David B. Pittman
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has long been known for military and security leadership.
Now D-M has moved to the front of the line in a new leadership category – green energy production.
It happened Feb. 13 when the Air Force unveiled a 16.4 megawatt solar park on the base that is the largest solar power project on a U.S. military installation anywhere in the world.
The project – which consists of 57,000 solar panels mounted on single-axis trackers that will automatically follow the path of the sun during the day – is located on 170 acres of previously underutilized land on the air base. The solar park, the result of a public/private partnership with many players, took more than a year to build at a cost of about $40 million.
The Air Force entered into an agreement with SunEdison in 2010 to design, build, operate and maintain the project.
Financiers of the project included MIC Solar Energy Holdings, which is a subsidiary of Macquarie Infrastructure Co., Chevron and the North American Development Bank – a financial institution established and capitalized in equal parts by the United States and Mexican governments to develop environmental infrastructure projects along their common border.
Electricity produced by the plant will be purchased by D-M under a 25-year power-purchase agreement. Col. Kevin Blanchard, the D-M installation commander who also heads the 355th Fighter Wing, said the solar project will save the base $400,000 to $500,000 annually in electricity costs over the next 25 years.
The U.S. Air Force is the largest consumer of energy in the federal government, spending more than $9 billion annually in electricity and fuel costs. And D-M – a small city within a city with on-base housing and large industrial and maintenance needs – is among Tucson’s largest energy users. Military leaders have set a goal of reducing the cost of energy consumption by 25 percent by 2025 through various initiatives, including greater use of renewable energy.
“The Department of Defense has been a leader in looking for renewable and cheaper energy sources,” Blanchard said. “Here in Arizona, the sun shines brightly about 340 days a year. Our ability to use the sun for clean, renewable energy is not only critical to D-M’s mission, but also to the Defense Department, which is trying to identify every avenue it can to save money so those savings can be put into readiness and modernization of our military. Cutting D-M’s electric bill helps the future of our Air Force, the greatest air force in the world.”
Power produced by the solar facility will interconnect with D-M’s electrical infrastructure onsite and is expected to generate sufficient energy to cover 35 percent of electrical use on the base.
For its participation in the project, Tucson Electric Power will acquire Renewable Energy Credits through a 20-year agreement that will aid the utility in reaching compliance with Arizona’s Renewable Energy Standard.
TEP President and COO David Hutchens said the D-M solar park will produce enough energy annually to power 3,000 homes, reduce carbon emissions equivalent to taking 7,500 cars off the road, and will save 20 million gallons of water a year.
“That’s huge. It’s a great affect for our environment and it’s right here in our city,” he said.
Hutchens gave a great deal of credit for the success of the project to visionary SunEdison officials. He said they were ahead of their time about the possibilities of solar power when the development at D-M was first discussed back in 2007.
“At that time solar was quite a bit more expensive and the size of this project was unheard of,” said Hutchens, who was formerly TEP’s VP of energy efficiency and resource planning. “To put it in perspective – it was twice all the remaining solar we had throughout our system. It was visionary to look that far out into the future, but that is exactly what SunEdison did.
“They looked into that price curve for solar power over time,” he continued. “A lot of us thought it (solar energy) was going to happen – but they bet on it. They sold us cheap, renewable energy credits so they could have those for when prices dropped.”
SunEdison is headquartered in Belmont, Calif., in close proximity to Silicon Valley’s technology and talent pool. The company is a global leader in delivering solar power and has solar installations, manufacturing plants and 39 offices throughout North America, Europe and Asia.
Several speakers at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the D-M solar facility said the project would not have come to fruition without the longtime efforts of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords to unite divergent parties, galvanize support in Congress and cut through bureaucratic red tape.
Bob Powell, president of solar energy in North America for SunEdison, thanked Giffords for “her great leadership and support for clean energy.” Powell also thanked current Congressman Ron Barber for his continuing support of solar energy and the D-M solar project.
Giffords husband, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy captain, spoke of his wife’s efforts to help the D-M solar facility at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the project.
“When Gabby first started working on the D-M solar project, it didn’t look very good,” Kelly said. “The first reports indicated red tape was going to be a big obstacle. The technology had great potential for D-M and Tucson – but the costs started piling up and restrictions on power-purchasing agreements looked like they might upend the entire project.
“So Gabby did what she does best. She talked to the experts, she brought people together and she pushed folks in Washington, D.C. to come up with common-sense solutions.
“The result was an extension of purchasing agreements that allowed for smart, long-term investments on bases like D-M that will benefit our military, our community and our private industry for decades to come.”