By George Lobsenz

In the largest solar power initiative every undertaken by the Pentagon–and one of the largest in the nation–the Army yesterday launched a 13-year, $2 billion project to build 500 megawatts of solar generation across 21 square miles of Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert.

The project, which will deploy multiple solar technologies, will be carried out by Acciona Solar Power, the Spanish solar giant, and Clark Energy Group, which already holds an Energy Department energy-savings performance contract under which it provides money and expertise to federal agencies to improve energy efficiency and security at their facilities in return for a slice of the energy savings achieved.

Acciona and Clark will implement the Fort Irwin project under another innovative federal contracting mechanism–called an enhanced use lease (EUL)–in which the companies will fund, build and operate the solar facilities in exchange for long-term leases of Army land.

The scope of the project far exceeds the power needs of Fort Irwin–which uses only 28 MW during its peak power consumption month of August–meaning Acciona and Clark will have the opportunity to sell surplus power to California’s grid, which would help the state meet its aggressive renewable portfolio standard of getting 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

While the project currently is slated to generate 500 MW, Acciona and Clark say it could be expanded to 1,000 MW if there is sufficient demand and transmission line capacity.

The Fort Irwin initiative is part of the Army’s larger Energy Security Implementation Strategy, under which it plans to spend more than $1 billion on energy security projects this year, including nearly $700 million in economic stimulus funds.

"The Fort Irwin Solar EUL is an important component of the Department of the Army’s goal to implement bold energy initiatives that lessen dependence on foreign sources of fuel and enhance stewardship of the nation’s energy resources," said Jerry Hansen, the Army’s senior energy executive and the acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations and the environment.

"With the start of this project, the Army is demonstrating how creative thinking will make it possible to achieve critical national priorities without increasing government spending." said Francis Coen, managing director of Clark Energy Group. "Our partnership with the Army will address energy security vulnerabilities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help the Army to achieve numerous energy-related goals, and create local green jobs. And it will do all of this without costing taxpayers a dime."

Acciona brings extensive experience with utility-scale solar projects. It operates the nation’s second largest concentrating solar power (CSP) plant at Nevada Solar One, a 64 MW facility near Boulder City, Nev., and one of the world’s largest solar photovoltaic plants in Amareleja, Portugal, a 46 MW facility.

The two companies signed a memorandum of agreement to negotiate a EUL that will call for phased development between 2013 and 2022, with the goal of carrying out the project beg.

Over the next 90 days, Clark and Acciona Solar Power will begin environmental impact studies and reviews in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act.

The review and compliance phase could take up to two years, and the companies also will have to abide by California regulations, according to Army officials.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Interior Department to work together to speed the review, approval and permitting of renewable energy projects in California. The agreement also calls for the identification of transmission corridors by December 2010 and includes the Department of Defense (DoD) in the process because some transmission lines may need to cross DoD lands.

The Fort Irwin project joins a number of other monster solar plants planned in the Mojave Desert, including hundreds of megawatts planned by BrightSource Energy, another CSP developer.

Fort Irwin is located approximately 37 miles northeast of Barstow, Calif., midway between Las Vegas, Nev., and Los Angeles. It is home to the National Training Center, the only instrumented training facility in the world that is suitable for force-on-force and live fire training of heavy brigade-sized military forces.

Fort Irwin also includes NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex, one of three facilities in the world that, together, provide an international network of antennas to track and communicate with space missions.