Solar, efficiency projects hurry up and wait at U.S. military bases

The U.S. Army has selected two energy firms to build an industrial-sized solar farm in California's high Mojave Desert.

The move capitalizes on two resources the military has in abundance. "Not only do we have the land ... we also have the demand," said Kevin Geiss, energy security program director at the Army's installations and environment office.

Both are necessities for building big, expensive renewable projects.

Fort Irwin, home of the Army's instrumented battleground for staging war games to train troop units, has commissioned Clark Energy Group and Acciona Solar Power to build 500 megawatts of solar photovoltaic panels and concentrating solar power. It hopes the project will be completed by 2022, and construction costs would be in the $1.5 billion range, according to Thomas Kretzschmar, a senior program manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The electricity produced would far exceed Fort Irwin's 35 MW peak load. The companies could sell the rest to the grid, initially via two nearby high-power transmission lines near the base, Kretzschmar said.

Fort Irwin, meanwhile, earns revenue from the land lease, a boost in meeting federal renewable mandates on government agencies, and -- perhaps most importantly -- insulation from the vagaries of the nation's overtaxed electricity grid.

"What we're looking here is to assure sustained access to power for our installations," Geiss said.

'Our main challenge is financing'


The project marks renewable energy's latest leap forward on the Defense Department's 25 million acres of land. It outstrips the 14 MW photovoltaic array completed at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base in late 2007, the continent's largest, and the 2 MW array at Colorado's Fort Carson, the Army's largest.

Although the Army only has a few megawatts of renewable power now, over the next decade it plans to have a few hundred, Geiss said.

But meeting that goal won't be easy. Many projects rely on capital from private developers, and "right now, our main challenge is financing," Geiss said.

He noted that while big solar endeavors could take 30 years to pay off, the Army lacks legislative authority to sign power purchase contracts in that long-term time frame. Developers, as a result, are finding it harder to leverage the installations' demand when seeking loans.

"The bottom line, we're not driving this," he said. "It really is driven by the economics."

Still, both a growing concern over energy security and federal directives to increase energy efficiency and renewables will continue to push DOD in that direction.

"Quite frankly, the Department of Defense was a little bit late coming to the topic of efficiency and renewables, but now it is at the forefront," said Richard Kidd, a program director with the Department of Energy's federal energy management program, speaking at a conference in May.

Fort Irwin is one of six bases across the armed services where the department is testing a "net zero" energy use concept, Kidd said.

A giant landlord waiting to test building efficiency

While large renewable power projects can zero out an installation's fossil fuel demand in one fell swoop, efficiency projects are doing it in fits and starts.

DOD owns about 350,000 buildings, a third of which are now more than 50 years old, according to Maureen Sullivan, with DOD's deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology.

That sheer number and variety of buildings, spanning the spectrum from homes and hospitals to schools and warehouses -- all owned by a single entity -- makes DOD the perfect test bed for ferreting out building efficiency gains, said Jeffrey Marqusee, who heads a strategic environmental research program and an environmental security technology program within DOD.

"If you want to go out and push new technologies, you need to actually demonstrate them in the real world. And we have the real world to do these tests in," he said.

More to the point, he said DOD could help building managers better model, measure and control building energy demand to actually achieve advertised efficiency gains. Most "green" buildings don't live up to their full expectations, he said. "It's because they are complicated systems, and you can't just turn them on and walk away."

But sometimes the best energy-saving measures can be the simplest, the military is learning.

Discovering electric meters and more efficient light bulbs

It is starting with electric meters. At Fort Bragg in North Carolina, for example, only a handful of the 4,000 building structures even had meters earlier this decade. Now the base is installing them on all buildings, on the theory that saving energy could be pretty difficult without them, according to Tad Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for environment, safety and occupational health.

And at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, MWH Americas energy engineer Clive Rountree was there to identify energy savings. Not much thought had gone into lighting before. "On the base, they usually make the youngest guy the building manager," he said. "Anything that'll fit in goes."

He first helped institute simple measures -- like switching to energy-efficient lighting fixtures inside the cavernous airplane hangars.

The base has been successful in meeting its 3 percent yearly efficiency targets without these relatively inexpensive changes. But there are only so many easy solutions. "Five years from now, it's going to be a lot harder," he said.

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