its storied history in the fossil fuel industry and toward renewable energy generation.

In December, after much opposition from Legislative Republicans and push back from power plant owners, Attorney General Josh Shapiro signed off on RGGI, with Wolf lauding it as a “vital step” for the commonwealth to take in addressing its climate goals. 

Pennsylvania’s entrance into RGGI has yet to take effect, due to pending litigation between the Wolf administration and the Legislative Reference Bureau, the state entity in charge of publishing official regulations, according to the Associated Press. 

But while Wolf’s efforts to get Pennsylvania to join RGGI seem to project the air of progress, renewable energy investors and developers, like Cohen, worry that there’s a disconnect between Harrisburg and the reception of renewable energy projects, such as the Anthracite Ridge wind farm, across the commonwealth. 

The delay caused by opposition to the proposed wind farm, “sends a message nationally and internationally that, to investors, Pennsylvania is not a place that is supporting renewable energy,” Cohen told the Capital-Star. “It's hard to believe. On one hand, we sound like we're serious about renewable energy. And then, on the other hand, one of the most exciting renewable energy projects in the commonwealth is being opposed by the state itself. And that is alarming.”

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.

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