News & Press
I Saw the Light
June 3, 2012
Ah yes, springtime in Deutschland. There has been an early harvest of white asparagus and we all know how the Germans love their spargel. They have turned their vaunted vegetable â€“ “white gold” as some call it â€” into a cult product, far superior to common English green asparagus.
And this year’s bounty harvest is the result of more sunny days. Now who would have thought of Germany as a sunny place? In more ways than one, sunny is not my idea of Germany. Domination, yes. Sunny, no.
But for the very same reason that Germans were able to purchase their vaunted “vegetable of kings” earlier this year, German solar power plants were able to set a world record in late May, producing 22 gigawatts of electricity per hour and meeting nearly 50 percent of the nation’s mid-day needs.
That amount of energy is equivalent to 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity. As the famed nuclear physicist Gomer Pyle would say, “Shazam.”
Not so long ago, I will admit that I wasn’t giving solar power its due. Back in September, I wrote about the spectacular failure of Solyndra and how the federal government made a large bet on a losing horse. See Sept. 18, 2011 blog, “Solar, It’s Been Good to Know You” â€”
To me, solar power was something to be explored, to keep an eye on, but nothing to bet the farm on. In short, I did not take it that seriously. But keep in mind, dear reader, that I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.
My epiphany came just this past week in researching and writing about how our military is engaging in long-term purchase power agreements with private developers who are in the process of building ground-based solar farms on military installations across the country.
As you are all quite anxious to learn and impress others with your cutting-edge knowledge, here is the link to the story that appeared in Site Selection magazine â€“
That story, in a nutshell, says that our military is pretty gung-ho about solar energy to the degree that the Army, Air Force and Navy have each committed to implementing 1 gigawatt of renewables by 2025 at the latest.
Indeed, our military has a history of taking on new technologies which eventually find their way into the commercial market. You can now go to your local sporting goods store and buy night vision devices that permit you to break all sorts of hunting laws if you so choose.
But I digress. The question before us is why would our military choose to invest in solar technology?
Well, for a number of reasons. First, the technology, which continues to improve, is pretty much already proven. Germany, which has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined, shows us that it works, albeit there have been government price supports to the tune of $5 billion a year to make it work.
Closer to home, the Department of Defense has also been utilizing solar for years now. A solar farm at Nellis Air Force Base spans over 140 acres and is the largest solar photovoltaic system in North America. Built in 2007, it generates 14 megawatts and saves the base about $1 million a year.
What’s more, the price of photovoltaic panels keeps falling, partly because of technological advances but also because of the wascally Chinese, as Elmer Fudd would call them, who will gladly flood your country with lower-cost solar panels that are essentially made in sweat shops.
A preliminary decision by the U.S. Commerce Department last month indicates there will likely be tariffs of as much as 25 percent on imports of Chinese solar cells. The agency said Chinese made panels were being sold for less than the cost of production in an attempt to drive out domestic competition.
If that is the truly the goal, it appears to be working. At least four U.S. solar manufacturers filed for bankruptcy in the past year even as federal subsidies helped build an $8.4 billion U.S. solar market. It is interesting to note that the Chinese have filed their own complaint with the World Trade Organization, claiming that renewable-energy subsidies in five U.S. states violate free-trade rules. Stay tuned as we might be seeing a trade war in the making.
Still, the long-term trend of the falling prices for PV panels continues and should mean that in the not so distant future, solar can and will achieve what experts call “grid parity,” meaning that the generated cost of electricity from solar will eventually rival that of coal and natural gas and without any subsidies.
Business research group GlobalData says that some solar PV projects could reach grid parity in the United States by 2014, while most regions in the country are expected to reach grid parity in alignment with average electricity prices in the residential sector by 2017.
So if we’re not there yet, we’re getting very close, and again, without any government subsidies. If the experts are right and if and when this happens, solar energy will finally come of age and get its due respect.
But here is why the military is so important. Solar industry executives get a bit touchy when you suggest, as I did, that these recent long-term power purchase agreements with the DoD installations gives their industry “credibility.”
