Air Force agrees to solar power project near base in Nevada

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

A collision between the Air Force and a solar power company has been averted.

The Air Force has dropped its objections to a $750 million solar power project near Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada after the company agreed to move the project about a mile and a half from its proposed location.

Nellis commanders had asserted earlier that a concentrated solar power project -- featuring a vast field of mirrors that would direct sunlight to a 600-foot "power tower" and store the heat in a molten-salt facility -- might interfere with training and radar. The company, SolarReserve, which had already moved the location once, pressed for permission to build on two square miles near the base in the Nevada desert, where the sun shines brightly virtually all year.

After inquiries from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and the Interior Department and after several months of review by outside scientific experts with top security clearances, the Air Force said the project could move ahead. The Air Force Scientific Advisory Board had decided that "the impact to military operations would be limited to an acceptable level" if the site were moved once again and the proposed solar tower retained its cylindrical shape, said a letter from Lt. Gen. Philip M. Breedlove to the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management.

"This isn't an about-face. It's just taken us longer than some people would have hoped for," said Col. Howard D. Belote, installation commander at Nellis.

Reid had written in March to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates saying, "I appreciate the need for exercising caution in making decisions that could affect military training and testing activities." But, he added, "At the same time, I am very concerned by the Department's inattention to developing mitigation strategies that provide for the safe development of renewable energy facilities."

The project is designed to be a showcase for SolarReserve. "There was a lot of heavy lifting at the Department of Interior and Senator Reid's office," said Terry Murphy, president of the Los Angeles-based company. "We always said that if there were any impact to the base, we'd try to figure out a mitigation plan. We had been trying to find a sweet spot behind the mountains."

Now a spot has been found, though when the project moves ahead depends on nailing down financing and obtaining additional permits from the Federal Aviation Administration and Interior.

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