Solar Power Dispute at Nellis Air Force Base
Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada is not only home to the largest advanced air combat training mission in the world but also home to the North America’s largest solar photovoltaic power plant. Designed and built by SunPower Corporation, it intends to meet an average of 25% of the electricity requirements at the base, where 12,000 people live and work. The single-axis solar tracking system maximizes solar electrical generation by following the path of the sun. MMA Renewable Ventures, LLC, has financed this $100 million solar energy system, and will own and operate it by selling power to Nellis Air Force Base at a guaranteed rate for 20 years, as well as selling Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) to Nevada Power. (see the end of this article for the technical details)
A Washington Post article on 20 June 2009 (Solar Project Meets Bigger Foe Than Cloudy Skies: The Air Force) reported that the Air Force has objected to SolarReserve, LA, to build one of the largest solar plants in the world in Nevada citing potential interference between the project’s 600-foot tower and radar used to guide flight training.
In 2007 SolarReserve proposed the construction of a $700 million solar thermal power plant with a capacity of 200 megawatts, covering two square miles, near the Nevada Air Force base. (see SolarReserve website for the explanation of their technology).
Solar tower plants use an array of mirrors to focus heat onto a single point — a tower. That heat is used to create steam to power a turbine. The company selected a site near Tonopah, about 25 miles from the testing range, because it is near power lines. Another company, BrightSource Energy wants to do a similar project near Primm and on private property at Coyote Springs.
But apparently Col. Howard D. Belote, installation commander at Nellis, is urging the government to turn it down. The company has been negotiating with the Air Force for 18 months and has already revised its plans once to move the plant away from the base, at the Air Force's suggestion. According to WP news piece Col. Belote said the solar plant would compromise classified aspects of the Air Force's training range and would interfere with radar. An Airforce Time news piece (Base: Solar project would hinder radar) adds that officials at Nellis Air Force Base are asking the Department of Interior to reject the SolarReserve Project because “the plant would be incompatible with our vital national security interests, Col. Howard Belote, commander of the 99th Air Base Wing at Nellis, wrote in a June 3 letter to Interior’s Bureau of Land Management.” On another occasion the same Col. Belote said that “Nellis AFB is a proponent of compatible renewable energy initiatives both on and off DoD lands. DoD is a stakeholder, not an approving authority, for non-DoD lands.” Also, DoD is not in the business of selling power to the grid.
This may sounds strange. This is not the first time that concerns are raised about certain types of renewable energy technologies possible interference with air and ground radar systems if they’re located too close to the range. And a tower could disrupt radar systems if installed in some places within 100 miles north and west of the site.
Mission impacts of solar and wind systems vary. For solar systems the issues are centered on height; radar; glare; noise/boom damage; heat. For wind energy the issues are height and radar. Wind farms may also have potential negative impacts to military operations - Electromagnetic Interference, Flight Obstruction, Security, Thermal Signature, Lighting, and Reflection. In Radar performance impacts wind turbines are of primary concern. The issues include target detection (degrades the radar’s ability to identify a target, ie, doppler aspect), Clutter (reduces operator’s ability to track targets), Screening (reduces radar coverage volume), Beacon false targets, Screening and beacon false targets.
US Solar Resources and DoD Ranges and Special Use Airspace (Source)
In the past, Nellis AFB had objected to tall hotel projects in nearby Las Vegas and to wind turbines. But the base sits well above the height of the tower proposed by SolarReserve. Nellis is about 200 miles from the proposed solar tower but Nellis AFB suggests SolarReserve move the plant another 200 miles southeast.
In a June 17 hearing before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on readiness and management support, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said the resistance of military training ranges to alternative energy plants had a “chilling effect on renewable energy projects.”
Now both SolarReserve and Nellis AFB are doing separate research on the impact of the project on radars. The military has commissioned scientists from MIT to study this issue.
Solar power sstem at Nellis Air Force Base
Source: USAF, for more pictures see here.
On 27 May 2009, Col. Belote hosted President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who toured the solar facility. When he gave President Barack Obama a tour of Nellis’ 14 megawatt photovoltaic solar array, he said the military needed more of a voice in the administration’s solar planning.
At Nellis AFB Obama announced two new American Recovery and Reinvestment Act programs aimed at doubling America's capability to generate renewable energy. "Right now, we're standing near the largest solar electric plant of its kind in the entire Western Hemisphere ….It's a project that will save the U.S. Air Force, which is the largest consumer of energy in the federal government, nearly $1 million a year," President Obama said following a tour of Nellis' solar photovoltaic array.
Some of the specific provisions of the act called for promoting energy independence, with $7.2 billion dedicated to "green" projects and programs. Capitalizing on Nellis' example, the president announced the availability of Recovery Act funding for two such programs. "The first is a solar energy technologies program that will help replicate the success of the Nellis project in cities and states across America. We'll invest in the development and deployment of solar technology wherever it can thrive and we'll find the best ways to integrate solar power into our electric grid," President Obama said.
At first sight, I am a bit puzzled with this objection of Ellis AFB to new solar projects “close” to the base. As far as I know solar thermal projects are much more competitive than Solar PV projects. Therefore I wonder whether some financial issues play a role on this dog fight. How much does Nellis pay per kWh to MMA Renewable Ventures. What would be the selling price of SolarReserve per kWh? Or the issue is really purely adverse effect on military capabilities? If that is the case why DoD has not conducted any detailed study and set the clear constraints concerning solar and wind projects close to military bases?
I guess it is time for the US military to restudy the meaning of the word “strategy” before going ahead with renewable energy projects. DoD is failing with its vision. Synthetic fuels derived from coal is not happening, biofuels are still focused on non-tactical vehicles use only. Data management has not been improved. Senior DoD official on energy matters has not yet been assigned. And now, voices are raised against wind and concentrated solar power projects. What is left is energy efficiency and conservation. I hope DoD will not loosen the efforts and ambitions on those fronts. Note that more than 80% of the USAF energy consumption (in monetary terms) is for aviation and 15% is for installations. The rest is for ground equipment.
By the way, the new solar panels on rooftops at the California Air National Guard base in Fresno are a first for any air guard base in the US. In the beginning of July 2009 a solar company finished installing 3,819 solar panels at the Fresno air guard base, home to the 144th Fighter Wing. The 660-kilowatt system was built on three newly constructed carports and a rooftop at the McKinley Avenue base. The project was installed by San Francisco-based Akeena Solar, and was completed in phases, starting in 2006. It cost about $6 million and covers almost 40,000 square feet. The installation is eligible to receive an estimated $1.1 million rebate from the California Solar Initiative. Unlike some other projects in which the solar company owns the panels and leases them to the location, the air guard owns the panels.
Some technical details on Nellis Solar PV Power Plant:
Project surface area: 140 acres (owned by USAF)
Solar plant capacity: 14.2 megawatts (DC) peak output
Date of completion: December 2007 (constructed in 26 weeks)
Annual energy output: 30,100,000 kWh
Estimated annual Air Force savings: $1 million
Technology: SunPower T20 Tracker
Number of Trackers: 5,821
Number of solar panels: 72,416
Number of solar cells: 5,891,328
Number of watts per panel: 200
Number of transformers: 18
Number of inverters: 54
Total length of power cables: 5,550,000 ft .
(For further info click this link)