The U.S. Military Turns to an Old, Reliable Partner – Solar Power!

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Energy sources Solar Panel in Afghanistan
Solar Panel in Afghanistan. Photo credit: Paul Greenberg/U.S.M.C.

The first solar panels ever installed, were photo-voltaic solar panels mounted on military satellites and blasted into space from Cape Kennedy, Florida during the ‘Space Race’ of the 1960’s.

Many of those old, reliable PV solar-powered satellites are still up there sending back (decidedly low-tech) information – as compared to the satellite technology of today.

Q: What does this have to do with the U.S. military now installing PV solar panels at an exponential rate on it’s bases you ask?

A: Price.

As production of PV solar panels have ramped up – prices have dropped dramatically. In fact, solar module prices have dropped so fast, several large solar manufacturers have gone bankrupt – unable to stay with the market. Lower priced (PV solar-specific) materials, manufacturing costs and technology have all conspired to force a huge price drop.

The U.S. military, suddenly faced with a shrinking budget and the need to lower costs over the long term turned to an old, reliable partner – solar power.

In October 2010, the U.S. Navy set a goal to produce 50% of its onshore energy needs from renewables by 2020.

The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) complex in San Diego, California, has just completed installation of 1.3 megawatts of solar panels, at the Navy’s headquarters for high-tech military command, communications and surveillance.

SPAWAR now has the U.S. Navy’s largest contiguous rooftop solar array with 5,376 high-performance SolarWorld photo-voltaic solar panels providing electricity for the site and is part of a military-wide effort to conserve energy and reduce reliance on imported fuels. Any surplus electricity generated on-site is sold to the San Diego grid.

For another example, U.S. Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake (NAWS China Lake) California, is installing a photo-voltaic solar power plant financed through a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA) between SunPower and the U.S Navy.

Under the terms of the agreement the Navy has no upfront costs. The plant is expected to produce 13.78 megawatts of power for the California electrical grid and cover 30 percent of NAWS China Lake’s energy needs.

With zero capital investment and giving up only otherwise unusable land, the Navy will reduce costs by saving an estimated $13 million (over the next 20 years) on their NAWS China Lake electricity bill – by paying a discounted rate for electricity.

President Obama in his State of the Union address on January 24, 2012 said;

“…the Department of Defense, working with us, the world’s largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history — with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year.”

The U.S. Air Force is getting into the photo-voltaic solar power business too – making the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Top 25 list of Green Power Partners on Jan. 31, 2012 – for being one of the leading buyer’s of green power in America.

At it’s Colorado Springs Air Force Academy, a 6 megawatt PV solar power plant is operating with additions to generation capacity already underway.

Beginning in 1999, the U.S. military has installed solar power systems at many bases, including Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Pearl Harbor, Fort Dix, Coronado Island, and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado – among others.

The vast United States military often sets tone and precedent for the rest of the country. This is certainly becoming the case with solar energy. Cities and utility companies have taken careful note of the power purchase agreement (PPA) model used by the Navy and the Air Force in their dealings with utility companies.

Boulder City, Nevada, has negotiated an outstanding PPA agreement to lease 8000 acres of City land for solar power plant use – which, when completed, will produce 1400 megawatts of electricity.

Boulder City’s financial picture hasn’t been all that good. It’s 2011 municipal budget was roughly $25 million and it is $96.2 million in debt. However, an additional 12 million per year for the leased land (a total of $480 million dollars over the term of the contract) will allow it to thrive and pay off it’s debt.

Two solar companies have paid in advance, a total of $8.5 million dollars – as a non-refundable down payment towards the leased lands project. A third company involved in a solar leasing opportunity presented a non-refundable cheque for $500,000 to the City so it could upgrade services.

The U.S. military, led by the Navy and the Air Force have developed an exciting and fully-transferable PV solar model – one that might have the Sun working for us – in ways we never before imagined.

Who would’ve thought that our Sun would help pay our bills, pay off City debt and provide discounted electricity to leaseholders and landowners?


According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, the state of California is going from 524 megawatts of public utility installed solar (as of January 2012) to 18,231 megawatts of public utility installed solar power within five years.

This number does not include solar power installations under 1 megawatt – nor does it include military or other government solar.

Written by John Brian Shannon

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