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 subs could hide in its shadow.
By late next year, if all goes according to plan, 136,000 of the glass panels will be installed on an empty corner of the Navy base, 35 miles north of Jacksonville, Fla. And yet, by the time it's completed, it will not be the Navy's largest solar array. It might 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 cyberattack. 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 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. "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 under construction at three of the state's Army bases. All four will be built and operated by 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 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 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.
"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 made up of companies involved in clean-energy technologies.
In addition to a congressional mandate, the Defense Department is responding to two emerging threats to its operations around the world: cyberterrorism and climate change. Internal studies have documented the military's vulnerability to disruptions to the power supply as well as long-term impacts from global warming.
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."