Report: DoD bases potential hotbeds for solar development

Monday - 1/16/2012, 8:08am EST

Military bases in the Western United States could be hidden harnessers of the sun's power — providing thousands of megawatts of solar power and leading to millions of dollars in revenue and reduced energy bills for the government.

The Defense Department's Office of Installations and the Environment, in a new study, estimates there's enough vacant land on seven military bases, stretching from California to Nevada, to generate 7,000 megawatts of solar energy — the same as seven nuclear power plants.

Solar power study
  • Solar energy on Western military bases could produce 7,000 megawatts of energy — equal to the output of 7 nuclear power plants.

  • DoD spends $4 billion a year on energy bills.

  • The study found 25,000 acres "suitable" for solar development.

  • Solar development on the bases could net the government as much as $100 million in revenue or reduced energy costs.

And that's after subtracting 96 percent of the available land to keep it for military exercises or protecting endangered species.

The study, conducted by ICF International, a consultancy, is part of DoD's efforts to develop alternative energy sources. The department spends $4 billion a year on energy.

In recent years, officials have also talked of moving military bases off the commercial electricity grid, subject to disruptions both natural and manmade, in favor of smaller, independent micro-grids.

The land and the demand

Researchers first conducted a geographic screening to ensure the land was compatible with solar facilities. Some 25,000 acres were found to be "suitable" for solar development, while another 100,000 were marked "likely" or "questionably" suitable.

The study also indicated the federal government could earn as much as $100 million a year, in either revenue or through reduced energy costs by leasing out the land to solar developers.

The Army has already considered trading land for renewable-energy as a sort of in-kind payment. In September, the service launched a task force of energy and acquisition experts designed to attract investors.

"We've got the land and the demand," Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment, said in the fall. "We have land we need to keep in the Army inventory for multiple reasons ... One of the things we can offer a private developer is that land. In exchange, we will be a purchaser of their energy."

The Army's long-term goal is to derive 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Physical — and regulatory — environment creates challenges

However, the latest DoD study indicates a number of challenges.

For one, the study questions the transmission capacity in California's Mojave and Colorado Deserts, where most of the bases are located, and also notes the "intermittent nature" of solar energy.

There is also the convoluted landscape of federal law and regulations.

Solar development on military bases is governed by a "complex web of laws, regulations and market rules, administered by public and quasi-public entities" at nearly every level of government, the study found.

Most of the regulations were written before solar energy made an impact on the renewable-energy market, which means DoD staff and companies they employ must be aware of what the rules say before proceeding with development.

For example, some of the land on military bases is made up of "withdrawn lands." They are part of the public domain and thus supervised by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management but have been set aside, or withdrawn, to serve "military mission needs." The report found there is disagreement over which entity would have final say over development.

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