The (Solar) Light at the End of the Tunnel

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Felicity Barringer
The New York Times
January 17th, 2012

A consultant for the Defense Department reports that introducing solar installations on nine military bases in the Mojave and Colorado Desert could generate 7,000 megawatts of power.

Depending on which yardstick you prefer, that amounts to the output of seven average nuclear plants or six large coal-fired plants. It would also amount to 25 percent of the renewable energy that California will require its utilities to produce by 2015, according to the 13 authors of the report, prepared by the consultancy ICF International.

The report says that electricity generated annually from such solar installations would be equivalent to two-thirds of what the Department of Defense consumes nationwide each year.

Perhaps as much to the point, the report also notes that the military could earn as much as $100 million annually from such solar installations, from rental payments to discounts on power. “Private developers can tap the solar potential with no capital investment required from the D.O.D.,” it adds.

What is more, full development of this solar capability would mean avoiding emissions of millions of tons of greenhouse gases and other pollutants, the report said.

One of the bases mentioned in the report, Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, already boasts the largest photovoltaic array in the nation, a five-year-old 14-megawatt project.

But beyond that, the consultants found, another 30,873 acres of military land is suitable for similar solar arrays on land belonging to California bases, like Fort Irwin, an Army base that has already hosted an experiment in “cool roofs” for new base housing; Edwards Air Force Base (whose history was excerpted in Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”); the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms; and the Naval Air Facility in El Centro, where Prince Harry trained last year.

J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times At Fort Irwin in the Mojave Desert, houses with “cool” reflective roofs reduce energy consumption.

Another 101,000 acres were deemed “likely suitable” or “questionably suitable.”

At least 96 percent of the land on the bases was ruled unsuitable because solar development would interfere with military activities, because the land provides essential habitat to species like the desert tortoise, because of topography like steep slopes, or because construction could harm a cultural resource like a rich archaeological site or an area important to a Native American group.

Even so, the remaining lands, rooftops, parking lots and the like offer rich solar potential for photovoltaic and perhaps concentrated solar facilities if hurdles like transmission capacity could be overcome, the study indicated.

“There are a range of technical, policy and programmatic barriers that can slow or, in some cases, stop solar development,” the report cautions. “Transmission capacity and the management of withdrawn lands are the two most important issues.”

The study’s economic analysis, calculating a 20-year investment return, assumes that all construction would take place in 2015 (allowing for lead-in planning and procurement time) and that the price of photovoltaic arrays will drop 20 percent or so from last year’s levels.

The solar energy installations could also make the military bases less vulnerable to disruptions of the public electricity grid, the report added. Currently the Defense Department relies on individual diesel generators to insure power in the event of a grid interruption, it noted.

As the military bases rely more on secure microgrids to meet energy needs, the authors predict, solar power can play an ever more important role.

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