Any structure higher than 200 feet must be considered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a possible obstruction before it is built. Contemporary utility-scale wind turbines typically exceed the 200-foot limit. Wind project developers therefore routinely submit their projects for obstruction evaluation.
“When you submit a filing for obstruction evaluation, there is a preliminary evaluation that the FAA OEAAA analysts do,” explained enXco GIS Program Manager Carl Moczydlowsky. He was referring to the FAA group charged with doing the evaluation.
A group of 4,000 FAA employees, including those who do evaluations pertaining to flight standards and airport planning, have been furloughed indefinitely as a result of the Congress failing to extend FAA funding before it left for its summer recess. The OEAAA group, however, remains on the job.
The analysts look at flight paths, military training routes, airport operations and similar considerations. If there could be an issue, Moczydlowsky said, further review is required.
In “99.9%” of the cases reviewed, the analysts issue a finding of either “determination of no-hazard” or a “presumed hazard.”
What a developer like enXco wants is “a determination of no-hazard, which means you have clearance to build that turbine,” Moczydlowsky said.
“If you submit a hazard determination and it requires review by one of those divisions that is on furlough, you’re not going to get it back,” Moczydlowsky said, “until those people are off of furlough.”
Not all reviews will be delayed. “If you submit for review on your obstruction and it doesn’t require going to flight standards or going to airport planning,” Moczydlowsky said, “then the obstacle evaluation group can just write that as a non-hazard themselves.”
The obstacle evaluation group is now going to have a large backlog of work on submitted to flight standards or airport planning that they will not get back to finalize. “It’s just going to be sitting in somebody’s inbox somewhere until they come off of furlough,” Moczydlowsky said.
The other determinations that flow through will be their only workload, he went on. “So if you don’t have a flight standards or airport planning issue, then they’re actually going to get to you faster than they would have normally.”
Because enXco believes that one of its projects is in the former category, it immediately sought out feedback from the FAA and from its best consultants about what to expect.
Moczydlowsky could not identify the project because of a pending environmental impact review (EIR) but said they do not expect to get an FAA response on it, even after the result of the EIR is issued.
Renewables developers are used to being tied up in regulatory processes but the FAA work stoppage represents particularly poor timing. Many projects, like enXco’s, are counting on investment tax credit (ITC) benefits to make them financially viable. Some may also have federal loan guarantees at stake, too.
Projects that don’t achieve a minimal level of progress by September 30 will lose their loan guarantees. Projects that don’t break ground by December 31 will lose their ITCs. These delays, Moczydlowsky said, could hold up the entire permitting process. That would then delay the start of construction. The result could be the loss of the incentives and the project’s financial viability.
Interpretations of what qualifies a project for the incentives vary according to companies’ internal reviews and may be applied differently in different jurisdictions, so it is not clear at this point how significant the FAA delays will be.
“Some counties require no-hazard determinations before they will issue grading or building permits for any part the project,” Moczydlowsky explained. Others, he added, are friendlier to renewables projects.
What is at stake is not yet clear. “FAA furloughs like this have happened many times over the last 30 years,” Moczydlowsky said. “They usually last a couple of weeks at most. That will not throw off any of our timelines.”
If the furlough goes on longer, he said, more analysis will begin. “We’re not too concerned right now, based on historical precedent,” Moczydlowsky said.
Then again, the degree of polarization and stalemate in the present Congress is pretty unprecedented.