Defense Spotlight: Nellis AFB Leads by Example in Solar Energy

The Nellis Air Force Base, named after the distinguished WWII lieutenant, lies at the outskirts of Las Vegas, in the arid expanse of the Nevada desert. The base officially opened in 1941 after the arrival of the first unit—the 79-th Air Base Group. Today, over 12,000 employees work at the base’s various facilities, which cover over 14,000 acres.

In early 2007, construction began on Nellis I, a 14.2-megawatt, 70,000-panel photovoltaic solar array. Nellis I became operational in December 2007, and reduced the base’s carbon dioxide emissions by 24,000 tons a year.

At the time of its construction, Nellis I was the largest solar array in the United States. The savings that the solar array provides the Nellis Air Force Base totals over $1 million a year in reduced energy costs, and the array powers 25 percent of the base with renewable energy.

That’s a huge dent in Nellis’ operating expenses, and the entire solar project was completed without any federal dollars changing hands.

The construction of Nellis’ solar array was the culmination of a private-public partnership, which was made possible by Nevada’s renewable energy credits program. Under the partnership, construction of the array was handled by SunPower, a private solar power company. MMA Renewable Ventures actually owns and operates the solar array on Nellis land, and Nellis holds a contract to buy the generated electricity from MMA at a guaranteed fixed rate for 20 years.

The partnership between private and public entities provides a powerful example for how renewable energy projects can be implemented on a wider scale using this same method.

In 2015, Nellis made history again with the construction of Nellis II —the base’s second solar array and the largest solar array ever under the Department of Defense. Built in a similar manner as the base’s first solar project, Nellis II was constructed by SunPower and is owned and operated by NV Energy, the state utility of Nevada.

Nellis II comes with a 31-year lease agreement, in which NV Energy sells the electricity generated by the solar array to Nellis AFB at current tariff rates. Any additional energy will go to the outside grid to be used by other Nevada consumers.

“Nellis II is a great opportunity for us to partner with the Air Force base and at the same time benefit our other customers,” said Stacey Kusters, the vice president of Renewable Energy and Origination at NV Energy. “Because the array is situated on the installation, Nellis gains an energy security component. And, because any extra electricity generated by the system will flow to the grid, the surrounding community benefits as well. So, what’s good for Nellis is good for all our customers.”

Witnessing our military leaders exercise strategic foresight by adopting independent, renewable power sources is truly inspirational. Check out our defense spotlight series for more stories on our military leading the charge for energy reformation in the United States.

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