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Clean Power new navy solar power plant at China Lake saves $13 million

Published on October 20th, 2012 | by Tina Casey


New U.S. Navy Solar Power Plant at China Lake Saves $13 Million a Year

October 20th, 2012 by  

The U.S. Navy has just flipped the switch on its latest solar power venture, a 13.8-megawatt behemoth at its vast China Lake research center in the Mohave Desert. The Navy’s new China Lake Solar Power Plant is expected to save about $13 million per year in electricity costs, accounting for about 30 percent of the facility’s annual electricity usage. Amazingly, there were virtually no up-front costs for the Navy and the entire thing didn’t cost taxpayers one thin dime.

new navy solar power plant at China Lake saves $13 million

Navy Solar Power for Nothing

If you’re familiar with the commercial solar industry, the Navy’s ability to get “free” solar power is no mystery. The China Lake plant was constructed under a power purchase agreement (PPA) with SunPower Corp. in which SunPower got the right to install its solar panels on Navy-owned land, and in return the Navy agreed to buy electricity generated by the panels.

Under the agreement, the price of the solar-generated electricity is much lower than the price the Navy was paying for grid-supplied electricity, and that’s where the savings comes in.

The new installation uses the SunPower Oasis™ Power Plant product, which is designed as a fully integrated, pre-assembled module. That pretty much accounts for how the plant just broke ground last January and here it is up and running in less than a year.


U.S. National Defense Transitions to Clean Energy

The Navy’s PPA model is the same one that thousands of building owners have been using to get rooftop solar panels installed without paying up-front costs. That’s an ideal arrangement for government properties, since it virtually eliminates the need for politically sensitive taxpayer investments.

In that regard, while China Lake apparently makes the U.S. Navy the first branch of the armed services to complete this type of PPA solar power installation, it is just the first drop in a flood of new PPA projects coming down the pipeline.

Last year, the Army launched the Energy Initiatives Task Force, with the goal of fast-tracking utility-scale, PPA solar power projects and other clean energy ventures on Army property.

That initiative got bumped up to another level just a couple of months ago, when DoD entered into an agreement with the Department of the Interior to conduct a systematic investigation leading to new clean energy projects on military property.

China Lake Comes Into Its Own

According to a Navy article about clean energy innovation at China Lake, SunPower’s new installation is the culmination of more than 30 years of experimentation that began in the 1970’s, when the first major oil supply crisis hit the U.S.

The Navy’s earlier clean energy projects at China Lake included electric vehicles, wind power, trash-to-gas, as well as photovoltaic panels.

In 2002 (yes, under the Bush Administration), China Lake stepped up its clean energy game with the installation of a prototype for regenerative fuel cells, a technology that is finally breaking into commercial use today. A regenerative fuel cell runs on hydrogen and oxygen, which are manufactured by subjecting water to an electric current that is in turn generated by solar panels.

China Lake is involved in the Navy’s biofuel research initiatives and it also boasts a geothermal plant that dates back to the 1980’s.

As an aside, if the name SunPower rings a bell, you might be thinking back to last fall, when Fox News began pushing a storyline that SunPower was headed for a scandal “even bigger than Solyndra.”

That line was quickly dropped, though, perhaps because SunPower happens to be the same outfit that installed the new solar panels on the headquarters of Dow Jones, Fox’s sister company in the Murdoch media empire.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Will Poundstone

    so that’s how the military will compensate for budget cuts

  • Lilia Rhodes

    This is really cool. Conservation of energy matters even in bases. Thanks for sharing this information.

  • With the advent of liquid metal batteries, this should be the norm instead of fossil fuel burning.
    We can harness the sun and store the power for the times that the sun is not shining.
    What is the rest of the US waiting for?
    Let’s start training coal miners and frac drillers for these jobs and power the planet in such a way that there will be a planet to leave to our childrens children.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Well, we need those batteries scaled up to utility sized. They seem to be working well at the prototype level, but ‘not counting chickens’ and all that….

  • Ronald Brak

    Given the incredibly low borrowing costs of the US government at the moment I would have thought it would have made more sense to simply purchase the panels outright.

  • Mr. Johnson

    There is a problem with this model. And let me say that it is great that the Navy gets lower cost electricity without any upfront costs. Its great that SunPower is creating jobs, local tax revenue and all that. And America needs to be energy independent. But what about us middle class people. How do we get ahead, how can we make money as well. Other countries give Feed in Tariffs to their citizens so they can make money like this as well. Utility scale is great, but regular people should have access to opportunities also. If other countries are doing it, why aren’t we in this country? I am referring to Germany, and now Japan. I guess this country is run by the rich and they want to keep everything that is profitable just to themselves.

    • Yes, believe me, these are things i think about nearly every day. Referring to:

      ” If other countries are doing it, why aren’t we in this country?”

      “I guess this country is run by the rich and they want to keep everything that is profitable just to themselves.”

  • Keith

    No upfront costs, imagine if we had more venture capitalists building for our Military heros? If we had 3 or 4 more companies building for this one base they could eliminate almost 100% of the bases need for more expensive dirty energy. It would be a win win situation. Tax payers would save huge, the base would save tons of money, the SunPower would make huge profits, people would be employed installing these installations, there would be local tax revenue! Win win win!

  • Matthew

    What an awesome way for our Country to accomplish Energy Independence! No upfront costs, 13.8 Megawatts of clean energy built in under a year! That can’t be accomplished with dirty energy, it takes 6 to 8 years to build a coal or natural gas fired power plant. Furthermore, in under a year that utility scale solar power plant was built, and now it is virtually free to operate! They don’t have to buy coal to power it, or natural gas, it will just run for how long, without almost any need to put additional moneies into it, relative to what dirty energy plants need. Truly Amazing!

  • roger

    btw…your energy/$ savings don’t add up. fyi

    unless you can show me the calculation

    • Not enough data included to say one way or the other. Doesn’t say what the current peak rate China Lake base pays for electricity, or the expected total MWh/year, or the rate for the power from the panels. All you can do is assume the rate is less than they are paying now; or it wouldn’t have been installed). Lets say they are off by up to a factor of 10, not likely. Would still be a savings of $1.3-$130 million a year.

  • This is likely the best way for military based to get converted. NO up front and saving on the bills. Maybe the O admin can sign and 14-20MW for China lake, and 100-200MW for other western based before the year end. They have until Jan 16 win or lose. If they win the number could be a lot higher.

    • By “best way”, I was being nice. With the current state of Congress/Senate this is likely the only way.

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