The U.S. military is aggressively seeking private contractors for the development of solar energy projects both domestically and abroad by launching a special task force to coordinate what is expected to be $7.1 billion worth of projects. Developing these renewable energy projects will not only help the military meet U.S. federal mandates to reduce green-house gas emissions and stabilize energy costs, it is believed that the use of solar energy by the various branches of the U.S. military is poised to help make solar more cost-competitive over the next two decades.
The U.S. government is the nation's largest energy consumer, accounting for about 1.5 percent of use. The Department of Defense consumes about 80 percent of the energy used by the federal government, with the Army alone using about 21 percent of that total. But the Pentagon is mandated to obtain 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.
Toward that goal, Secretary of the Army John McHugh announced on August 10, 2011,the creation of a new Energy Initiatives Office (EIO) tasked with developing and managing $7.1 billion in large-scale renewable power plants on U.S. domestic bases of about the 10-megawatt size over the next decade. Military officials hope the EIO will be fully operational by mid September.
To meet the 25 percent renewable energy goal by 2025, the Army plans use every opportunity to develop power from renewable energy sources. And those “opportunities” are impressive. The Army owns over 15 million acres of U.S. land, 5 million of which has been identified as suitable for renewable energy projects. Currently, the Army spends roughly $4 billion per year on total energy costs, but believes that the ten-year investment of $7.1 billion in renewable energy can generate 2.1 million megawatt-hours of power annually to offset those costs.
Solar War Zone Technologies
The U.S. military’s use of PVs is also being developed in remote areas of Afghanistan as a way to cut down on the need for fuel for the diesel generators that currently power their base camps. Roof-top PV panels, solar chargers, solar-powered shade tents and portable PV panels for soldiers on patrol that roll up and fit into their packs have proved successful in the field. A U.S. Navy base in Afghanistan is also using PV panels to partially power its facilities as part of a “Net Zero” energy-use strategy to both save money and decrease the risk to the troops who have to transport fuel to these bases.
Fuel is the largest cost to operations in Afghanistan and a huge challenge under difficult security conditions. According to the Navy, for every $1 per barrel fuel prices rise, the Navy spends an additional $31 million. In fiscal 2010, of the $2.7 billion the U.S. Army spent for fuel, 70 percent was for theater operations. An Army study found that out of every 24 fuel convoys, one soldier is killed or wounded protecting that convoy from attack.
The military is also developing “microgrids”to deploy in Afghanistan. On June 24, 2011, the Army opened their System Integration Laboratoryat Fort Devens, Mass., to test microgrid technologies aimed at creating more energy-efficient base camps and pave the way to integrate power generated from solar panels and storage systems in the field. The target application for these microgrids are base camps that start small but grow rapidly and see a sharp increase in power demand. In Afghanistan these initial tests will be powering such non-essential operations as laundry and kitchens before the program is expanded.
Current Military Solar Projects
Stateside, the U.S. Army currently has completed 126 renewable projects, with another 20 in the works. But it’s not just the U.S. Army that has a history with renewable energy projects.
In December 2007, the U.S. Air Force celebrated the completion of one of North America's largest PV solar farms, built at Nellis Air Force Basein Nevada. The project was a public-private partnership between the Air Force, Sunpower Corporation, Nevada Power Company and MMA Renewable Ventures, a subsidiary of Municipal Mortgage and Equity. The 14-megawatt PV array consists of 72,000 PV panels constructed by Sunpower Corp. on 140 acres of Air Force land and currently provides one-fourth of the base’s energy. The project also has the capability to feed energy back into the public grid.
U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced on March 2, 2011, an agreement between the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the Navy to take advantage of grid energy storage technologies developed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and create energy storage systems geared at providing reliable power and reducing fossil fuel use. The cost of the project is estimated to be $25 million and start in fiscal year 2012.
This project is also being done in phases. The first phase will seek to develop hybrid storage systems with a higher energy density than currently available using batteries, which could lead to mobile storage units for charging military equipment at bases or used to reduce fossil fuel use in vehicles. The second phase will look at using storage for providing power in conjunction with renewable energy systems at Naval facilities, of which the Navy operates 72,500 buildings across 3.3 million acres of land.
Even the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station, Borinquen, in Puerto Ricois going green by enlisting electrical contractor Schneider Electric to oversee a $50 million PV panel system and “SmarterRoof” installation by PetersenDean Roofing and Solar.The 2.89-megawatt project is considered to be the largest combined “SmarterRoof” and PV panel installation in the world and will cover 960,000 square feet of the Coast Guard facility. SmarterRoof is California-based PetersenDean’s trademarked product and uses light-colored tiles and an Energy Star-rated coating to reflect sunlight. These tiles keep buildings cooler than ones with traditional roofing materials which allows the rooftop PV panels to function more efficiently. These combined “cool roofs” and PV panels are expected to result in the Coast Guard cutting its utility electricity costs by 40 percent.
The U.S. Air Forceand other military agencies are also aggressively pursuing plug-in electric vehicles and vehicle-to-grid infrastructure technologies. The Air Force is scheduled to announce the selection of a base within the coming weeks where the first of these technologies will be installed and tested. The PEVs and vehicle-to-grid technology will enable military facilities that generate power from renewable sources to use that power to charge EVs as well as use the same vehicles as energy storage devices for use either during peak loads or as stand-alone power sources.
The Hot Public-Private Market
The $7.1 billion infrastructure overhaul towards renewable energy by the U.S. military is good news for those solar companies looking to forge public-private partnerships with the military. The new Energy Initiatives Office, aided by the military’s enormous purchasing power, is in a position to cause the implementation of these large-scale projects (The Army is looking for average power plants to be 10 MW or greater) happen rapidly, meaning that there is the potential for new technology to be developed faster and eventually bring costs down for the rest of marketplace.
Secretary of the Army John McHugh has described this new partnership between the Army and the private solar sector as a “win-win situation.”
"For the private sector, it's a guaranteed customer and opportunity to sell excess power to the outside grid," McHugh said.
Involving the private sector also makes sense to the military because it means the energy developers will own and finance the installation while the military “customer” purchases the power at a fixed rate over the course of up to 30 years in a typical Power Purchase Agreement. The Air Force used such long-term PPAs to spur the development of their 14-MW solar plant at Nellis AFB, and a 15-MW solar array at Luke AFB in Arizona.
With the U.S. government’s “25-percent-by-2025” renewable energy mandate imposed on the military, Department of Defense energy contracts appear to be the hot solar energy market for the coming decade.