They would argue that they already have credibility with proven and reliable technology. But push them a little more, and they will agree that these large military contracts of late will serve an important role in the growth of their industry.
“Military contracts represent a relatively small percentage of our overall business today, but if you look at what the military has planned for use of renewables as part of their electric consumption plan â€“ to that end, I think we are going to see a very strong demand from the military which will sustain the growth of our industry,” said Raju Yenamandra, vice president of sales and business development at Solar World, the largest U.S. solar panel manufacturer.
Keep in mind that the Department of Defense spends nearly $4 billion a year to provide power to 300,000 buildings or 2.2 billion square feet of space on more than 500 installations. The goal to be “net zero,” consuming only as much energy as they generate. In the coming years, that will mean billions of dollars spent on solar.
So again, why is that important? One is pure economics, saving money. These long-term purchase agreements with private developers that are building ground-based solar installations on military bases are designed to save the DoD money. Twenty year agreements have already been signed, but new rules permit the term to be extended to 30 years.
Essentially the government puts up no money. The developers build the solar farms and even pay the DoD rent to use the land on military reservations. In turn, the military branch signs up to buy the generated power over a long term, thereby saving money. According to the solar industry, the numbers have to work before the government bites, but the fact remains that these contracts are being negotiated.
But besides the financials, there are also issues of national security to be considered. The Center for Naval Analysis’ Military Advisory Board has called for “immediate, swift and aggressive action” over the next decade to reduce U.S. oil consumption 30 percent in the next 10 years, stating that U.S. dependence on oil constitutes a significant threat to our country.
Let’s face it, we are importing much of this dirty oil from countries that really don’t like us or have our best interests at heart. Because of our dependence on their oil, they can, and have put the screws to us.
Wouldn’t it be grand if we didn’t give them any money? Boone Pickens thinks so, and for that reason he is pushing a plentiful and cheap resource of our own, natural gas. But that’s another story for another time. As I have written in the past, I am very bullish about our future with natural gas, but I’m also becoming a fan of solar. I have seen the light.
Creating military bases as “energy islands” makes sense should this country ever fall under some sort of terroristic attack, but it also serves a function by ensuring reliable and continuous energy use for command and control purposes. You don’t want to lose power in the middle of a military operation that you are essentially directing from a U.S. military base. That could prove disastrous.
Being able to operate off the more vulnerable and fragile public grid gives the DoD added security measure that could ultimately save lives.
For Jonathan Gensler, the move to solar has become very personal. A West Point graduate, he served as a captain in a tank platoon in Iraq, where two close friends were killed by roadside bombs.
Gensler, who now works as a project developer at the solar financier and integrator Borrego Solar, said the Army’s heavy dependence on foreign oil was essentially aiding and abetting the enemy.
I think he might be onto something. You cannot tell me that some petro-dollars haven’t made their way to terrorist organizations that want do a jihad number on us. And more alternative energy resources in the field of operations will mean fewer vulnerable fuel-laden convoys on the roads as military outposts are now typically powered by diesel generators.
“Taking fuel trucks off the road will saves lives,” Gensler said.
That is also the view of Maj. General Anthony Jackson, who spoke at a Pew Charitable Trusts forum at Stanford University last year.
“I know the cost of oil. I know it up close and personal. If you have never seen the mixture of blood and sand, it’s a harsh purple on the desert floor,” Jackson said.
“There is an urgent need for our nation to lead the world in renewables and conservation and getting a grip on the strategic vice that one three letter word has around our neck. For every 50 trucks we put on the road, someone is killed or loses a limb.”
If we can somehow break our dependence on foreign, dirty oil, that has to be in the long-term best interest of our country. Boone Pickens believes that. And now Army officers are saying the same thing.
If solar can help us break that dependence, be only a small part of solving the puzzle, and thereby reach grid parity with subsidies no longer being needed, well, I say let’s have at it. Let’s make this thing work.
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