"Defense Department leads the way for solar on federal lands"
Smart development of even the small percentage of military land suitable for solar can produce tremendous results for both energy security and national security.
By David Peterson, DJC Oregon
A recent Department of Defense study hints tantalizingly at the vast potential for solar energy development on federally-owned lands in the western U.S.
The report evaluates the solar energy potential of nine military bases in California and Nevada. It concludes that even though only 4 percent of the land is suitable for solar development (all in California), the bases could nevertheless support 7,000 megawatts of solar energy – equivalent to the output of seven average-size nuclear power plants. This is more than 30 times the electricity consumed by the military installations themselves, and about two-thirds of the DOD’s electricity consumption nationwide.
Even if only 6 percent of the suitable land (or less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the total land area studied) was developed for solar, it would generate enough electricity to meet the DOD’s nationwide renewable energy goals under the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005.
The report further finds that development on this scale would make better economic sense if done via private resources rather than military ones. This is true largely because unlike the military, private developers can take advantage of various state and federal incentives for renewable power.
Also, private development would require no capital investment from the military, but could yield up to $100 million per year in additional revenue or other economic benefits to the military, in addition to the unquantified benefits of reduced greenhouse gas emissions. A concentrated effort to build solar on these bases would spur significant private economic growth.
With consideration of several different solar technologies, the report concludes that ground-mounted crystalline silicon photovoltaic installations on trackers would provide the best rate of return in all cases. Rooftop installations on existing buildings are financially viable, but with relatively few buildings available as compared to open rangeland, their contribution to overall development potential of the bases would be small.
Other PV technologies also provide attractive potential returns, but concentrated solar power technologies are not economically viable based on current assumptions about CSP cost trends.
What does this mean for Oregon? After all, unlike California or Nevada, Oregon has no large military installations. But what Oregon has is vast tracts of federally-owned land – in fact, the U.S. government owns a whopping 53.1 percent (almost 32 million acres) of the land in Oregon, much of it in the sunny eastern part.
Most of Oregon’s federal land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. What is not widely known is that most land in western military installations also is under BLM’s jurisdiction, but is temporarily “withdrawn” from the public domain to serve military needs.
Federal bureaucrats disagree as to whether solar development of military lands would be a nonmilitary use, thereby restoring BLM management responsibility. But regardless of how that dispute is resolved, the BLM will play an important role in any energy development on western military lands.
The processes and solutions that the BLM and the DOD develop to build solar on California military bases can and will be reapplied to other BLM lands, including in Oregon. Moreover, while BLM lands in Oregon would face many of the same challenges that the California military bases face for solar development – environmental constraints and lack of adequate transmission being chief among them – they would have one very significant advantage.
In the DOD study, much of the land found unsuitable for solar was removed from consideration because of potential conflicts with military operations, like training exercises and bombing runs. These are hurdles that would not affect development of public nonmilitary rangeland. Thus, success with solar on California military bases could easily translate into significant growth of solar energy in Oregon, bringing needed jobs and economic development to rural areas.
I applaud the DOD for its measured and forward-looking approach to solar energy. Smart development of even the small percentage of military land suitable for solar can produce tremendous results for both energy security and national security. What’s more, it can portend great things for responsible development of the largely untapped solar resources of states with large federal landholdings – like Oregon.
David Petersen, a partner at Tonkon Torp LLP, chairs the firm’s energy practice group. Contact him at 503-802-2054 or firstname.lastname@example.org.