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Sun power: Army unveils giant solar project

The Fort Irwin base in the Mojave Desert will get 500 megawatts of solar power in a phased project using both photovoltaics and solar concentrators.

Acciona solar thermal plant in Nevada.

The U.S. Army on Friday detailed what it expects to be the Department of Defense's largest solar energy project--a 500-megawatt installation at the Fort Irwin base in the Mojave Desert in California.

The solar power will be generated by both photovoltaic panels and solar concentrators, which make heat that is converted into electricity through a turbine. The equipment will be installed in phases, according to Clark Energy Group, which was chosen along with Acciona Solar Power to do the installation. By comparison, the generating capacity of a natural gas or coal power plant could be between 600 megawatts and 800 megawatts.

Ultimately, the base's solar power plant could supply 1,250 gigawatt hours per year at Fort Irwin, which among other things has facilities for training and for communicating with NASA missions. The average U.S. home consumes about 11,000 kilowatt-hours per year so the full Army installation could power well over 100,000 homes.

The location of the base in the high Mojave Desert, midway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, is ideal for solar generation, both of the photovoltaic and concentrating kind. There are a number of large solar installations at military camps which have available land and a well understood electrical load.

The Fort Irwin project is the first step in what the Army calls a far-reaching strategy to make energy supply of military installations more secure. The Army is spending over $1 billion on energy projects, including almost $700 million in stimulus funds. It did not say how much the Fort Irwin project itself would cost.

The Army earlier this year began reporting its "carbon bootprint," and military experts often cite the importance of alternative energy to the security of military installations and personnel.