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The Solar Battlefield: How the US DOD Will Bring Solar Technology Mainstream

When it comes to driving the development of renewable energy technology, no greater facilitating force exists than the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). Acting on a mandate to achieve 25 percent reliability on renewable energy by the year 2025, the DOD has been busy in its aggressive pursuit of that goal — proving that more often than not, great things can result from unlikely alliances.

The Unlikely Private-Public Alliance

Evidence of the strides already being made can be seen in all branches of the U.S. military, where a growing number of renewable energy projects are being installed on both stateside and overseas military installations. In as a steep departure from tradition, the DOD is turning increasingly to partnerships with private corporations for the planning, construction, and operation of these projects. Among the most highly visible and potentially impactful are those utilizing solar energy technology.

As of the end of Fiscal Year 2013, there were a total of 885 renewable energy projects across all branches of the armed forces. 511 of those projects are solar. The U.S. Army, making good on its pledge to ring in 2025 with 1GW of renewable energy production under its belt, contracted $7 billion in renewable power purchase agreements with 48 private companies. Of the 48 chosen to participate in the Multiple Award Task Order Contract (MATOC), 38 are solar. The Army currently has more than 400 renewable energy projects in various stages of operation, 330 of which are solar projects that incorporate photovoltaic, concentrating solar power and solar thermal technologies.

Amanda Simpson, Executive Director of the Army’s Energy Initiatives Task Force (EITF), said the realization of the DOD’s renewable energy directive is contingent upon the convergence of the public and private sectors, a partnership she called “absolutely crucial.”

DOD spokesman Mark Wright shares Simpson’s view. “In order to continue the development of renewable energy projects for the Department's use, it is critical that DOD leverages third-party financing by private developers,” Wright said.

Such private-public projects are financed, developed, owned, operated and maintained by private developers. In most cases, the military agrees to purchase the power generated — but the DOD also has the authority to lease the land to developers, who then build renewable energy projects and sell the generated power to the grid. In return, the company provides the DOD with either in-kind or cash equivalent to the fair market value of the land where the project is sited.

Private-public models have been used to great effect in the past, enabling U.S. military bases to offload some of the burden of electricity generation costs by installing solar PV panels on the rooftops of base housing units. Recent examples include SolarStrong’s rooftop PV installation projects at Fort Bliss Army Base and Holloman Air Force Base.

In Arizona, the Air Force now lays claim to the largest solar energy facility in the DOD’s expanding portfolio: a 16.4 MW PV plant built at Davis-Monthan AFB in partnership with SunEdison and MIC Solar Energy Holdings. In 2012, a 3.4-MW solar project was completed at Edwards AFB, financed through a 10-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Borrego Solar.

The U.S. Navy has also engaged the private sector in its directive to pursue solar energy projects. In 2012, a 1.23MW solar farm intended to provide power to military homes was installed at Pearl City Naval Station, Hawaii, in partnership with Forest City Sustainable Resources and Hoku Solar. In 2013, SolarCity announced its own partnership with Forest City for the development of a massive solar array that will power 6,500 residences at Ohana Military Communities, which houses both Navy and Marine Corps Base Hawaii families. A commissary rooftop PV array was also installed by Global Solar in partnership with Beachside Solar at Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan.

Richard G. Kidd, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Energy and Sustainability, said the U.S. military is “definitely part of the distributed PV movement.” Simpson added that she believes the U.S. military is well on track to meeting its 2025 goal. “We’re very excited about the progress we’ve been making,” she said.

As mutually beneficial as partnerships between the DOD and private solar companies are, it’s also a prospect riddled with complexity. “Every renewable energy project that is undertaken by the Services is unique and therefore each has its own individual set of challenges and issues,” Wright said. These include the expiration of government subsidies, limited transmission access due to the lack or inadequacy of existing infrastructure, and long project lead times exacerbated by burdensome permitting requirements.

Solar on the Battlefield

Underscoring the Department of Defense’s pursuit of solar energy alternatives is the ever-present question of national security. Eliminating dependence on foreign oil sources is one of the principal driving forces behind that push, but it’s not the only motivation. The DOD is also dedicated to the not-inconsiderable task of using solar technology to save lives on the battlefield, which could drive game-changing innovations in the solar field. 

Nathan Cornell, Program Manager for Operational Energy and Contingency Basing, said improved solar technologies are already having beneficial impact on extending the range and endurance of military units on patrol. “They allow a commander on the ground better freedom of action,” Cornell said. “He’s got more choices he can make, because he’s not limited by his supply line at that point. This saves manpower and cost, and decreases casualties and risk.” 

Kidd said the Army has deployed a variety of solar technologies in the operational environment, including solar blankets. “These are flexible solar cells woven into a canvas material that deploy with our infantry units and extend the time a patrol can execute its mission between resupply,” Kidd said. “Previously, our soldiers carried about 14 pounds of non-rechargeable batteries. We’ve cut that down to 9.8 pounds, including the PV panel used to recharge the batteries.”

According to Kidd, traditional patrols relying on battery power are only capable of lasting three days before exhausting their supply. With the deployment of PV, which Kidd said is used by both the Army and the Marine Corps, those time frames have been significantly extended.

In addition to working on the development of solar powered reconnaissance drones, Cornell said the Army is working toward “plug and play” solutions that would make it possible to integrate mobile battlefield PV systems with other existing electricity generation and distribution systems. “All of our services are working together, and with academia, to try to define what the standards should be for a micro-grid of the future that will accept power generated from any source — whether it’s a generator, or a PV array, or a windmill — and be able to control and distribute that power simply.”

DOD and the Mainstreaming of Solar

The fact that the DOD’s heavy investment in solar could pave the way toward such advances, and toward mainstreaming a technology that is viewed by many as too costly, is not lost on renewable energy proponents. Nor is it lost on Kidd, who emphasized the U.S. military’s historical influence on achieving technological progress that would take the private sector twice as long. “The military has long been a source of technical innovation, driving advances in technology,” Kidd said, “but only when it’s contributed to our mission. The DOD’s mission is not the same as the DOE’s, even though there is an overlap of interest in many cases.”

Kidd added that the Army is presently working toward improvements that will set new standards for reductions in balance of system costs. “These are all very good and positive things that will result from our efforts,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Department of Defense continues to pursue innovations in solar energy production. “The DOD’s Installation Energy Test Bed is funding demonstrations of innovative solar energy technologies from the private sector,” Wright said. “Further testing and analysis will establish their technical and economic performance, and in turn help the industry expand the role of successful technologies in mainstream renewable energy markets.”

A recent announcement by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. unveiled plans to create a space-based solar array that would orbit the Earth, capturing solar rays and transmitting them to land-based receivers — offering evidence, even to those in doubt, that the DOD’s combined renewable energy efforts could well be the catalyst that ushers in a new and vastly improved age in solar technology.  

Lead image: Micha Klootwijk / Shutterstock.com

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