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How Solar is Powering our Armed Forces and Economy

The Davis-Monthan Air Force Base's new solar plant, the largest of its kind on any U.S. Department of Defense installation, showcases President Obama's commitment to addressing climate change.

Editor's Note: This blog introduces readers to Bob Powell, President of SunEdison North America.

As part of President Obama’s commitment to addressing climate change, he has made it a priority to help America’s armed forces double-down on renewable energy and increase federal renewable energy purchases.    In 2012, the Department of Defense announced a goal to deploy three gigawatts of renewable power and meet 25% of its energy needs with renewable energy by 2025.  In December 2013, President Obama called for the government to triple renewable energy use in federal facilities, to 20% by 2020.  These goals are achievable, in part because solar is now close to parity with retail electric rates and wholesale competition from fossil fuels in many states without incentives.   

The Air Force is the largest consumer of energy in the federal government, spending more than $9 billion annually on fuel and electricity.  A prime example of the Air Force and U.S. military’s solar leadership, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base is a 16.4 MW photovoltaic (PV) solar facility in Tucson Arizona that began operation in January 2014 and is the largest of its kind on any U.S. Department of Defense installation.   Davis-Monthan’s solar plant was built in just five months thanks to up to 150 Americans “pounding in place” solar panels.  Moreover, the project will use almost zero water to generate power, which is important to a state facing severe drought. 

Solar is not only an energy cost hedge against future electric cost increases and a water saver, but also a jobs winner for America, creating well-paid, highly-skilled jobs here at home that cannot be outsourced.  Solar is the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in America, pumping billions of dollars into the U.S. economy.   Back in 2008, President Obama had the vision to encourage U.S. solar energy just as the global economy was plunging into recession.  According to the Solar Energy Industries Association and The Solar Foundation, solar jobs have increased from about 24,000 in 2007 to an astounding 143,000 Americans working in the U.S. solar industry today, and a projected 165,000 jobs by the next State of the Union.

Having come from a utility, I know how important it is that these solar energy projects demonstrate real cost savings for the public.  SunEdison was the first to introduce the solar power purchase agreement, now the leading business model in the industry and a smart new finance tool that enables our public agencies to more cost-efficiently procure energy by leveraging private sector tax options.   This new Davis-Monthan solar project will provide approximately 35 percent of the Base’s electricity requirements at an economically beneficial rate for 25 years, reducing the Base’s utility costs by an average of $500,000 annually. 

Leveraging private-public partnerships through long-term power purchase agreements for solar is novel for federal agencies, and federal facilities require particularly strong partnerships to succeed.  The Air Force should be commended for its bold leadership in using this type of solar financing that is providing real savings and value to the government and to taxpayers.

SunEdison is proud to partner with the Obama Administration to keep expanding America’s solar leadership, enabling U.S. energy independence while putting Americans to work every day.  Our company, headquartered in Belmont, California, is a leading American provider of solar from silicon to electrons, with manufacturing in Pasadena, Texas; Portland, Oregon; and St. Peters, Missouri.  We and our partners will keep working to make a safer, more stable world, with renewable sources of energy, as the President urged in the State of the Union.  2014 will be another year of action, helping more Americans turn to solar to go to work, save money, help meet their energy needs, and improve our environment.

Bob Powell is President of SunEdison North America.