The Army wants to build a 15-megawatt solar array near the front gate of Fort Irwin. (Wikimedia Commons)
On May 9, the Army issued a request for proposals to build a 15-megawatt solar array on 380 acres of land near the front gate of Fort Irwin, Calif., one of three Defense Department pilot projects that could open the door to the development of millions of acresof land for renewable energy projects on military installations nationwide.
But there is a major obstacle to getting these projects off the ground: The Defense Department does not own most of the land on which it hopes to build. Although DoD controls about 28 million acres of land in the U.S., 16 million of thoseacres — about 57 percent — are owned by the Bureau of Land Management, part of the Interior Department, and loaned to DoD long term for “military purposes,” such as training and testing.
As DoD pushes to generate 3 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025 and fulfill mandates to generate more renewable energy, it has clashed with BLM over what it can do with the land, and efforts to lobby Congress for expanded authority have met resistance. But the two agencies are now slowly building a partnership that could enable new renewable energy development.
A memorandum of understanding the agencies signed last August to encourage cooperation on energy projects has been fleshed out in subsequent monthly meetings and has begun to yield promising results, according to officials from the two agencies.
“We are showing we can do this together,” said Joseph Sikes, director of facilities energy and privatization at the Defense Department.
He said DoD and BLM hope to replicate the success of the only existing agreement, signed in 1988, allowing DoD to use BLM land for renewable energy generation for just one project — the 270-megawatt geothermal plant at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., DoD’s largest renewable energy project.
Under the China Lake agreement, DoD and BLM split the proceeds from the sale of renewable energy not used by the installation to local utilities.
The two agencies are also working jointly on two other solar projects — at the Barry M. Goldwater Range and the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
And a lot is at stake. A 2012 report by the Pentagon points out that it could generate up to 7 gigawatts of solar power and $100 million in revenue at just 10 Air Force and Army installations in the Mojave and Colorado deserts, where BLM owns 90 percent of the land.
The Fort Irwin project has generated significant interest from industry, with 170 company representatives attending a meeting on the project with the Army’s Energy Initiatives Task Force.
“This is the most interest we’ve seen from the development community for a pre-proposal event,” said Alan King, director of project execution for the task force.
Sikes said that, under the framework developed under the August agreement, DoD would be allowed to construct renewable energy projects on BLM land as long as the intent is to consume all energy on the installation. If the energy is sold to a local utility, DoD and BLM would split the proceeds.
But Sikes said that under current law, BLM might not have authority to keep the proceeds generated from energy production on its land except for China Lake and that efforts to lobby Congress for that authority have not been successful.
Ray Brady, manager of BLM’s national renewable energy coordination office, said that although China Lake is a success, BLM reserves the right to develop geothermal energy on all of its lands and that the current agreement does not extend to geothermal energy but to solar projects and wind projects.
He said the August agreement applies only to the three pilot projects the two agencies are working on but, if successful, could be expanded to future projects.