While not central to its war-fighting mission abroad, the U.S. military is quietly becoming one of the nation's most aggressive energy innovators, retrofitting thousands of acres of military installations with renewables technologies that will help meet the bases' future power demand while also aiding host states in achieving renewable energy targets.
From commercial-scale solar installations at the Army's Fort Irwin, in the heart of California's Mojave Desert, to smaller projects such as a 30-megawatt geothermal plant at Fallon Naval Air Station in Nevada, the Pentagon perhaps more than any other federal agency has adopted the Obama administration's call for a rapid deployment of renewable energy resources as part of a broader strategy to reduce greenhouse gases.
"The military's mission is not to battle global warming," noted Matthew Kahn, an environmental economist at the University of California, Los Angeles' Institute of the Environment. "But if the military demands renewables, that sends a clear signal to green businesses that there will be a market for their products.
"In this way, the military could unintentionally help to green our economy," Kahn added.
Experts say the Pentagon's renewables push is motivated by two factors -- reducing the cost of operating large, energy-consumptive bases, but also advancing national security by making its facilities less vulnerable to energy shortages.
With those goals in mind, the Pentagon has embarked on several recent major renewables projects, including this year's announced 500-megawatt concentrated solar plant at Fort Irwin, near Barstow, Calif., in the high Mojave Desert. The $1.5 billion project is a joint venture with Clark Energy Group and Acciona Solar Power, and could be producing at full capacity by 2022, according to the Army (ClimateWire, Aug. 7).
More recently, the Air Force announced it would install as many as 80,000 solar panels, both on the ground and atop buildings, at southern Arizona's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The 6-megawatt project, while tiny compared to the Army's proposal at Fort Irwin, is nonetheless a significant step for the Air Force, which will use the electricity to power about 900 houses on the base.
Joe Salkowski, a spokesman for Tucson Electric Power, which will help finance the project, said the Davis-Monthan solar panels "will represent the largest distributed solar-power system in our portfolio by far," and will help Tucson Electric and other Arizona utilities meet a 15 percent statewide renewable portfolio standard by 2025.
Meanwhile, the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory is working with the Army to develop another large-scale solar array at Fort Bliss in southwest Texas, just north of El Paso, said John Barnett, supervisor of NREL's project development and finance section in Golden, Colo.
Solving the siting problem
The recent proliferation of renewable energy proposals on military installations, while promising energy and environmental benefits to the bases themselves, also offers a broader benefit to the Obama administration as officials try to identify hundreds of public land sites that could support alternative energy projects.
The Defense Department owns about 25 million acres, much of which is already disturbed by troop training and other activities. As a result, the Pentagon could help resolve what has become the leading obstacle to expanding renewable energy -- opposition to the siting of power plants in sensitive or pristine landscapes.
Federal efforts to authorize construction of commercial-scale solar and wind-power projects, particularly in California's Mojave Desert region, have met stiff resistance because of the projects' expected impacts to wildlife habitat and water resources.
In many cases, environmental groups say they welcome the expansion of renewable energy as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but they want such projects sited in areas with little or no ecological value.
Military bases in many instances offer an ideal solution.
"It's not the whole answer, but it's part of the answer," said Carl Zichella, director of Western renewable programs for the Sierra Club in Sacramento.
Jerry Hansen, the Army's senior energy executive, said such views are not lost on the Army, which has more than 12 million acres in its lands portfolio.
"It's been interesting to hear from proponents of renewable energy who have asked the DOD to step up and help in that area," Hansen said. "We recognize and accept that responsibility."
Included in the Army's efforts is a directive that each base perform surveys to identify areas that are suitable to support renewable energy projects.
But Hansen and other Pentagon officials remain wary about renewable energy development becoming a revenue engine, as is expected with Fort Irwin's 500-megawatt solar project. According to base officials, Fort Irwin's peak demand for electricity is 35 megawatts, meaning the Army's partner companies will be able to sell the remaining 465 megawatts to other utilities.
"Renewable energy is a key area for DOD to invest, but renewable energy is very expensive and the business cases may not return on investment," said Brian Lally, facility energy director for acquisition, technology and logistics with the Office of Secretary of Defense. "In a future 'low-carbon' economy, the business case may change."
But if existing projects are any indication, the Pentagon has already proved itself to be a renewable energy leader.
Consider that the largest operating solar power plant in North America sits on a 140-acre patch of scrubby desert land in the Yucca Flats at Nellis Air Force Base, just northeast of Las Vegas.
The $100 million photovoltaic solar-power system, which began operating in 2007, consists of 72,416 ground-fixed solar panels that generate 14 megawatts of electricity -- enough to power about 2,350 homes on the base.
The Air Force estimates that the solar array saves the base about $1 million a year in electricity costs and reduces emissions of carbon dioxide by 24,000 tons a year, the equivalent of removing roughly 4,000 cars from the road, according to the military. It also occupies a site otherwise unusable for military training, a long-abandoned landfill.
Brigid Lowery, director of the center for program analysis in U.S. EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, said the Nellis project is "a good example" of the size and scope of renewable energy projects that can be done on military bases.
And when President Obama visited Nellis last May, he remarked that "this base serves as a shining example of what's possible when we harness the power of clean, renewable energy to build a new, firmer foundation for economic growth," according to a White House transcript.
Two other Air Force facilities -- Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington -- are meeting 100 percent of power demand by consuming renewable energy, further burnishing the Pentagon's reputation as an energy innovator.
And at the Army's Fort Carson in southeast Colorado, the Army in 2008 installed a 2-megawatt solar power facility, also atop a closed landfill, that provides enough electricity to power 540 homes, or roughly 2.3 percent of the fort's energy needs. The Army has since set a goal of powering the entire training facility with renewable energy sources by 2027.
Sites like these offer "great hope" for renewable energy development, because there are huge swaths of already disturbed military land that could be utilized for renewables, said Barnett, the NREL official.
"The military can make a great partner, and that's what we've seen with projects like at the Nellis Air Force Base," said Jessica Goad, an energy and climate change policy fellow at the Wilderness Society.
Meanwhile, federal regulators continue search for other reuse sites that could house new energy projects, including Superfund hazardous waste sites, landfills, abandoned mines and shuttered portions of military bases. Among 12 contaminated sites announced by EPA last month as having potential for renewable energy development was Naval Station Newport in Rhode Island.
"We need to look at those sites first before we look at greenfields," said EPA's Lowery.
Optimism notwithstanding, not all military bases are suitable for renewable energy projects. In fact, wind turbine technologies could interfere with military equipment such as radar, said Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association.
As a result, wind power development on bases tends to be of a smaller scale. To date, the only sizable wind projects involving military lands are a 2.4-megawatt wind farm that the Air Force operates on Ascension Island, and a 1.3-megawatt wind farm at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.
"We know this issue is not a showstopper for the wind industry, but it is something that needs to be researched more," Jodziewicz said.
Military bases are also not exempt from concerns about impacts to sensitive landscapes and wildlife. In fact, many bases provide vital habitat for threatened and endangered species.
Zichella, the Sierra Club official in Sacramento, points to the recent transfer of 600 federally threatened desert tortoises from Fort Irwin to accommodate additional training exercises. More than 90 of the tortoises died, prompting the Army and Bureau of Land Management to temporarily halt the $8.7 million translocation program.
"That's a potential problem, and we need to be concerned," he said. "The general rule that should be applied ... is to choose the best sites possible with the fewest environmental impacts, whether on military bases or not."
Streater writes from Colorado Springs, Colo.