August 7, 2012

Solar, wind power get Pentagon boost

David R. Baker, Staff Writer | San Francisco Chronicle | 6 August 2012

The U.S. Defense Department will encourage companies to build solar power plants and wind farms on 16 million acres of open land surrounding military bases, making each base less dependent on the nation’s aging electricity grid.

The plan, announced Monday, will help the military cut its $4 billion annual energy bill and help insulate bases from blackouts. About 13 million of the acres involved lie in Western states, primarily California, Arizona and Nevada.

“It’s a clear recognition that renewable energy can contribute greatly to the energy security of our military facilities, particularly in the Southwest,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

A study the Defense Department released this year found that the lands surrounding four military installations in Southern California alone could generate seven gigawatts of solar energy, equivalent to the output of seven nuclear reactors.

But the plan will not focus solely on the desert Southwest. Federal officials also will study the possibility of creating offshore wind farms near military bases along the country’s coasts.

The plan represents a partnership between Defense Department officials and the Interior Department. The land that will be developed was once controlled by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management but was withdrawn from public use at the request of the military. The bureau retains some oversight over the land.

Much of it is now used for training exercises – if it’s used at all. The Defense Department will not allow renewable power development on land that the military actively uses, nor will it permit renewable facilities that could interfere with base operations.

The Pentagon has developed a strong interest in using renewable power and alternative fuels to improve energy security. Each of the military’s five branches has committed to using one gigawatt of renewable power – enough for roughly 750,000 homes – by 2025.

Military bases rely on the power grid for their electricity, and the grid can sometimes fail due to extreme weather or mechanical problems. Bases now use on-site backup generators – typically burning diesel or other fossil fuels – for protection during blackouts. But they pollute and are expensive to run for long periods, said Dorothy Robyn, undersecretary of defense for installations and the environment.

Solar, wind, geothermal and biomass facilities developed near military bases will be used primarily to power those facilities. But the projects will be big enough that the private companies that finance and build them will be able to sell some excess energy to other users.

“We want to develop these projects at an economic scale,” Robyn said.

California and Arizona will serve as the plan’s testing ground. Officials from the Bureau of Land Management and the Defense Department will create a pilot process for issuing solar development permits at California’s Fort Irwin in San Bernardino County, the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Arizona and the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.

“I think you’ll see a lot of the large developers move forward with the Department of Defense,” said Rhone Resch, president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, a solar trade group. “This expands a market substantially.”

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