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Army Gets Biggest Ever Solar Array, Largest Of Its Kind In World

Giving new meaning to the Cold War era phrase “global superpower,” the U.S. Army has just flipped the ceremonial switch on its new White Sands Missile Range Solar Power System in New Mexico, which is not only the Army’s largest solar installation to date but also the largest of its kind in the world, at least for now. The facility has a pretty substantial solar carport of about 375 kilowatts to help boost it over the four megawatt mark, but the real meat of the solar power system is a 4.1 megawatt, ground-mounted, low-concentration photovoltaic power plant.

Overall, the two systems will generate about 10 million kWh of electricity and save the Army about $930,000 each year.

Army builds largest solar installation of its kind in the world at White Sands

Yep, World’s Largest Low-Concentration Solar Power System

At 4.1 megawatts, the new White Sands array easily beats out the previous record holder for low-concentration solar power, which is (was) a 2 megawatt installation that went online in Puglia, Italy just last spring.

Though low-concentration systems are not as efficient as high-concentration systems, they make economic sense for utility-scale operations where real estate is cheap and plentiful.

For U.S. Army Solar Power, Such Thing as a Free Lunch

The $16.8 million White Sands system, which covers about 42 acres of the 3,200 square mile missile range (plenty of room for more!), cost the Army nothing up front.

The project was developed as a power purchase agreement, which is familiar ground in the solar industry. Basically, a power purchase agreement makes real estate available to the solar installer, whether it’s an individual rooftop or a utility-scale power plant. The property owner doesn’t pay anything up front for the solar equipment, but commits to purchasing the power it generates at an agreed-upon rate for a certain period of time (in this case, 25 years).

Siemens, Inc. built the system at White Sands, and the company will operate it and be responsible for its maintenance. The actual ownership belongs to Bostonia Bank, which financed the installation in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army has been pursuing this type of power purchase agreement hand over fist for the past couple of years. Back in 2011 it established a special Energy Initiatives Task Force to streamline the pipeline for utility-scale installations at Army facilities, relieving individual base commanders from having to reinvent the wheel with each project.

The White Sands Solar Power Plant

The bulk of the installation consists of more than 15,000 solar panels mounted on proprietary STS-Azimuth trackers developed by Solaria Corporation, which also provided the solar modules for the previous record-holder in Italy. The trackers enable each module to continuously adjust to the most advantageous angle, and squeeze more energy out of the sun throughout the day.

The Azimuth tracker consists of a single vertical axis which supports 20 solar modules. Unlike horizontal-mounted trackers, the Azimuth tracker permits the panels to rotate rather than simply tilt.

Solaria estimates that the Azimuth tracker enables it to yield about 30 percent more energy than horizontal trackers.

The single axis configuration also helps reduce cost by cutting down on the need for site preparation, which in turn enables it to be installed fairly quickly compared to other types of energy systems. The White Sands project broke ground in April 2012 and it was ready for action in December 2012.

Solar Power is Only Half the Battle

Impressive as it is, the new solar power plant will only supply about 10 percent of the energy needed by the White Sands facility, and that underscores another critical aspect of the Army’s emerging energy policy.

Rather than focusing narrowly on new sources of energy, the Army has also embarked on an ambitious energy “culture change” initiative called “The Power is in Your Hands.”

The goal of the new initiative is to merge new technology with new behaviors, resulting in an “energy-informed culture” in which energy users are keenly aware of their responsibility for reducing the real life-and-death risks involved in providing energy to military facilities overseas.

Given the risks and impacts of energy production here at home, that’s a lesson the civilian sector can take to heart, too.

Image (cropped): White Sands solar power system, courtesy of U.S. Army.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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