On January 16th, the Army completed work on the world’s largest low-concentration solar photovoltaic (LCPV) system to date at the White Sands Missile Range (WSMR). This investment is part of the military’s plan to address the security threat of our dependence on traditional sources of energy.
WSMR, in southern New Mexico, is a large base which engages in “long-range open-air developmental, operational, and environmental testing; training support; live fire support; and other defense services”. In a March 2012 strategic report on how to mold White Sands for the future, it named environmental sustainability as an important strategic goal. Confronting criticism that WSMR is as an expensive facility, it laid out the rationale for investing in clean energy and also talked about how they can be better at space efficiency, waste disposal, and hazardous material usage. Solar power takes a central place among their clean energy initiatives.
The U.S. Army teamed up with private industry to develop the 4.1 megawatt LCPV system at a cost of $16.8 billion. It covers 42 acres, uses almost 15,500 panels, and expects to supply 10% of the installation’s energy demand, with estimated annual cost savings of $930,000.
The LCPV technology being used here is different from high-concentration photovoltaic (HCPV) technology in that LCPV uses less expensive solar cells which do not concentrate the sun’s rays as powerfully as HCPV’s do. To make up for that, Solaria, which provided the solar modules, found ways to make the technology more efficient. They reduced the amount of silicon cells by reshaping them into thin strips. The glass that covers the panels was modified to be stronger and wavy so that the sun focuses better on the cells beneath. These things represent real benefits to the industry – a 60% decrease in the amount of costly silicon cells, while the strength of the glass provides a 10% reduction in costs. Taken together, these efficiency measures translate to production costs that are 10-15% lower than other similar systems.
The Army’s investment in solar technology at WSMR represents another step in the right direction for the U.S. military’s energy policy. It has professed a desire to achieve energy security through investment in renewable energies through programs like the Net Zero Initiative and investments in solar technology and electric vehicles (EVs). ASP has pointed out the extent of the military’s exposure to the effects of price shocks and how over-reliance can cause the military to be financially burdensome and unable to respond to threats. This is why looking to renewable sources of energy to diversify our supply is an economically, politically, and militarily sound strategy to secure our energy security.