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Army's renewable energy push gathers solar-powered steam

Aug. 26, 2014 - 01:24PM   |  
By ANDY MEDICI   |   Comments
The Army's Energy Initiatives Task Force recently broke ground at a solar power project at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.
The Army's Energy Initiatives Task Force recently broke ground at a solar power project at Fort Huachuca in Arizona. ()

Fort Huachuca, Arizona, will be the host to a solar power generation facility, part of the Army’s drive to step up power generation from renewable sources.

It is part of an extensive initiative with the goal of generating one gigawatt of electricity by 2025. Starting in fiscal 2015 the Energy Initiatives Task Force formed in 2011 will become the Army’s Office of Energy Initiatives, a permanent organization. (See related story.)

Amanda Simpson, the current executive director of the EITF, will head the new office and work to ramp up Army renewable energy activities by identifying more possible projects and finding ways to cut down acquisition times for projects already in the pipeline.

“I think what we’ve shown over the past three years through the history of the task force is that this is not just a viable project; it’s important to the support and sustainability of the Army and, of course, the Army is important for the sustainability of this country,” Simpson said.

In addition to the facility at Fort Huachuca, which will generate 18 megawatts of solar power, the Army is also well along on facilities to generate 50 megawatts of biodiesel at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and 90 megawatts of solar power at Fort Stewart, Georgia, she said. The projects are funded using a variety of financing tools that do not require taxpayer dollars but instead rely on enhanced-use leases, where a company gets to develop government land with renewable energy or other projects in exchange for payment or in-kind services such as reduced-rate energy.

Or, more commonly, the Army seeks out power purchase agreements, in which a power company constructs an energy system in exchange for fixed payments over a certain number of years. She said many of these projects actually end up saving the Army money over traditional electricity.

“What type of premium are these installations paying to bring energy security through renewables? And the answer is nothing,” Simpson said. “We are not spending any appropriated dollars.”

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She said while it has taken several years for some projects to go from the initial planning stages to the awarding of a construction contract, the number of renewable energy projects should begin to speed up, with the first 100 megawatts of power operational by the end of 2015.

She said 90 more megawatts of solar power from Army installations in Georgia should come online in 2015, and that they might be ahead of schedule to reach their 1 gigawatt goal.

The goal would be to identify a project and begin construction within one or two years, about a 57-percent reduction in the time it used to take the Army, she said.

“Now that being said, there are still a lot of opportunities for us to improve, and we continue to look at that,” Simpson said, and her office will continue to look at ways to speed up the process.

The Army is not working to produce renewable energy just to become more environmentally friendly, according to Simpson. The service is also working to make its installations more independent from the civilian electrical grid, in case a natural disaster or terrorist attack brings it down for long periods of time.

In 2011, tornadoes ripped through northern Alabama and across the South and Midwest, killing hundreds of people, causing billions of dollars in damage and knocking out the Tennessee Valley Authority’s power to hundreds of thousands of people — including the Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama.

The installation switched to backup generators, and the grid did not go online for eight days, Simpson said. The installation could only do so much with the generators it had, and so many of the roads were impassable that transporting generator fuel was a difficult task.

But a solar installation currently in development at the base would generate 10 percent of the base’s power needs on site — enough to run critical operations continuously without needing additional fuel.

“Now what does that mean in the future? Well, if something like that were to happen again and TVA went black, now we have enough power to certainly do all of our critical loads right there on post,” Simpson said.

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