Pentagon's 25M Acres Could Ease Renewables Siting Debate
Dec 3, 2009 - Scott Streater - NY Times
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.
"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.