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A Wealth of Opportunity on Desert Land

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is a major energy consumer, with an annual energy bill running to $4 billion. To reduce its reliance on the commercial electricity grid, it also has become a major proponent of on-site energy generation via renewable energy sources.

A new year-long study by consultancy ICF International puts a new number on the DoD's renewable energy prospects: 7 gigawatts (GW) of solar energy could be put on seven military bases in California's Mojave and Colorado deserts, and could potentially generate $100 million a year in revenue or discounted power pricing or other "in-kind" considerations.

Report's Key Findings: 

  • Out of nine military bases studied (seven in California, two in Nevada), just four percent of their surface area (about 125,000 acres) is technically feasible and financially viable for solar development, due to conflicts with military activities like live-fire weapons training, concerns over endangered species, flash flood hazards and other factors.
  • The 7 GW of solar capacity is more than 30 times the electricity consumed by the California bases, and enough to offset two-thirds of the DoD's current nationwide electricity consumption. The actual level of solar energy development would probably be well below that due to shortage of transmission capacity, environmental constraints, administrative and legal hurdles, and "competition from other generation sources." Even solar development on just half of the identified lands would generate enough electricity to meet the DoD's 2010 goals of receiving 25 percent of their facility energy from renewables by 2025. 
  • Among the six solar technologies analyzed (crystalline silicon and thin-film photovoltaics, solar trough, and dish/Stirling engine), fixed-mount c-Si PV had the most MW of economically viable installed capacity, but single-axis tracking c-Si PV had the overall highest internal rate of return (IRR). Feasibility for concentrated solar power was limited due to high installation costs, few geographic matches for its requirements and "special mission conflicts" with the dish/Stirling technology.
  • Both large ground-mount solar PV sites and building roof sites are economically viable, but the large ground-mount ones represent a bigger contribution to utility-scale solar development. 
  • Private investor backing is the clear choice because of access to federal and state tax-based incentives, assuming current incentives are allowed to run through the end of 2016. Government investment, including DoD direct funding of construction, is deemed "financially unattractive."

Challenges Remain 

Even if the DoD were to move ahead with any of these solar PV projects, it wouldn't be easy. These lands are part of the public domain, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and there is confusion as to whom among the DoD, Services, and BLM can authorize and manage any renewable energy development, much less on how laws and mandates are applied. This slows solar development and creates uncertainty for private sector solar developers, ICF notes.

Among the ICF's checklist for follow-up on its DoD solar development survey: address policy and authority over land usage with the Department of the Interior and BLM; clarify REC ownership; accelerate transmission development; and determine a fair balance between land rental compensation and solar project IRRs.

Image: Gualberto Becerra via Shutterstock

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