NAVAL SUBMARINE BASE KINGS BAY, Ga. — The eight Ohio-class submarines berthed here are the biggest in the U.S. fleet, with steel hulls nearly 600 feet long to accommodate up to 24 nuclear missiles. But soon they will share quarters with something far bigger: a field of solar panels so vast that 500 of the gargantuan subs could hide in its shadow.
By late next year, if all goes according to plan, some 136,000 of the glass panels will be installed on an empty corner of the Navy base, 35 miles north of Jacksonville. The solar farm will cover an area the size of 280 football fields. And yet, by the time it’s completed, it will not be the Navy’s largest solar array. It may not even be the military’s biggest solar facility in Georgia.
Kings Bay’s solar panels are only the latest in a series of newly announced solar projects, part of a military-wide renewable-energy binge that has been gaining intensity in recent months. From Florida to California, defense officials are signing contracts with local utilities for huge solar and wind ventures inside military bases or on land nearby.
The Pentagon said it is seeking to generate its own power in part to enhance energy security at a time when traditional electric grids are under the threat of cyberattacks. But because of their sheer size, the projects are unavoidably affecting energy markets elsewhere in the country, driving down costs for renewables and dampening the demand for new power plants that burn natural gas or coal.
“We’re in the middle of a perfect storm — a perfect, positive sunlight storm,” said Dennis McGinn, the Navy’s assistant secretary for energy, installations and environment, who helped break ground for the Kings Bay project on an overcast morning last week. “We look forward to doing a lot more of these.”
How many more? The Kings Bay solar farm is the fourth such project announced for military bases in Georgia alone, with others already under construction at three of the state’s Army bases. All four will be built and operated by the local utility, Georgia Power, and will collectively generate 120 megawatts of solar power, as much as a medium-size coal-fired power plant.
Last month, the Navy signed a deal to build a much larger solar farm in the Arizona desert, a mammoth, 210-megawatt project whose 650,000 photovoltaic panels will generate a third of the electricity used by 14 Navy and Marine Corps bases in the western United States. Nationwide, the Navy alone is on track to produce more than a gigawatt of electricity — 1,000 megawatts — by the year 2020, enough to supply half of the electricity for all its domestic military bases. The size of the purchase orders have spurred competition among solar vendors and driven down the costs of equipment, industry officials said.
The solar surge comes as states are grappling with how to comply with controversial new mandates to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. The Clean Power Plan regulations adopted by the Environmental Protection Agency last month requires states to cut back on pollutants from power plants beginning in 2022, with incentives to replace coal-burning with renewables such as solar and wind.
The Pentagon’s emphasis on solar predates the regulations — Congress passed a law in 2009 ordering the Defense Department to shift to cleaner forms of energy — but the military’s investment in renewables could make it easier for some states to comply with the rule, energy experts said. Under the Clean Power Plan, states face widely varying requirements to cut carbon emissions, from as little as 7 percent for Connecticut to a maximum of 48 percent for South Dakota.
“If the Army, Navy and Air Force met their combined announced goals of renewable energy capacity, the Defense Department could meet South Dakota’s challenging emissions reduction requirements nearly one and a half times over,” said Matt Stanberry, vice president for market development at Advanced Energy Economy, a nonprofit association made up of companies involved in clean-energy technologies.
Because the EPA’s plan encourages the trading of credits for pollution reduction across state lines, the beneficiaries of the Pentagon’s solar projects could include states far from where the solar farms are being built. “It is very difficult to say at this point that one state is necessarily advantaged over another based on where the Pentagon is making its investments,” Stanberry said.
Despite heavy opposition to the Clean Power Plan by many states and electricity providers, utility companies are embracing the Pentagon’s solar projects for their own reasons. Georgia Power, a Southern Co. subsidiary and the company behind the Kings Bay solar farm, will own and operate the solar panels at all four Defense Department sites in Georgia. Sister companies signed deals over the summer to build large solar arrays at military bases in Florida and Mississippi, which, as with Georgia, have Republican governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
While the battle over the EPA’s regulations rage in Congress and in the courts, Georgia Power is investing in renewable energy because it makes economic sense to do so, company chief executive Paul Bowers said. Southern Co., which once derived 70 percent of its electricity from coal, is in the middle of a major expansion of its wind- and solar-power portfolio and now uses coal for only 30 percent of the power it generates. This past week, the company inaugurated one of the country’s largest battery-storage research projects where solar-generated power can be stashed away for use when the sun is not shining.
“We’re delivering facts — actionable things,” Bowers said in an interview. “Doing these types of renewable projects, and doing research on clean coal — these are tangible examples of things that will help us respond to any kinds of constraints on carbon emissions in this country. Whatever the targets might be, we’re taking action to move down that path.”
For the Pentagon, the motivations are more complex. In addition to the congressional mandate, the Defense Department is responding to two emerging threats to its operations around the world: cyberterrorism and climate change. Multiple internal studies have documented the military’s vulnerability to disruptions to the power supply as well as long-term impacts from global warming.
“We describe it as a threat multiplier in many parts of the world,” McGinn said of the climate challenge. “There are crises that occur across economic and political lines, and they are going to be exacerbated by increased pressure from weather events. We want to do our part to mitigate some of those effects, while also recognizing that we can’t avoid all of them.”
While going solar will probably yield substantial cost-savings in the long run — the Arizona project alone is expected to save up to $400 million on the Navy’s power bills over the next 25 years — McGinn said that the Navy was willing to pay a premium for the other benefits that solar and wind power would bring.
“We’ve got a culture that is recognizing more and more the value of renewable energy,” he said, “and how a diversity of sources of power will stand you in good stead when times are great and when they’re not so great.”