Battle Ready, Built Right: Air Force Seeks Partnerships to Develop Reliable and Sustainable Energy Sources

President Barack Obama, Col. Dave Belote, former 99th Air Base Wing commander, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., tour the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada photovoltaic array less than two years after it commissioned into operation.
President Barack Obama, Col. Dave Belote, former 99th Air Base Wing commander, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., tour the Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada photovoltaic array less than two years after it commissioned into operation. With more than 72,000 solar panels spread across 140 acres of base property, the 15-megawatt generating operation saves the base more than $1 million a year in energy costs. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Nadine Y. Barclay).

By Joe Sciabica, Air Force Civil Engineer Center

In the Nevada desert near Las Vegas, 140 acres of neatly arranged photovoltaic solar panels quietly track the sun across the sky and create enough clean, renewable energy to power 2,800 homes. At Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts, three 400-foot wind turbines tower over surrounding forests, their revolving blades capturing some of the peninsula’s ample wind resources and converting it into enough electricity to power massive groundwater cleanup and other installation systems. In Alaska, five 1.4-MW generators hum along, fueled by methane from a nearby landfill.

These are just a few examples of more than 250 renewable energy projects created, developed, and managed by the Air Force Civil Engineer Center (AFCEC). Many of the projects were accomplished through third-party financing.

The Air Force is the largest consumer of energy in the armed forces. Energy is a part of every training event, every job, and every mission. The need for energy will not change, but the methods, efficiency, and funding used to generate and harness it are changing.

As mandated by Congress, federal government agencies must reduce their energy intensity by 30 percent by 2015, based on a 2009 baseline. The Department of Defense (DOD) also requires that by 2025, all military installations either procure or produce at least 25 percent of their total energy consumption in renewable energy.

To meet these goals, AFCEC has established multifaceted public and private partnerships with industry and embraced the latest Power Engineering technologies. These relationships leverage both third-party financing opportunities and technical know-how of private industry on the cutting edge. By partnering with industry professionals, the Air Force reaps the benefit of clean, fixed-cost energy, while avoiding additional operating expenses – all without an extra dime of taxpayer money.

As of 2013, 261 operational renewable projects across 96 sites make use of solar, wind, landfill gas, and waste-to-energy technologies. Ten of these have a capacity greater than one megawatt.

The projects alone have a combined production capacity of over 82 MW, enough energy to power 14,000 homes. Another 65 projects are currently in development that will add 610 MW of capacity and save the Air Force $13.6 million annually.

The projects span from coast to coast and save the Air Force millions of dollars in annual energy costs while enhancing security and reliability. For developers, these projects can generate a consistent source of revenue. For example, power purchase agreements with the Air Force are on track to reach $100 million annually.

Solar in the Southwest

One of the first large-scale Air Force renewable projects, a photovoltaic array at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, went into operation in 2007. The array of 72,000 solar panels covers 140 acres and has a production capacity of more than 14 MW, making it one of the largest arrays in the United States. The project produces some 31 million kWh of renewable power annually, saving Nellis more than $1 million per year in electricity costs. It also reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 24,000 tons a year, the equivalent of planting 260,000 trees or removing 185,000 cars from the road.

The Nellis array is an example of the innovative partnerships the Air Force forges with private industry to implement renewable projects without passing costs to taxpayers. By entering into a power purchase agreement with developer SunPower, the Air Force avoided up-front financing and operating costs associated with the solar array.

The agreement stipulated that SunPower’s business partner, MMA Renewable Ventures, finance the construction and operation of the $100 million solar power plant on Air Force property. In return, electricity is sold to Nellis at a guaranteed fixed rate for 20 years, providing predictable cost avoidance for the Air Force as energy rates rise. In addition to Air Force cost-avoidance, a power purchase agreement also shifts the maintenance and operation costs of the plant to the managing developer.

Though the project has since changed hands to a new developer, SunEdison LLC, the deal secured the managing developer a high-consuming energy population for the next two decades. And as a net-metering state, NV Energy is purchasing renewable energy credits generated by the array.

Seven years after the first solar array powered up on Nellis, a second solar project is underway. In 2013, the Nevada Legislature passed a senate bill requiring NV Energy to permanently cut 800 MW of coal-fired generation in southern Nevada by 2019. In their pursuit to acquire more solar capacity, NV Energy signed a deal with the Air Force to lease property for the second array at Nellis.

Instead of arranging a reduced-rate deal similar to the first array, Nellis will purchase power at the existing NV Energy tariff rate. In return for the 31-year land lease, NV Energy will provide a secondary substation and a transmission line as in-kind consideration that provides a mission-critical redundant power source for the base.

The 19-MW array should be operational by December 2015. Once complete, the renewable energy from both solar arrays is expected to provide 42 percent of the energy needed to power the base.

air force renewable energy projects

Wind Power

At Joint Base Cape Cod in Massachusetts, five white wind turbines whip through the air, generating power to clean contamination from nearly a century of military activity at the base, while also powering a vital radar system.

