U.S. Military Eyes Big Solar On Desert Bases

Look at a map of Southern California, and you’ll see several large gray patches. These depict sprawling bases, testing ranges, weapons stations, airfields – you name it – that the various branches of the U.S. military oversee. And according to a new U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) study, these swaths of desert land could be gold mines for solar power.

The department’s Office of Installations and Environment concluded that 96 percent of the surface area of nine desert military installations it studied (including two in Nevada) would have to be off limits to solar projects for military or environmental reasons. But that still left 25,000 acres judged “suitable” for development, and all told the study said 7,000 megawatts of solar energy capacity was technically and economically feasible.

image via National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Of course, just because the DOD thinks the land is suitable for solar development doesn’t mean everyone else will – and in its report the military acknowledged that there would be questions about who would oversee private-investor led solar development on what are known as “withdrawn lands.” These are lands that are part of the public domain supervised by the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but that have been withdrawn from the operation of public land laws to serve military mission needs. If they weren’t being used for military purposes, would it still up to the DOD to decide their fate? Or would the BLM step in? And what role might the state of California play? How these questions are answered could determine what environmental-review processes and regulations come into play, and the pace and success of development.

The military said its 7,000 MW figure was based on the assumption that development would happen on all 25,000 of the acres rated “suitable” as well as one-quarter of the 100,000 acres rated “likely” or “questionably” suitable for solar, adding up to 50,000 acres. And by “economically feasible,” the report’s authors meant that projects would be enticing to private developers taking advantage of federal and state tax-based incentives. “Projects funded by the government (e.g., using military construction funds) were not viable,” the report said, “given the current costs of the technology and the tax-based nature of federal solar incentives.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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