The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) could generate 7000 megawatts (MW) of solar energy — equivalent to the output of seven nuclear power plants — on four military bases located in the California desert, according to a study released Jan. 13 by DoD’s Office of Installations and Environment. The year-long study, conducted by the consultancy ICF International, looked at seven military bases in California and two in Nevada. It finds that, even though 96 percent of the surface area of the nine bases is unsuited for solar development because of military use, endangered species and other factors, the solar-compatible area is nevertheless large enough to generate more than 30 times the electricity consumed by the California bases, or about 25 percent of the renewable energy that the State of California is requiring utilities to use by 2015.
The Department of Defense is seeking to develop solar power, wind power, geothermal energy and other distributed energy sources on its bases both to reduce their $4 billion-a-year energy bill and to make them less dependent on the commercial electricity grid. Such on-site energy generation, together with energy storage and so-called smart-microgrid technology, would allow a military base to maintain its critical operations “off-grid” for weeks or months if the grid is disrupted.
The ICF study looks in detail at the seven DoD installations that are located in California’s Mojave and Colorado deserts: Fort Irwin, Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, the Marine Corps’ Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, Edwards Air Force Base, Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms and Naval Air Facility El Centro. The study also looks at two Air Force bases located in the Nevada desert, Creech and Nellis.
Most of the surface area of the installations consists of undeveloped ranges used for training and other military activities that the study finds are incompatible with solar facilities. In addition, using detailed Geographic Information System data, ICF ruled out large portions of the bases’ developed areas because of the presence of cultural and biological resources, flash flood hazards and other conflicts. For each area that survived the geographic screening process, ICF looked at the technical feasibility of six alternative solar technologies and at the economic viability under private versus military ownership.
The study concludes that 25,000 acres are “suitable” for solar development and another 100,000 acres are “likely” or “questionably” suitable for solar. ICF assumed that 100 percent of the “suitable” land and 25 percent of the “likely” or “questionably” suitable land would be developed for solar energy. According to the study, the largest amount of economically viable acreage is found at Edwards Air Force Base (24,327 acres), followed by Fort Irwin (18,728 acres), China Lake (6,777) and Twentynine Palms (553 acres). ICF found little or no economically viable acreage on the other California bases (Barstow, El Centro and Chocolate Mountain) or the two Nevada bases, principally because the military’s use of the land is incompatible with solar development.
Finally, the study finds that private developers can tap the solar potential on these installations with no capital investment requirement from DoD, and that the development could yield the federal government up to $100 million a year in revenue or other benefits such as discounted power.