Army breaks ground on DoD's biggest solar project to date

Tuesday - 4/29/2014, 4:12am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The Army broke ground Friday on the largest solar energy project the Defense Department has undertaken so far.

It is dedicating dozens of acres of southern Arizona land for solar panels that will be built and operated by a local utility company, with most of the resulting energy going to the local Army base.

The solar installation at Fort Huachuca certainly isn't the military's first foray into the idea of trading land for renewable energy, but it is the largest project any military service has committed to thus far. The field of 75,000 solar modules will occupy about 70 acres of land and produce 18 megawatts of electricity, enough to light a small-sized city.

In a political environment in which DoD is sometimes criticized for expending funds on "green" initiatives that might otherwise be directed to warfighting, Army officials were quick to assert that the solar project won't cost the federal government a dime. Tucson Electric Power, the local utility that already delivers electricity service to most of southern Arizona, including Fort Huachuca, will finance the construction and operation of the solar panels.

Katherine Hammack, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, said the deal would benefit both parties. The utility will get close-to-free real estate on which it can build new generation capacity, and the Army will move closer to its renewable energy goals by making use of land it currently owns, but for which it has no immediately foreseeable military need.

"This land was an obstacle course in World War II, at times there were barracks there, and now it's going to be for renewable energy," Hammack said.

Fort Huachuca, a center of several Army intelligence and information technology operations, will consume most or all of the power the solar installation generates during Arizona's power-hungry summer months when air conditioners and servers put heavy loads on the electric grid at the relatively-isolated base, just a few dozen miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. During the winter though, it's possible that some of the energy will be diverted to the local grid if the base doesn't need it, officials said.

Incentives for both participants

Under the terms of the arrangement, the Army's electricity rates will neither go up nor down, but the service will make progress toward the pledge each of the military services has made to the White House: getting at least one gigawatt of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

The local utility's incentive to participate in the project is somewhat similar. The Arizona Corporation Commission, the state regulatory body that oversees public utilities there, requires electric companies to generate 15 percent of their total energy from renewables.

TEP and other regulated utilities routinely negotiate small-scale agreements with private landholders to install solar panels or other renewable facilities in pursuit of that goal, but the potential for a 30-year deal with an organization like Fort Huachuca, which promises to be both a landlord and a consumer, doesn't come along every day.

Amanda Simpson, the director of the Army's Energy Initiatives Task Force, said the agreement advances another of the military's energy goals: making bases more resilient against the possibility of a disruption to the civilian power grid, whether through a cyber attack, a kinetic attack or an accident of nature.

"By building that facility on our land, we now have a generation asset we can turn to in times of emergency," she said. "If the single, 75-mile transmission line that runs from Tucson to Fort Huachuca goes down due to flash floods or wildfires, we'll still have access to some electricity."

The terms of the Army's deal with Tucson Electric Power oblige the service to buy power from the utility for the next 30 years, but its electric bills will have nothing to do with the project itself. It will pay the same rates the General Services Administration negotiates for any other government power consumer in the region, GSA and TEP officials said.

Task force helped negotiations

The deal came together, Hammack said, because the Army's leadership realized a few years ago that the complexities of the energy and utility industries tend to outstrip the local management capabilities of a typical military base.

The Energy Initiatives Task Force, based at the Pentagon, is designed to fill that gap, and helped to negotiate the deal between TEP and Fort Huachuca.

"We knew the garrisons alone didn't have the manpower or the resources to put together a public-private partnership like this," she said. "They have passionate people who know what right looks like, but they don't have the resources to put it all together. It's really designed to augment the garrison staff with the resources and the support to bring a project like this to fruition with the support of the post and the post leadership. It takes teams."

Hammack said the southern Arizona project is the EITF's biggest project so far, but its work has already initiated enough procurement activities to get the Army a quarter of the way to its 2025 alternative energy goal.

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