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Desert Military Bases Could Be Boon To Solar


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Last week, the government approved the first new nuclear reactor power plants in over 30 years, but in the meantime, the Department of Defense has been investigating a different energy source for its military bases: solar.

My next guest says the military could install seven gigawatts of solar power on its bases. That's roughly equivalent to the output of seven nuclear power plants, and that's all without interfering with bombing ranges or rocket tests and of course the desert tortoise.

Would this be a smart move for the military? Would it increase energy security? And could some of that extra wattage perhaps find its way into your home? Robert Kwartin is vice president and director of Renewable Energy Practice at ICF International in Fairfax, Virginia. He joins us from NPR in Washington. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ROBERT KWARTIN: Hello, Ira, thanks for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. So the Pentagon commissioned you to study solar energy?

KWARTIN: They did.

FLATOW: And how - for what reason?

KWARTIN: Well, there's a lot of - a lot of different reasons. There are many different competing pressures for land out in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts. You've got conservation interests, off-road vehicle interests, largely noble energy development pressure on the public land in the desert. And I think what they were looking for is whether any of that renewable energy development could be accommodated on the military bases and thereby free up some of the land outside the fence lines for other needs.

FLATOW: And I'm actually surprised, I'm sure maybe you were also, by the amount of potential solar energy you could use out there, seven gigawatts.

KWARTIN: It was surprising to some and perhaps disappointing to others. So a lot of people felt that given the very heavy mission use of these military installations and also given the presence of endangered species, such as the desert tortoise that you already referred to, that it would be unlikely you'd be able to site very much at all, at least not on the ground, you know, certainly rooftops, but rooftops are a fairly small area.

So the surprise, at least for me, was that there was some ground that could accommodate solar, and when you talk in the context of a - excuse me, a six-million-acre inventory of land, even if only a small percentage of that is available for solar development, it adds up quickly.

FLATOW: And so we would not - if you were to install, say, solar panels there, you would not be interfering with the military operations, the, you know, the gunnery things, whatever tests that go on there?

KWARTIN: Well, those were the principal reasons that land could not be used. So again, we started with about six million acres of land across these nine installations, and essentially we did an elimination analysis. We looked at what the competing uses of the land were, and the mission activities, of course, were number one, and they alone accounted for the vast majority of the land that was unavailable for solar installation, so on the order of 97, 98 percent of all the land on those installations is unavailable for solar development, but the remaining one or two percent still can host a substantial amount.

FLATOW: Wow. Now is it possible that they could export some of this? Let's say they could become an energy exporter, you know, sell it to the community where they lived.

KWARTIN: Yeah, certainly that is possible. They have legal authority that allows them to do that. And they have been exploring, in fact, a couple of large projects that may in fact fit that very model.

But it's a little more complicated than that in that, you know, if you're a military installation, you're very busy. You've got a lot of other things going on. Your public works staff, your real estate staff, your natural resource staff all have their hands full with a lot of different things.

So one of the questions that we posed in our study was how will DOD evolve to accommodate these potentially large solar installations that would be selling into the public grid when, you know, essentially those projects might not be supplying much in the way of energy to the installation itself.

So there's going to have to be a good reason. There's going to have to be a scale-up of capability at DOD to do that. It's not quite an automatic outcome of the study.

FLATOW: Would they have asked you to study this if they were not serious about going ahead and doing something with the result of your study?

KWARTIN: Well, I'd actually turn that question on its head. DOD had already been doing quite a bit before this study was ever commissioned. They built a large solar installation at Nellis Air Force Base, outside of Las Vegas. About the same time that the study was published, DOD announced the contract for similarly sized solar installation at the China Lake Naval Weapons Station in California.

So DOD had already been doing some good things. They also do a lot of R and D work on advanced energy technology. The issue is whether this study, you know, opened more eyes than just my own and whether, given that there's now, you know, this large potential visible, whether it might cause senior leadership at the department to scale up their plans or, you know, decide on targets that can fit within that potential.

FLATOW: I guess I'm imagining there would be loads of red tape that would have to be cut for something like this to move quickly.

KWARTIN: Well, you know, it's a government department. So things generally don't move terribly quickly. The good news is that there have been some legal authorities put in place in recent years that have allowed the department to work with private developers, where the private developer essentially invests their own capital into these projects the government doesn't have to invest any of its own money, and that allows projects to go ahead without waiting for appropriations.

There's still a lot of contracting involved, there's still a lot of land use analysis, and these new authorities are only really being tested out now, apparently successfully. And hopefully as the first ones, you know, are successfully completed, it'll be a lot easier to replicate them in the future.

FLATOW: Does the military argue that this is a security benefit for the military, to build these things?

KWARTIN: It can be, but it's - again, it's a bit more complicated than it might at first appear. So a solar installation on a military base, you know, there it is generating electricity, and in theory, you would say, well, gee, if the public grid goes down, couldn't that solar plant provide power to that base and keep that base lit up and doing what it needs to do?