Home to four military commands, Joint Base Cape Cod is a full-scale, joint-use base. Since 1996, AFCEC has managed the cleanup of soil and groundwater contamination there. On upper Cape Cod, the Air Force converted more than 1,100 homes from a private well to a municipal water supply while the sole-source aquifer is remedied. The groundwater cleanup site consists of over 100 extraction and reinjection wells and nine treatment plants of varying size. Over 12 million gallons per day of contaminated water is being cleaned. The equipment requires tremendous amounts of energy that, at its peak, amounted to a $2.5 million annual power bill for the Air Force.

Today, three wind turbines on the site generate enough electricity to provide 100 percent of the power needed for the water cleanup effort. The other two windmills generate sufficient energy to offset usage of the 6th Space Wing Squadron’s PAVE PAWS radar system, saving the Air Force about $600,000 annually.

One Man’s Trash

With installations spread throughout the continental United States, what works at one installation might not be feasible at another, meaning military engineers must be well-versed in various energy technologies. Although wind energy was a viable opportunity at Cape Cod, large, rotating wind turbines are often incompatible with many flight and other specialized military missions, and solar arrays like those at Nellis AFB are not always practical.

At Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, engineers worked with the Municipality of Anchorage and Doyon Utilities for a cutting edge waste-to-energy project that generates more than a quarter of the installation’s electricity needs.

In 2013, through a utilities privatization arrangement, the base banded together with other agencies to build the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Landfill Gas Waste-to-Energy Plant. Prior to the arrangement, the municipality flared the gas in accordance with EPA regulations. The costly burn operation exceeded $60,000 a year. Today, methane from the 87-acre landfill is piped into a processing skid at the plant where five 1.4-MW GE Jebaucher gas generators convert it into electricity.

Wind turbines built on Joint Base Cape Cod to offset electrical costs for powering numerous groundwater cleanup systems at the reservation
Wind turbines built on Joint Base Cape Cod to offset electrical costs for powering numerous groundwater cleanup systems at the reservation. The turbines also power the Air Force’s electric needs for groundwater remediation at the base, saving more than $1.5 million per year. Power generated by the turbines also cut the installation’s energy cost by 50 percent and aligns with the Air Force’s goal of using 25 percent renewable energy by 2025 (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott DeHainaut)

Improving Performance

AFCEC has also used third-party financing to refit existing facilities with high-efficiency technologies. At Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, four decades-old central steam plants formerly used to heat 71 buildings on the base are now decommissioned. In their place, each building is now equipped with its own modern natural gas boiler.

The upgrade saves Tinker $6.4 million a year in electric, natural gas, water, and operation and maintenance costs, with an overall natural gas consumption reduction of 30 percent.

The project was executed through an Energy Savings Performance Contract, an arrangement in which the Air Force partners with an energy services company (ESCO). The ESCO conducts a comprehensive energy audit of facilities and identifies improvement opportunities to save energy. After consulting with the Air Force, the ESCO arranges necessary financing and designs and constructs a project that meets Air Force needs.

The Air Force pays the ESCO back from cost savings created through improved efficiency resulting in reduced utility expenses. For the Tinker project, the performance contract will be paid back over a 21-year performance period.

Enhancing Energy Opportunities

In a state where 100,000 square feet of solar panel surface area could generate enough electricity to power more than 1,500 homes on average, it’s no surprise that Arizona is home to the Air Force’s first signed energy Enhanced Use Lease (EUL).

Initially planned as a power purchase agreement, the proposal by Arizona Power Service for a solar array at Luke Air Force Base ultimately changed course after market fluctuations no longer supported the favorable fixed-price power rates that Arizona Power initially planned to offer the base. Still a viable project opportunity, Luke and APS chose to go the route of an EUL. Similar to a power purchase agreement, EULs are fully owned, maintained, and operated by private industry; however, the land is leased and the power generated is not necessarily used by the host base.

Under U.S. Code, defense agencies have authority to lease non-excess property for commercial use. In the face of shrinking budgets, a number of installation leaders find financial opportunity in the ability to leverage real property assets in exchange for cash or in-kind return from a lessee at or above fair market value. EUL opportunities are not limited to the energy market, but with the capacity to generate both revenue and renewable energy, installations often consider energy production as a way to put non-excess property to its highest and best potential use.

The deal between Luke and APS was finalized in June 2014, and a new solar power plant will be constructed on 100 acres of base property late this fall. The production facility, which will commission and power up by spring 2015, is expected to generate 10 MW of renewable energy and earn more than $5 million in base revenue through the duration of the 30-year lease.

Once in operation, the solar plant will generate enough energy to power 2,500 Arizona homes and will prevent the emission of 12,000-15,000 tons of greenhouse gases annually.

