US Navy preps massive solar project

SunPower broke ground this month on a big solar installation at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California. 

Though it’s not a utility scale system of the magnitude being developed elsewhere in the desert – like the 392-megawatt (MW) Ivanpah concentrating solar plant, for instance – at 13.78 MW it is large enough to hint at the kind of solar development the military would like to see take place on its bases in the California desert.

“This is the largest solar project in the Navy,” the assistant Navy secretary for Energy, Installation and Environment, Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, said in a statement. “It demonstrates tangible progress toward national energy independence and reaching the Department of the Navy’s energy goals.”

You might recall our recent story about the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) study that promoted the concept of developing at least 50,000 acres at four Southern California military bases for solar power production. 

The study said the department could reap up to $100 million annually in lower power costs and rental-fee income with such a program. All told, the study said, some 7,000 megawatts could be mined in the desert by private developers using 6,777 acres at China Lake, 24,327 acres at Edwards Air Force Base, 18,728 acres at Fort Irwin and 553 acres at Twentynine Palms.

Whether that idea will fly, nobody knows – but meanwhile, DOD is making use of some of that prime land to produce emissions-free power and trim its utility bills on a more modest but still impressive scale. 

“The Navy has a longstanding record of identifying energy and water conservation opportunities across our facilities,” said Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, commander, Navy Region Southwest. “We are continuing to transform our culture from one of consumption to one focused on conservation.”

The PV plant at China Lake is just one example. Last June we told you about the 6-MW plant at the Air Force Academy in Colorado – another SunPower project, by the way. And in October, we reported that work had begun on the installation of three 1-MW solar arrays at the flight test center at Edwards.

Although the China Lake installation is going in on base land, SunPower will build, operate and maintain the solar power system. The Navy will then buy the electricity “at a rate that is currently below the retail utility rate,” SunPower said, providing it “with a long-term hedge against rising power prices with no initial capital investment.” 

By going with a 20-year power-purchase agreement (PPA) – a first for a military project, SunPower said – the Navy will get the electricity “at up to 30 percent below the rate available through the more traditional 10-year PPA.”

In dollar terms, SunPower said the system will help the Navy “reduce costs by an estimated $13 million over the next 20 years.” 

The China Lake system will use SunPower’s Oasis Power Plant product, which integrates the SunPower T0 Tracker with the SunPower E19/425 Solar Panel.

The China Lake base is in the western Mojave Desert in California, and is the Navy’s largest single landholding, representing 85 percent of the Navy’s land for research, development, acquisition, testing and evaluation of weapons systems, according to the serve. The two ranges and main site at China Lake cover more than 1.1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

Pete Danko, EarthTechling