Photovoltaic plant seen as major energy first for Navy

NAVAL AIR WEAPONS STATION — City, county and Navy officials joined forces Friday morning in a “Flip the Switch” ceremony to bring the solar power array online at NAWS’ 118-acre photovoltaic plant.

“After years of planning and regulatory hurdles, and nine months of construction, we celebrate completion of a facility capable of producing 13.78 megawatts of renewable energy — enough to power 3,500 homes,” said Rear Adm. Dixon Smith, commander, Navy Region Southwest.

Smith, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations and Environment Roger M. Natsuhara, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest Commanding Officer Capt. Clifford Maurer and SunPower Federal Director Karen Butterfield joined in to help NAWS Commanding Officer Capt. Dennis Lazar officially switch on the array, owned and operated by SunPower Corporation, a third-party investor.

“As a once ‘secret city’ where our nation’s leading scientists worked in relative obscurity on innovation that wins wars and keeps our nation safe, we rarely get the opportunity to publicly showcase China Lake as the right place, developing the right technology at the right time,” said Lazar. “Today, we get that chance.”

This is the first Navy solar power plant to be executed using a power purchase agreement under Title 10 USC 2922a, allowing a defense agency project to be owned and maintained by a third-party investor rather than through federal budgets and requiring no upfront investment from the U.S. Navy.

The agreement allows the Navy to secure electricity at a rate below that available through shorter-duration agreements and should save the Navy up to $13 million during the 20-year span.

Maurer noted that once SunPower got the green light and the contracts were signed, the project was completed in just over 200 days of mishap-free construction.

Keynote speaker Natsuhara emphasized that this milestone represents a huge step for China Lake. He said the array will provide up to 30 percent of the station’s energy needs and up to 70 percent of the summer peak daytime electricity requirements.

“It’s concrete progress toward energy independence and toward the [Navy] Department’s energy goals,” Natsuhara said. “China Lake is a leader in R&D for advanced weapons, so it is only fitting for China Lake to also be an energy leader for the state, for the country and for the Navy. You already have an enormously important geothermal plant, producing up to 270 megawatts, far beyond any other alternative energy source the Department of Defense has. And now you’ll have the second-largest solar array within DoD as well.”

Natsuhara said that while this event is a step forward to reach the goal set by Secretary of the Navy Mabus nearly three years ago – meeting half of the Navy’s energy consumption with alternative sources by 2020 – the Navy still needs an additional 900 to 1,200 megawatts of renewable energy from solar and other sources.

“We continue to make good progress. In 2011 the Department of the Navy tripled the photovoltaic generation from the previous year, going from 5 megawatts to 15 megawatts, and we’re on track to double it again this year,” he said.

“Our goal is for half our bases to be net zero by 2020. China Lake is already there, but this region (Navy Region Southwest) has so much potential. I envision even more solar energy generation over the years to come and more wind energy where it is mission-compatible.”

“When we think about how to continue advancing our military force, the strongest in the world, we’re constantly looking at what we can do better, how we can outthink, outbuild, outlast and outfight our enemies,” the acting assistant secretary said. “We know we are vulnerable because of how we get and use energy.

“Here at China Lake, you know better than anyone that the Navy leads the surge when it comes to better technology for succeeding in our missions. As we move from a culture of consumption to one focused on conservation — we will continue to partner with the best in the energy business and employ the best technologies available to meet our goals.”

“These are challenging times and our commitment to energy conservation and security will continue to be tested,” said Smith. “It’s all hands on deck to stay the course. It’s important work and the right thing to do – for our environment, for our Navy and for our nation.”

Story First Published: 2012-10-24