Being Army-Strong for Solar: Largest DOD Plant in U.S.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently selected the team of ACCIONASolar Power and the Clark Energy Group to develop a massive solarenergy project. The first phase alone consists of five sites over 21square miles, which will produce a cumulative 500 megawatts (MW) ofpower at the Fort Irwin military complex, located in the Mojave Desertof California, an area with nearly the most hours of sunlight in theU.S. annually.

In specific, Fort Irwin is located halfway between LosAngeles, which is approximately 245 km to the southwest, and Las Vegas,NV, nearly 290 km to the northeast. The base is the U.S. Army`s largesttraining ground and also houses NASA`sGoldstone Deep Space Communications center. This effort is in responseto a federal mandate that requires the U.S. Army to reduce its energyconsumption by 30 percent by 2015 with respect to 2003 levels and tocover 25 percent of its energy consumed with clean, renewable energy by2025, which is analogous to the renewable energy portfolio standard for states. 

The Fort Irwin project is part of the Army`s "Enhanced Use Leasing"(EUL) program, which is designed to allow outside partners to acquireand capitalize on the value derived from under-utilized non-excess realestate assets on Army and select Department of Defense (DOD)facilities. The facilities will be installed at five sites, which willbe determined by Army technicians, whom will consider environmental and wildlife impact as well as water resources required by the project.

This will be the DOD’s largest solar energy plant, and ACCIONA SolarPower and Clark Energy Group`s joint partnership will likely developmore than the initial 500 MW of solar power in phase one, sinceexpansion plans allow for up to 1 gigawatt (GW) to be generated inlater years. The project will require numerous concentrating solar power (CSP) solar dishes and more conventional photovoltaic solar panels;however, the technology options, and subsequently, the manufacturershave not been determined. It is likely that Stirling Energy Systems,headquartered in the Phoenix, AZ area, will vie for contention andpossibly be at an advantage for this Army installation, since it isalready is building a similar facility in the Mohave Desert and is adomestic company with solely U.S.-based manufacturing.However, ACCIONA is based in Spain and may favor a leading CSP providersuch as Abengoa Solar, which is also based in Spain. In any case, the14 MW solar plant at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and the 2 MWinstallation at Fort Carson, Colorado, are the DOD`s largest currentsolar power generating plants, which will be easily dwarfed uponcompletion of this new installation.

The intended clean energy facility is the result of a competitive bid process, similar to many green stimulus grants, which opened in March by the U.S. Army`s Senior Energy Council, a panel created in October 2008 to create a sustainable energy strategy designed to target alternative energy sources for achieving significant energy savingsand enhancing energy security for U.S. Army installations, personnel,vehicles and other assets. One can only wonder how much the U.S. hasspent on fuel costs to sustain military operations in Afghanistan andIraq, primarily supplied by foreign oil. Thus, the military is alsoramping up research funding for ethanol and various forms of biofuels.

It is expected that the first phase will be finished by 2014 and uponfull completion may even be the largest solar plant in the state. Anysurplus electricity produced will be sent to the power gridfor compensation via two high-power transmission lines in the vicinityof Fort Irwin, while the potential construction of a national smart gridwill only enhance the power generating enterprise of this facility.What’s more, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed into law several pieces of legislation, which will facilitate major capital projects of this nature in California in the future including the expansion of transmission lineson military grounds. In general, California has the most aggressive andlucrative incentives for clean energy than any other state. Thus,states such as Arizona,just on the other side of the Colorado River from California, with manyof the same attributes for similar projects such as solar irradianceand numerous desert military bases and proving grounds, have not beenon the receiving end of similar high-profile investments due to itstepid solar energy legislative framework.Amidst, California’s record-breaking budget deficit, the state hasremained stalwart in approving green building and clean energylegislation, which is anticipated to spur a Solar Valley akin toSilicon Valley.

On a national level, upcoming federal legislation such as the U.S. Solar Roadmap Act and Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act,which may be denoted as climate change legislation, may also germinatesimilar military solar plants throughout the country. However, themedia is associating a pending climate change bill strictly as a countermeasure to global warming,which is being claimed as a false theory based on a recent study ofdata over the last decade. Yet, the climate change bill is designed tonot only reduce greenhouse gas emissionsbut to wean the U.S. off of foreign oil and to create a new cleanenergy infrastructure with a strong manufacturing base that will aid ineconomic recovery and lead to sustainable long-term growth. One couldeven argue that if Congress followed through with energy reform afterthe House passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act in June, prior to the health care debate, that it would have accelerated job creation faster and improved other economic indicators.

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