The project will also benefit the community. APS estimates construction activities alone could add 200 new jobs locally. For the developer, leasing Air Force land eliminates the need to secure additional funds up front to purchase property and, unlike many private property owners, the Air Force maintains longstanding records and deeds associated with its property.

Although the project is still several months away from powering up, the installation has already collected revenue that base engineers plan to use for improvements to dormitory rooms and outside pavilion areas.

Distributed Generation in Georgia

In an effort to spur economic growth and increase reliability within the solar community in Georgia, Southern Company-owned utility provider Georgia Power enacted an advanced solar initiative in 2012, seeking contracts for at least 45 MW of solar capacity in 2014. In December 2013, Georgia Power announced the execution of four power purchase agreements totaling 50 MW, 10 of which will be purchased from a generation facility built on Robins Air Force Base by global developer New Generation Power Inc.

Though a final contract price has not been set, the civil engineer team at Robins expects the 20-year lease to sustain several follow-on energy conservation projects. In addition to the monetary return, energy generated from the facility will count toward the DOD’s 2025 renewable energy goal. The renewable energy credits will remain with New Generation Power.

With final lease negotiations nearly complete, the Chicago-based developer expects a fully operational facility by summer 2015.

Negotiations in New Jersey

New Jersey is another contender in the proactive adoption of solar energy, a feat that is related not to high solar resources but to legislative support and high demand.

It was a chain of socioeconomic events and a natural disaster that ultimately brought industry and Air Force leaders together at the gates of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.

The Air Force was already assessing various energy technology opportunities at the base when news broke that one of four licensed nuclear power reactors in the state, Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, would shut down 10 years earlier than expected. Prior to the December 2010 announcement, the 636 MW facility was licensed to operate through 2029.

Plagued by Tritium leaks and recurrent shut downs, Oyster Creek’s reactor was already offline when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast. Amid the massive flooding and wind damage, relief efforts were hindered by widespread power outages.

In New Jersey, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers established a central mobilization and staging site on Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. Because of its proximity to major cities, large amount of available space, and built-in security, the base served as the hub for equipment, supplies, and relief response for the next several weeks.

The base didn’t receive full power restoration until six days after the storm struck the coast, which slowed response efforts. The delay hindered the base’s full mission capability, an observation that did not go unnoticed by state and military leaders.

Following Sandy, state support for the base escalated. In a speech to the Commission on the Force Structure of the Air Force, Jon Runyan, New Jersey Third District representative, called the base essential to national security, homeland defense, disaster response, and the military services.

Governor Chris Christie also pledged his support by creating a task force to issue recommendations to “preserve, enhance, and strengthen” New Jersey’s military installations.

With the desire to simultaneously improve both the infrastructure and energy sources for Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, AFCEC ultimately ramped up the EUL discussion and issued a formal solicitation for business proposals in December 2012.

In November 2013, the Air Force selected the Starwood Siemens development team for the project. Alongside partners Energy Management Inc. and CB&I, the Starwood Siemens team plans to create the largest clean energy park built on Air Force property. The project could ultimately produce more than 550 MW of combined solar, biomass, and clean natural gas power generation developed in three phases over the next five years.

Phase one includes two photovoltaic solar arrays that would generate 30 MW of renewable energy. Phase two calls for 15-20 MW of additional renewable energy currently planned as a biomass plant. Phase three, a combined cycle gas turbine plant, would supply the public grid with more than 500 MW of clean energy.

Negotiations on the lease and final project details are currently underway, but the return to the Air Force and developers could be substantial. With an EUL, the Air Force has the option to take lease payments or receive in-kind consideration, which can be of benefit to the installation in many ways including: energy storage, on-site power generation, smart grid and micro grid integration, and black start capability. With the ability to restore power without relying on the external electric grid, black start would give Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst quick recovery capability in another Sandy-like event.

Powering Ahead

For the Starwood Siemens team, partnering with the Air Force provides an added level of support. With more than just the developer’s interests on the table, the mutually beneficial arrangement will ultimately be carried through to completion by an entire team of supporters. The benefits of a successful EUL in New Jersey extend far beyond the gates of the joint base. It means more jobs in the local community, improved energy reliability and service for the entire region, and investments in state energy infrastructure. The project is a pilot for combining programs like EULs and power purchase agreements, while integrating multiple energy technologies. If successful, the project will significantly contribute to the Air Force’s energy security and independence goals.

The AFCEC has a motto: Battle Ready … Built Right. It means that the organization has the ability to deliver warfighter needs by implementing enterprise solutions; foster collaborative and integrative approaches to problem solving; and find opportunities for partnerships with sister services, communities, and industry.

To meet the challenges facing the nation and the Air Force, AFCEC is turning to private industry for innovation and creativity. Through partnership with industry, AFCEC can develop the solutions the nation needs to meet those challenges for both Airmen and the country. That’s what drives the organization today, and it’s what will drive it tomorrow.

For more information about the Air Force Energy Program, please visit


Joe Sciabica is the Director for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center

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