Solar Energy Air Force solar

Published on April 8th, 2016 | by Tina Casey

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Nothing Can Stop Solar Now: Army Will Help Air Force Meet Clean Energy Goal

April 8th, 2016 by  

A few years ago, the US Department of the Army figured out how to rev up its access to utility scale solar without running afoul of the usual anti-solar suspects, and now the Army will apply its expertise to give the Air Force a leg up. The two branches of the armed services have just signed an agreement that will enable the Air Force to accelerate toward its goal of 25 percent clean energy by 2025, by tapping into the Army’s experience with private sector financing for onsite solar installations.

Army solar

Utility Scale Solar For The US Army

The Army established an Energy Initiatives Task Force back in 2011, after the Solyndra “scandal” brought the full wrath of the usual suspects down upon the idea that federal dollars should support the growth of the US solar industry. That would include virtually all of the Republican leadership in US Congress as well as various high profile pundits and of course, the Koch brothers.

Back then, the only way to get a solar installation on your Army base would be to pay for it out of the Defense Department kitty, which was virtually impossible under the prevailing anti-solar climate. Even without a ginned-up scandal in the mix, procuring onsite solar energy is a complicated effort, and that task fell on the shoulders of individual base commanders and planners.

Fortunately, some smart cookie in the Army figured out how to solve both problems at once. The Task Force was established to provide base commanders with an experienced solar team, so no need to re-invent the wheel with every installation. The Task Force also latched on to a new-ish financing tool in the solar industry called power purchase agreements, in which the solar buyer simply provides land (or a rooftop) for a solar company to install its goods. The buyer then pays off the cost by purchasing electricity (or its grid equivalent) from the installation, typically at a lower cost than its former utility bill.

With private sector funding in hand, and no dollars coming out of the taxpayers’ till, the Army effectively de-weaponized the Solyndra scandal. Ever since then, the Army has been launching utility scale solar on its bases hand over fist. The program was so successful that the task force concept was rolled into the permanent Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI).

Utility Scale Solar For The US Air Force

The Air Force has also been upping the game on solar. In the 1970s, it installed a model solar house at a Colorado facility, and fast-forwarding a few years it lead the pack on utility scale solar. In 2007 the Air Force installed the biggest solar array in country in its time, a 14 megawatt behemoth dubbed Nellis I, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, so #thanksbush.

The Air Force’s renewable energy team has been busy since then, and just last year it upped the ante by breaking ground on Nellis II, which clocks in at 15 megawatts.

Air Force solar

The new agreement will team the Army with the Air Force’s newly established Office of Energy Assurance, which is tasked with this:

…the office will develop, implement and oversee an integrated facility energy portfolio, including privately financed, large-scale clean energy projects that will provide uninterrupted access to the electricity necessary for mission success.

That dovetails rather neatly with OEI, right?

The agreement is emphatic that the focus is on renewable energy:

The Departments of the Army and the Air Force share a common requirement to secure their installations with clean, reliable, and affordable energy.

That’s the short version of a much larger battle that the Defense Department has been waging with certain members of Congress who still tout the idea that “energy security” can be measured in barrels of crude oil.

Solar Is Huuuuuuuuuuge And Its Going To Be Huger

As the Air Force map indicates, the growth of military solar installations is positioned for rapid acceleration no matter who is Commander-in-Chief next year, or for many years to come.

That’s just solar, by the way. Until recently, the Armed Forces gave the stinkeye to wind energy due to concerns over radar interference among other issues. However, new technologies are beginning to break down those barriers, so you’ll see some wind projects on the maps above.

Geothermal and biomass are also on the maps. Not depicted on these maps, but still critical for the Defense Department’s future energy plans, are other clean tech initiatives including microgrids, energy efficiency and zero emission vehicles.

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Images: top via US Army, bottom via US Air Force.


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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+.



  • EllisWyatt

    I’d like to know if any of the solar panels will come from China. Maybe it’s just me, but making the military dependent on Chinese solar panels doesn’t seem too prudent.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I’m not sure but I think there’s a requirement for military installations to use US manufactured panels. But it really doesn’t matter in terms of security. Once panels are installed the country of manufacturing can’t require them to come back home.

  • Mike Shurtleff

    Private utilities and coal. The Koch brothers and others have paid for some of these politicians and will expect a return for dollars spent. I wouldn’t expect the past to be an indicator of future behavior. I wouldn’t expect decisions of an anti-renewable president to make fiscal sense with respect to energy costs.
    Cruz will do what he can to kill renewables. His phrase “level the playing field” means remove the ITC and PTC, but does not include removing tax breaks for coal, oil, and NG. The playing field will not be leveled.
    Rubio is in Rupert Murdock’s pocket. That’s where most of his financing comes from.
    Trump doesn’t say much about energy, but a few remarks indicate he is no friend of renewables.
    Any of those will be working with a congress dominated by republicans and a few democrats bought and paid for by fossil fuels. The issue of Wind and Solar PV supplying more and more of our electricity has elevated to a war. The coal industry is losing everything. Big money there. Utilities are losing revenue. Expect some very dirty moves to be made.

  • JamesWimberley

    ” … the growth of military solar installations is positioned for rapid acceleration no matter who is Commander-in-Chief next year.” No. If he’s a Republican denialist, the Pentagon’s renewable energy programmes will be killed. Soldiers grumble, bur obey orders. This is a very consequential election.

    • moolah59

      I agree with James and disagree with Hammarabi. I remember when Reagan took off of the White House solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed. so yes this is a consequential election

      • Hammarabi

        I’ll grant you that a new President might elect to remove the solar panels (Reagan waited until 1986, when the White House was being reroofed). Congress acted to prohibit the Navy from buying biofuels, but only if the biofuel was more expensive than petroleum (coal and natural gas were curiously specifically exempted from this prohibition).

        At the time, biofuels were about four times as expensive as fossil fuels, so there was no cost savings–the biofuels were being purchased as a demonstration to show that it could be done. In this case, the Armed Services are saving taxpayer money (irrespective of whether there is a reduction in CO2 emissions). And the services don’t even have to front Government money to do it. Cost effective alternative energy for the military is here to stay and will only grow until there are no longer any savings to be made.

  • Mike Dill

    Plenty of open land around airports and runways. We need to do this for commercial operations also.

    • GregS

      Arizona is a good example. The rental car places at airports are all covered and have panels on them.

      • Martin

        Well if one were to look at some airports in Germany, you would find solar arrays not only on buildings but also on areas between runways.
        That way you do not have to cut grass, remove birds form that area and produce power at the same time, I would call that a triple win.

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