Enlisting the Sun: A Solar Powered Military in the 21st Century

This blog was written by Jennifer Rennicks, former Senior Director of Policy & Communications at the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

Guest Blog | May 24, 2013 | Energy Policy, Solar

With Memorial Day celebrations in full swing, it seems a good time to highlight some rather sunny developments for our nation’s military. A new report from the Solar Energy Industries Association – Enlisting the Sun: Powering the U.S. Military with Solar Energy  – shows how solar energy is playing a critical role in making the armed force’s energy supply more secure, distributed, affordable and less reliant on foreign sources.

As one of the world’s largest energy consumers, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has good reason to turn to reliable and affordable renewable energy sources to power its military operations. As DOD budgets decline in the wake of the federal sequester, solar installations can help rein in the military’s vast energy bill.  Estimates are that DOD spends $20 billion annually on energy, so investments in solar that have ‘fixed’ energy costs given the free source of fuel will yield savings over the life of the panels. In recent years, the DOD has committed to meeting 25% of its energy needs with renewable energy by 2025; the Navy, Army and Air Force are implementing aggressive plans to achieve these goals.

From solar-powered water purification systems (pictured above) to solar-powered security systems and from solar-powered tent camps in Afghanistan to solar-powered homes on bases throughout this country, there are abundant examples of increased solar investment by the military in recent years. This encourages technology innovation, helps lower electricity costs, reduces carbon pollution, and enhances energy security.

But do you know another – perhaps more compelling – reason that the U.S. military is increasingly investing in solar for military operations?  Renewable energy is, quite literally, saving lives: “Our generators typically use more than 20 gallons of fuel a day. [With solar] we are down to 2.5 gallons a day,” according to Sgt. David Doty, stationed in Afghanistan. “The system works amazing. By saving fuel for generators, it has cut back on the number of convoys, meaning fewer opportunities for one of our vehicles to hit an IED (improvised explosive device).”

Here in the United States, as of early 2013, there are more than 130 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic (PV) energy systems powering Navy, Army and Air Force bases in at least 31 states and the District of Columbia – including installations in all Southeastern states. Combined, these installations provide enough clean energy to power 22,000 American homes. Currently, the world’s largest low-concentration solar power array (4.1 MW) is located on a military base: the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

The best news of all when it comes to military investments in solar? The benefits don’t just stop on the bases or in field camps. Continued solar investment and deployment by our military will drive continued market evolution in solar technology making more affordable, reliable and clean energy available to us all.  However you decide to celebrate this holiday weekend, know that the military’s future – and thus our collective future – is looking a bit sunnier!

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