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BLM experiments with camouflage to hide renewable power structures

 

On a late summer day, Bureau of Land Management visual resource specialist Sherry Roche lugged a 50-pound plywood panel from a white pickup onto the bare hillside of Hubbard Mesa near Rifle, Colo. Others lashed it to the ground with climbing rope, then stepped back to see if its specially engineered pattern of pixels faded into the rocky shale outcrop.

The camouflage test was one of three series of field trials the agency and its partners completed this August and September in Wyoming and Colorado, in landscapes that ranged from mountain meadow, sub-alpine conifer woodland and sub-alpine aspen, to sagebrush steppe, scrub oak and piñon-juniper. They tested camo under sunny and cloudy skies. They scrutinized it from distances of 100, 200 and 400 meters, at a half-mile and a mile.

The patterns were inspired by military and hunting gear, but this camouflage isn't for uniforms. The BLM -- in cooperation with landscape architects from the Carbondale, Colo., office of Otak,  an engineering and design firm, as well as leading camouflage-design experts from industry and the U.S. Department of Defense -- wants to feather the distracting infrastructure of renewable power plants -- maintenance buildings and outbuildings -- into the background. Scenic impacts often heighten conflicts over development on public land, and the BLM hopes to reduce them. "We don't want to have a scarred landscape out there," says Hyperstealth Biotechnology Corp. President Guy Cramer, who created the current design.

The BLM has worked to conceal industrial infrastructure on its lands since at least the 1980s, when it used single colors to help screen oil and gas tanks, among other structures. These days, the agency's visual resource specialists give oil and gas pads irregular shapes to mimic natural clearings and align pipeline and utility corridors with roads or natural contours -- running them along the edge of forests rather than plowing new ground. Former Rock Springs, Wyo., BLM archaeologist Terry Del Bene was the first to suggest using a camouflage pattern to conceal energy structures; he obtained Department of Energy funding in 2004 to experiment on oil and gas tanks. Tom Lahti, chief of the Wyoming Renewable Energy Coordination Office, suggested incorporating renewable energy infrastructure into tests of oil and gas tank paint colors in the early 2000s.

The BLM's Wyoming High Desert District Office used $90,000 of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money to hire Otak for the most recent effort. The monotone colors historically used by the BLM -- beetle, covert green, antelope and dune -- as well as newer ones like yuma green, shadow gray and Carlsbad Canyon just don't work, says Cramer, who has worked with retired Lt. Col. Tim O'Neill, the father of "digital" camouflage, to design thousands of camouflage patterns since 2004. For renewables, they've tapped into concepts O'Neill pioneered in the 1970s to create a high-tech version of the camo now used to conceal military property, personnel carriers and people.

The technique blends two patterns: One large one, which resembles a Holstein's spots, distracts the peripheral vision, while a micro pattern diverts the central vision and provides texture. They also incorporate shapes familiar to the brain, such as sagebrush, to help conceal objects. "We place these natural geometric shapes within the camouflage and the brain immediately tries to ignore them because it's already catalogued them in the background before," Cramer says.

Finding camouflage combinations that work is difficult. "It's not like being able to go to the local paint store and get a color matched," says Otak landscape architect Kate Schwarzler. For example, field trials revealed that the team needed a darker color in addition to the BLM's traditional nine to help punch up contrast. The pattern also needed to be scaled up to better hide large facilities.

For their final September field test, the researchers applied the camouflage to a 20-by-40-foot natural gas tank using pliable stencils in a common landscape that could be developed for renewable energy. Schwarzler says the pattern works better  than the traditional monotone method in some cases, but not in all. It's most effective at viewing distances between a quarter and three-quarters of a mile. With no promise of future funding, the BLM now hopes industry will help develop technology to apply and standardize camouflage on facilities near areas especially vulnerable to visual impacts, such as national scenic and recreational trails or historic sites.

Of course, camouflage can't be used to sink a large wind turbine into the sagebrush or eliminate the bright glare of a solar panel. Wind turbines have to be visible so that aircraft can avoid them, as must any tower exceeding 200 feet. It's also important that they're visible to birds. "Proper development and proper siting of renewable energy facilities is always going to be the primary focus," says Schwarzler. "Camouflage is only one tool that could potentially be used."