Massive solar potential on western military sites

Military bases could house 7,000 MW of solar power installations in California and Nevada, according to a study commissioned by the Department of Defense.

The installations would be technically feasible and financially viable, and could be sited on bases that serve every service branch without impairing the military’s mission, impacting endangered species or otherwise impinging upon cultural or natural assets.

The study, “Solar Energy Development on Department of Defense Installations in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts,” was presented this week to the California Energy Commission. The year-long study was in part undertaken to measure ways to mitigate the military’s $4 bn per year energy bill.

The nine facilities studies contain 6 million acres overall, or roughly the size of Massachusetts

“Even taking into account that 96% of the land is conflicted out, there’s still 25,000 acres entirely suitable for solar development, and another 100,000 likely or possibly suited for solar development,” said Robert Kwartin, Vice President and Director of Renewable Energy Practices at ICF International, which performed the study.

Congress directed the study to evaluate potential land use for solar, for both the military’s use for its own energy needs, or for commercial sites that could be developed to serve California’s market. California has an ambitious 33% renewable portfolio standard by 2020.

Seven installations are in California, with 96% of their surface areas that cannot be developed because of a variety of different kinds of conflicts with the military mission, biological conflicts, cultural resources and steep slopes.

The study was limited to solar sites and did not consider wind or geothermal energy potential.

The Nevada installations of Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases were deemed unsuitable for solar energy development beyond the existing and planned projects already in the pipeline. Nellis already has 14 MW in service or planned.

The vast majority of the potential exists on ground-mounted systems with a small amount on rooftops.

“These could generate 30 times the amount of generation needed at these installations, or to look at it another way, roughly twice the amount of solar installed in the U.S. from the beginning of time until late last year,” Kwartin said.

Private developers can also fill the bill with no capital investment from the DOD, while the federal government could earn money from developers from rents of the space, discounted power sold back to it or a combination of the two.

Only third-party financing works, as it makes no sense for DOD to invest its own money into projects with its other budget priorities. Nor would that be cost-effective.

“Tax credits in particular are the margin between a financially successful project and a financially unsuccessful project,” Kwartin said. “At this point it is essential that DOD partner with developers who have access to those tax credits.”

As a public entity, the military cannot access credits that are available to the private sector investors.

The study made some assumptions about power markets that have impacted solar in recent years. For instance, it calculated that solar photovoltaic panels would continue to drop in cost, by about 20%. ICF determined that concentrating solar power costs will not decline during the time frame studied, which assumed a reference case of 2015 deployments.

That time frame would appear to be problematic. Little or no transmission is currently available at these sites, although the study authors assumed that wires to move the power would be built at some point.

Interestingly, Kwartin anecdotally reported opposite reactions among the private development community.

On one hand, delays were assumed and bureaucratic problems made such projects unappealing. The opposite view considered military sites as places for the deployment of new technologies that partners in the private sector would be reluctant to try.

In either case, the moving parts need to come together soon for the military to meet its 25 percent renewables goals if solar in the Desert West is to play a role.