KAKE NEWS INVESTIGATES: Wind Farms and Weather Radars

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RENO COUNTY, Kan. (KAKE) -

"I think especially Kansas prides itself on...getting those warnings earlier and earlier and earlier, out to people," Sheila Ferguson said.  

She's one of many worried about severe weather warnings as a wind farm goes up in her neighborhood in Reno County.

Monday, we told you about the growing controversy over a proposed wind farm there, in rural southeastern Rural County, between Pretty Prairie and Haven.  Among the concerns raised, how wind farms impact the ability to detect storms using weather radars.

We asked KAKE Chief Meteorologist Jay Prater if this was a problem.  He said it is.

"Any object that gets into the radar beam returns energy back to the radar and creates false echo. So wind turbines are just one thing that can do that," he explained. 

On the radar, wind turbines show up an angry red, sort of like severe storms.  Jay says he adjusts his readings of radar every day to account for wind farms.

"They build the wind farms in rows," he said.  "So, as a meteorologist, I know that's not rain.  I know it's a wind farm."

He just discounts the data.  But that means he might miss a forming tornado or a change in direction of a severe storm.

"Radar is a funky thing.  I can even occasionally track traffic on I-70!" he said.  "In a perfect world we would be able to capture the wind and not have structures that would also impede the weather radar.  But the physics don't allow that.  So we just have to deal with whatever's built and work around."

"Well, they're going to compromise safety for especially everyone in the footprint and St. Joe's...school out here," Sheila Ferguson said.

That safety is one of the big reasons why Sheila and Patrick Ferguson say they object to a planned wind farm in their neighborhood.

"It can also cause problems with flash flood," Patrick said.  "They can't tell if it's happening."

"We're not against green energy.  We're not against wind energy either.  We're just for responsible sites," Sheila added.

Part of that, they say, is moving wind farms farther away from weather radars.  They live about 15 to 20 miles from the Wichita National Weather Service's Doppler Radar.  That's closer than the Beaumont wind farm, which Jay says he picks up now, even on a nice day.

"The farther the better," Jay said about where wind farms should be placed in relation to radar.  "But keep in mind we have contaminated radar data south of Mullinville.  And, from Dodge City radar that's 30 miles away."

Meaning wind farms would have to be even further away from radars to eliminate the contamination.  For now, Jay says he and other meteorologists are used to adjusting for the existing wind farms and would just add this to their list.

"Sure, there's going to be degradation. At what point is there enough degradation to stop a project?  I don't think anybody's ever used contamination of weather radar data against trying to develop a property for wind.  So this is uncharted territory," Jay said.

But, there's always the chance with corrupted data that they would miss something important at the wrong time.

"Is there a way to prevent that being a danger to the public?" asked KAKE News Investigates' Pilar Pedraza.

"Only if there's no wind farm," Jay Prater answered. 

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