Virginia Mandujano
Director General
Prior Aero

When Energy Projects Collide With Airports

Wed, 02/21/2018 - 18:58

A pilot steering his plane toward the landing strip, or flying it off the tarmac, has enough to worry about without having to look both ways for a wind turbine. Wind farm developers, however, see great business opportunities in the same locations favored by airports. The result, says Virginia Mandujano, Director General of Prior Aero, is a potential airspace conflict that could end up grounding the proposed installation. “Wind farms require constant, fast and nonturbulent winds to operate. So do airports.” With 1,500 airports and aerodromes registered in Mexico as of 2016, the possibility is high that a potential wind farm location will be planned near an already built airfield. “Placing a tall turbine with moving blades close to an airplane’s path to the airport would be extremely dangerous. With our services, companies can design or even redesign the wind farm to take advantage of these locations,” she adds. 

Prior Aero is a Mexico City-based consultancy for the renewables and aeronautics industries. In the renewables sector its expertise focuses on technical and legal consultancy for the implementation of wind farms, where the average total height of an industrial wind turbine is 328ft. The blades, at 116ft each, cover an acre of vertical airspace when turning, according to the National Wind Watch webpage.

Mexico’s Airports Law and Airports Regulation Law clearly set out the safety requirements project developers must follow when planning a wind farm installation. Mandujano says proactive companies can avoid further costs by consulting firms like Prior Aero. “It is extremely important that developers approach us so we can work together on the design, in line with the regulations that must be followed. Doing so is much more economical than redesigning the entire project further down the line. It is possible that the project may even become a no-go because of a conflict between the potential wind farm and the airport, highlighting the importance of our work.” 

Air traffic follows a vertical slope, much like a slide, during take-off and landing. This means the aircraft’s distance from the airport dictates the height at which the space below 
must be free of obstacles. Each airport’s use of space is also different. As a result, the design of any nearby wind farm will be unique to that location. “Our work is very specialized. The consultancy was initially involved only in the design of aviation and aerial navigation spaces but shifted its focus from designing these spaces to showing how wind farms affect these spaces. From there, we have branched out to other areas in the energy sector that require similar knowledge, such as transmission lines and solar farms. We are a one-of-a-kind company.”

Its uniqueness can also be a double-edged sword in a young market. While it has no competitors, potential clients are sometimes not aware they need the firm’s services. “In countries such as Germany, Spain and the US, companies understand that they have to develop these kinds of studies. In Mexico, very few people know that they are a must. This has nothing to do with regulation. The problem is that the market has not developed yet. These other countries have had the wind farms-airports conflict for a long time, but it has not been an issue in Mexico until recently,” Mandujano says. She also points out the difficulty of disseminating information because companies tend to think of regulatory proficiency as a competitive advantage. “If another company goes before you in the queue to get a permit and it gets rejected, it is in your best interest for that to happen because then your company gets the permit and you become more competitive.” 

It is easy to see the regulatory need for projects that include physical objects reaching into the sky, such as wind farms, transmission lines and power plants, but Mandujano says solar also poses a risk, even if it is unseen. Solar plants use PV modules to capture solar energy. These modules reflect solar beams back to the sky. “If one of those solar beams gets directed toward an airplane, that is a potential risk for the airplane. This possibility must be regulated as well. In the past, it was easier to predict the reflection’s trajectory because solar modules were fixed but newer tracking technologies make this more difficult. We also perform these kinds of studies,” Mandujano says.