Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2017

Currently: 70° — Complete forecast

Nellis wants to double the base’s solar energy output

Beyond the Sun

More than half of the electricity needed to power Nellis Air Force Base during daylight hours could come from solar panels instead of traditional power lines by the end of next year. It represents the Defense Department’s goal to have 25 percent of its energy come from renewable sources by 2025.

Nellis is seeking public comment through Wednesday on a draft environmental assessment for the proposed solar photovoltaic system on 160 acres on a southern part of the base between Sunrise Vista Golf Course and East Carey Avenue. If it becomes reality, the plant would combine to at least double the output produced by another solar array at Nellis since 2007.

Although the Air Force has not yet decided whether to have the plant built, and its potential cost and size have not been determined, the fact it is being considered says much about the military’s faith in solar power.

Maj. Gen. Timothy Byers, the civil engineer overseeing all Air Force facilities, recently said: “The Air Force continues to aggressively pursue cleaner sources of energy. Sustainable installations provide an operational advantage to our force and, needless to say, we are excited by the momentum in this arena.”

Like the base’s existing photovoltaic array, a series of silicon-based panels that rotate to trail the sun’s course from land north of North Las Vegas Boulevard, the second plant also would generate power only during daylight. The Air Force’s draft report concluded that the plant would pose no significant adverse impact on the environment. Locations away from the base were considered, but the Air Force found it could save money by having the facility built at Nellis.

The proposed plant could generate as much as 18 megawatts of power. Although the power would be used only for base facilities, not homes, one megawatt is enough to power roughly 600 residences.

The base, home to the Air Force Warfare Center and fighter pilot wings, employed 8,932 active duty military personnel, 862 reserves and 3,423 civilians as of last year, according to the latest available data.

NV Energy, the utility that provides electricity to Southern Nevada, supports the proposed plant because the state requires that a certain percentage of the electricity sold by the company come from renewable resources such as solar, wind and geothermal energy. The utility is preparing to begin negotiations within a month with the Air Force to build and operate the plant, assuming it clears environmental hurdles and Nellis still wishes to pursue the project.

Under a best-case scenario, David Sims, NV Energy’s renewable energy project development director, said the plant could go on line by the end of 2011.

“The Air Force has approached us about being a potential participant to develop the project,” Sims said. “We’re very supportive.”

Sims said his company would explore the possibility of using tilted solar panels that stay in a fixed position because they would be less expensive to install than rotating panels. The cost to build and operate it would be shouldered by NV Energy or whichever company is chosen as developer.

“We would be interested in whatever generates the lowest cost of providing electricity,” Sims said.

The quest by Nellis to embrace solar energy can be traced to the Energy Policy Act passed by Congress in 2005, which directed federal agencies to increase renewable energy by 2013 to help reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign crude oil.

The Air Force stated in a strategic energy plan in 2008 that it wanted to pursue energy independence and “create a culture where all airmen make energy a consideration in everything we do.” The Air Force, which now derives 4 percent of its electricity from renewable resources, is the largest purchaser of clean energy in the federal government and ninth largest consumer of such power in the country. No. 1 on the list, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is information technology company Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

Although it won’t spend its own money to have a second solar plant at Nellis, the Air Force has said it would invest nearly $85 million in the construction of renewable energy plants at other bases over the next five years. The Air Force anticipates that businesses also will invest nearly $400 million during the same period on green power for its bases.

The opening of the 14-megawatt system at Nellis in fall 2007 — at the time the largest photovoltaic array in North America, and still the largest on a military base — was hailed as a way for the base to save $1 million annually while providing as much as 30 percent of its daytime power needs.

That plant represented a successful partnership between the base and private industry. Built by SunPower Corp. of San Jose, Calif., the facility was financed by MMA Renewable Ventures of San Francisco and is owned by Fotowatio Renewable Ventures, a company with offices in San Francisco and Spain that acquired MMA. All the Air Force had to do was provide the land through a lease agreement, and what it gets in return is the ability to buy power at a discount from Fotowatio. The renewable energy credits accumulated by the system are sold to NV Energy, which uses them to help meet state requirements.

“Here at Nellis we’re finding with this initial plant that it has been a win-win situation for us and for those companies,” base spokesman Charles Ramey said.

The plant became an instant hit with the Solar Electric Power Association, which presented Nellis and its private industry partners with an award honoring that partnership. President Barack Obama toured the plant in May 2009 while touting his administration’s support of funding for renewable energy projects.

Two other Air Force bases, Luke and Davis-Monthan in Arizona, are planning to build large solar arrays based on similar agreements with private industry.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy