Outside a building that provides medical care for wounded soldiers at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, two long, dark lines of hundreds of solar panels stand on supports over the parking lot, moving to follow the sun.
“Everybody wants to park under the solar panels,” said B.J. Tomlinson, the renewable energy and sustainable engineering program manager at Fort Bliss. The roughly $1 million system, paid for by the Army, began producing power this year.
Solar panels are popping up across Fort Bliss, which is the nation’s largest army post by physical size, covering an area slightly larger than Rhode Island. The panels are part of the base’s effort to cut its net energy and water usage, reduce waste and thus demonstrate self-sufficiency, a concept that can have a large impact on operations abroad. The military refers to it as “net zero,” and bases like Fort Bliss and Fort Hood have embraced it, but high upfront costs pose challenges.
In Central Texas, Fort Hood has a goal of “net zero” waste by 2020. The base, second to Fort Bragg in total number of soldiers, will claim success if about 90 percent of its trash avoids a landfill, according to Brian Dosa, Fort Hood’s director of public works. Right now, more than half goes into the base’s landfill.
Achieving these goals will be tough, officials at both bases said.
“It’s really as much about behavior change as it is about technology,” said Dosa. Recycling rates at soldiers’ housing complexes, for example, are low, he said. In addition to recycling, Fort Hood wants to reduce packaging and encourage reuse of materials like household goods. (See YouTube video from Fort Hood at the bottom of this article.)
Fort Bliss’s plans are especially ambitious. It is the only base besides Fort Carson in Colorado selected by the Army to achieve “net zero” in three categories — energy, water and waste. And it must do this by 2018 despite a massive increase in size: Due to the First Armored Division’s return from Germany, the number of soldiers assigned to Fort Bliss is more than tripling to about 30,000. Electricity usage, for example, could jump by up to 60 percent between fiscal 2010 and 2015.
Solar is a logical choice for Fort Bliss, which extends from relentlessly sunny El Paso into New Mexico. A large field of solar panels, which will more than double the existing solar capacity, should be producing power by the end of the year, bringing the base up to 1 percent solar electricity.
The new panels will be adjacent to the headquarters of the First Armored Division, where the base’s commanding general has an office. “He’s going to be able to look out the window and see all of that,” Tomlinson said.
Prices for solar remain expensive, and cost-cutting has become a watch-word for the government. Tomlinson hopes that construction will start next year on a 20-megawatt solar project that would be two-thirds of the size of the largest existing solar array in Texas. The army is trying to arrange private financing for the multimillion-dollar project.