Pivoting away from utility-scale solar projects for a moment – not to mention cutting-edge thin-film manufacturers – the Obama administration is backing a big loan guarantee for something that on the surface looks a lot less risky: the installation of rooftop systems on privatized military family residences and other privatized buildings on U.S. military bases.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said it was conditionally guaranteeing about $275 million of a $344 million loan package for the SolarStrong Project, under which San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity will install, own and operate up to 160,000 rooftop solar installations on as many as 124 U.S. military bases in as many as 33 states. The loan package is backing just a portion of what SolarCity expects to be $1 billion in projects under SolarStrong.

SolarStrong rooftop solar for military bases, Solar City
image via SolarCity

The DOE said the five-year project would boost U.S. solar capacity by up to 371 megawatts (MW), and will help the Department of Defense – the country’s “single-largest energy consumer” – toward its goal of getting a quarter of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. SolarCity said the project could double the number of residential solar photovoltaic installations in the United States.

“This is the largest domestic residential rooftop solar project in history,” DOE Secretary Steven Chu said.  “This groundbreaking project is expected to create hundreds of jobs for Americans and provide clean, renewable power to our military families. It can also be a model for other large-scale rooftop solar projects that help America regain its lead in the solar industry.”

The DOE was careful to point out that taxpayer money wouldn’t go directly to finance these installations. Instead, “USRG Renewable Finance, an affiliate of US Renewables Group, is acting as lead lender in partnership with Bank of America Merrill Lynch” on the loan package, and the government is conditionally guaranteeing up to 80 percent of that money.

Though the 80-percent loan guarantee is not yet finalized, the program is already rolling with a 4-MW installation – which we reported on in July – at Hickam Air Force base in Hawaii, the DOE said.

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