We’ve been noticing for the past few years now that the Army, Navy, and Air Force have been in hot competition to see which branch of the armed services can install the most renewable energy, with the Coast Guard and Marine Corps also involved. Well, it looks like this week’s bragging rights go to the Army. Fort Bliss in Texas has just announced that it will get the single largest military renewable energy project ever undertaken by the US, in the form of a 20 megawatt solar array at the base. To ice the sustainability cake, Fort Bliss is one of the Army’s original “Net Zero” leaders, so the new project could serve as a role model for similar projects at other Department of Defense facilities, too.
Single Largest Military Renewable Energy Project
For those of you who have been following military renewables along with us, the new $120 million, 20 megawatt solar project at Fort Bliss is small potatoes compared to the Department of Defense’s $1 billion, 300 megawatt solar power initiative in partnership with SolarCity and the private military housing company Balfour Beatty Communities.
However, the SolarCity project is a distributed rooftop solar initiative that sprawls across dozens of facilities in 33 states, so if you’re talking about the largest standalone project at a single base, 20 megawatts is a nice chunk of change.
By way of comparison, the current solar farm record-holder for the Army is the 4.1 MW array at the adjacent White Sands missile range, which was just completed this January. Fort Bliss also claims to have the Army’s current second-largest existing solar farm at 1.4 megawatts, along with another 13.4 MW in distributed rooftop solar installed under the SolarCity partnership.
More Renewable Energy, And Make It Snappy
The new project will be constructed under a partnership between the Army and local utility El Paso Electric, making it the largest military project of its kind to be built under such an arrangement. If the process goes smoothly, that could really open the floodgates to installing more renewable energy at Defense facilities throughout the US, by demonstrating that local utilities can step in and take the burden of energy planning off the shoulders of local base commanders.
The Army already taken a big step in that direction by forming the Energy Initiatives Task Force. That office serves as a renewable energy acquisition vehicle for the US Army Corps of Engineers, designed to transform the Army’s piecemeal renewable energy initiatives into a fast-moving pipeline for utility scale projects.
The partnership with El Paso Electric takes it to the next level. As reported by Cindy Ramirez at El Paso Times, the utility company will take up the responsibility for selecting a developer through a competitive bidding process. The winning bidder will be responsible for financing and design as well as construction, and it will also own and operate the solar farm under a power purchase agreement.
Though the deal is not yet done, Fort Bliss seems pretty confident that there are no significant obstacles in sight and another contract with El Paso Electric for another 20-megawatt facility is already under way.
Army Sustainability, Army Strong
As one of the Army’s Net Zero bases, Fort Bliss is on a mission to use no more energy than it can generate on site or through local partnerships, serving as a best practices model for other Defense facilities.
To that end, Fort Bliss is also engaged in projects for wind power and geothermal, water and energy conservation, recycling, fuel efficient vehicles and a goal of planting 20,000 trees (the count is 14,700 so far).
The Net Zero goal also provides Defense facilities with a platform for working together with nearby civilian communities on sustainable solutions to energy and waste issues. In that regard, writer Donna Miles of the Armed Forces Press Service notes that Fort Bliss is working with the City of El Paso on a waste-to-energy conversion facility.
Even more interesting, Miles notes that the fundamental goal of sustainable planning, which boils down to improving the quality of life in a community, is apparently at work in Fort Bliss right along side goals that are more specific to national defense, such as readiness and energy security.
In an article published yesterday at defense.gov, Miles cites base commander Army Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, who draws a connection between sustainability-related behavior changes, community spirit and mental health.
In particular, Pittard describes how interest in Fort Hood’s recycling program has been motivated by channeling proceeds into recreation projects and exercise equipment. Together with the addition of walking/biking paths, Pittard observes that the on-base population is getting more use out of public outdoor spaces, which fosters a “closer sense of community.”
To complete the circle, Pittard draws the connection between military readiness and improved health, making Fort Bliss “the most fit, most healthy, most resilient community in America that is environmentally sound and is best at preparing soldiers and units for combat.”
In keeping with the competitive spirit, Pittard also can’t resist egging on the whole rest of the Army:
“We feel that the fitness, the resiliency and the Net Zero is interrelated. For us here, it has been a no-brainer. Now what we hope is that the rest of the Army sees that and will replicate it.”
Given that part of the Army Net Zero vision is for bases to serve as sustainability partners with civilian communities, it’s about time for the “support our troops” legislators in Congress to quit stalling over a national renewable energy strategy and get on the train.