The reality is under the way that the electric grid is governed, if the grid goes down due to, you know, whatever, a tornado, an earthquake, what have you, that solar plant has to shut down immediately. The lines need to be de-energized so that utility workers can do the repair work and not be at risk of being shocked by electricity being fed in.

So in order to create a real energy security asset, a lot of other technology and systems and process needs to be put into place: energy storage, islanding capability, microgrids, things like that, all of which DOD is researching right now on some of these same installations.

FLATOW: And of course you'd have to get to the main grid if you're going to be sending it someplace.

KWARTIN: Yes, and that also can be a non-trivial challenge. The transmission grid in California is very congested. There's not a lot of capacity available to accept large injections of, well, of electrons from anybody, whether it's a fossil-fired plant or a solar plant, and that is a major constraint to further development.

FLATOW: Well, one thing standing or in the Pentagon's favor, as you pointed out, and as we talked about here on the show, is that the military seems to be in the forefront of renewable energy.


FLATOW: You know, it's - the Navy has been looking into alternative fuels besides diesel because it's the biggest diesel user in the world. We've had other people talking about alternative energy, things they really are thinking heavily about.

KWARTIN: Yeah, and in a number of different ways. So you go all the way to the - kind of the forward edge, where our soldiers, Marines, airmen are in combat, and they're dependent on a very long supply chain of petroleum coming in through ports in Pakistan, and that's a very vulnerable supply chain.

So, you know, out on the battlefield of forward operating bases, the military is looking for ways of using renewably generated electricity and locally generated fuels so they don't have to have as many of their soldiers at risk protecting convoys of fuel.

And then further back, you know, whether you're talking about ships at sea or aircraft aloft, looking to diversify their fuels supplies. And then back here in the United States, you know, what can we do to cost effectively implement alternative energy sources on our military installations?

FLATOW: If this idea were to go forward and they would start building the solar plants on the military bases, you say that they would probably hire subcontractors to come in. So you're creating local jobs in the community, also.

KWARTIN: Yes, there'd be construction jobs to build these facilities and then a much smaller number of operations and maintenance jobs. It's not a huge employment in the long run just because you don't need a lot of people to keep a solar plant operating.

FLATOW: If there is - let's say there is an independent company that wants to build these solar plants, why would they want to go into a base? Why not just go and build one themselves? What's to their advantage to work with the government on this?

KWARTIN: Well, it's a good question. You know, a solar development company does have options. They can build and have built large solar plants on Bureau of Land Management land, public land outside of these military bases. They can build on private land, and they've done so.

I think that the military bases offer some incremental benefits and also some incremental costs compared to those alternatives. The benefits are these military bases are very large loads. They consume a lot of electricity. And therefore, your solar installation, instead of selling out into the wholesale power market over the fence, which tends to be competitively priced and relatively inexpensive, you can use your electricity to displace the electrons that the local utility company would otherwise deliver.

That tends to be more expensive. So you're creating more value. Secondly, you can do more interesting things. You can again build things like microgrids and storage and a lot of other innovative types of technologies, which allow you to deliver more value to the military customer, things that you can't do on a piece of open land that might be outside of the fence. So the relationship to that load is very important.

FLATOW: So what should we watch for to see if your message gets through?

KWARTIN: Well, you know, it's only been a month since the report came out. So I'm not looking for any skywriters in the sky. I think that it's going to take time. I think that the management of the department needs to consider the implications of the study. Some of them are the numerical ones that we've talked about.

We also offered a range of policy and programmatic recommendations. I get the sense that as long as renewable energy can be demonstrated to be cost-effective, enhance the energy security of these installations, not get in the way of the primary missions of these installations, they're very willing to move forward.

I think it's just going to be a matter of time as the program scales up.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Robert Kwartin is vice president and director of Renewable Energy Practices at ICF International in Fairfax, Virginia. And you say there's seven gigawatts. Could there be more out there possible?

KWARTIN: My guess is - well, there's reasons why there might be more. There's reasons why there might be less, more because the mission compatibility issue is still - is still not a science. It's really an art. So there may be land out there that we found to be mission incompatible that somebody with better tools might find is mission compatible at some later date.

Less in that we did all of our analysis based on geographic information systems tools, essentially maps, and the reality is once you get out there and walk around the ground, where we say that there's solar potential, you may find things that don't show up on maps that might prevent you from moving ahead.

FLATOW: But at least you've got the conversation going.

KWARTIN: Indeed.

FLATOW: Thank you, Robert. Robert Kwartin will be - we're going to take a short break, and when we come back, and we know it's past Valentine's Day, but we're talking sweet stuff, sugar. My next guest says it can be as toxic as alcohol and therefore should be regulated like alcohol. What do you think? We'll be back after this break. Stay with us.


FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.