Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is pushing ahead on a massive solar project designed to lower its long-term energy costs, one that happens to be backed by a company that conservatives have deemed “Solyndra 2.0.”
The U.S. Navy last week broke ground a gigantic 13.8 megawatt solar power installation at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California as part of a broad strategic program to transition U.S. military facilities out of dependence on both domestic and foreign sources of oil.
The project is noteworthy because it’s the first time a federal agency has financed a solar project through a 20-year power purchase agreement, and because Republican lawmakers targeted the company during the Solyndra investigation.
Power purchase agreements are becoming a routine way to finance solar installations with no money down. The property owner pays only for the electricity used on site, at a lower rate than conventional energy. In some cases the installer, or its partners, can generate additional income by selling excess electricity back to the grid.
The Navy expects to save about $13 million over the 20-year life of the contract, significantly more than it would save on a standard ten-year contract.
But the company its chosen to partner with has come under the crosshairs of conservatives online and Republicans in Congress.
SunPower Corp. was branded “Solyndra 2.0” by conservative writers in the Fall of 2011, based on the facts that the company received a $1.2 billion loan guarantee from the Department of Energy for a project in California, had debt totaling 80 percent of its market value, and that the company was represented by the son of Rep. George Miller (D-CA), who writers admitted had no proven connection to the Energy Department’s decision to grant the loan guarantee.
Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which spearheaded the Republicans’ investigation into the Solyndra bankruptcy, both sought documents from the Energy Department on its loan guarantees to SunPower.
This was around the same time that Republican-led hearings into Solyndra failed to reveal evidence of political favoritism or other misdoings over Solyndra’s $535 million federal loan guarantee, so the conservative media was looking around for other examples of Obama’s green jobs initiative gone awry.
However, the SunPower issue gained even less traction than Solyndra — no hearings were held into SunPower specifically, although the team at Fox News was up in arms about it — and it appears to have dropped from the conservative radar, at least for now.
It’s also worth noting that the groundbreaking at China Lake coincided with last week’s Army Net Zero Energy Installations Conference in Chicago, which highlighted the Army’s progress toward transitioning out of oil dependency.
The Army’s Net Zero “vision” literally calls for Army facilities to be able to operate using energy generated on site in case of outside power disruptions, which effectively promotes the installation of renewable energy sources on site including solar, wind and geothermal.
In addition to improving domestic energy security by reducing fossil fuel use at home bases, the Department of Defense is also engaged in a “hard push” to reduce battlefield risks by cutting down on its use of fossil fuels overseas. In a recent American Forces Press Service article, Oliver Fritz of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, explained the connection between a smaller carbon footprint and troop safety:
“Historically, energy has been a decisive factor in warfighting, … most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, where you see fuel not only being needed in increasing quantities, but being moved over a battlefield without front lines… [renewable energy] technologies are cleaner and do have a lower carbon footprint, and in a way, that carbon footprint is a metaphor for some of the logistics risks that we’re trying to reduce.”
Putting that concept into action, the Navy and Marine Corps have been integrating renewable energy and other new energy strategies into an experimental forward operating base in Afghanistan. As described by the Marines, “our priority is to save lives by reducing the number of Marines at risk on the road hauling fuel and water.”
Against this backdrop, House Republicans’ efforts to gain approval for the Keystone XL Pipeline appear to be directly at odds with the Pentagon’s long term strategy for energy security.
More to the point, Republicans seem to be running into their own circular logic.
Before Wednesday morning’s hearing on the North American Energy Access Act, which would take the Keystone XL approval process out of the President’s hands, a key witness, Mike Linder of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, was pulled by Republican committee members at the last minute over a scheduling dispute, The Hill reported.
Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, didn’t mince words in her written testimony, though.
After detailing the review process undertaken prior to a sixty-day deadline imposed by Republicans in Congress late last year, Jones stated:
“We decided — based not on the merits but on the inadequate time period and incomplete review — to recommend that the President deny the permit. Last week the President concurred with our recommendation that the Keystone XL project would not serve the national interest at this time.”
Jones also takes House Republicans to task over the North American Energy Access Act:
“This new legislation… imposes narrow time constraints and creates automatic mandates that prevent an informed decision. The legislation raises serious questions about existing legal authorities, questions the continuing force of much of the federal and all of the state and local environmental and land use management authority over the pipeline, and overrides foreign policy and national security considerations implicated by a cross border permit, which are properly assessed by the State Department.”
Given these obstacles, it seems likely that today’s hearing was another show designed to put President Obama on the spot over job creation and energy policy.
While that is what it is, House Republicans may be inadvertently setting themselves up for a fight against the armed services in the longer-term.
The Navy’s China Lake installation and the Army’s Net Zero initiative are only the first few programs in a long string of renewable energy projects that the Department of Defense is rolling out this year, highlighted by the deployment of an entire “Green Strike Force” for the Navy’s participation in the Rim of the Pacific international maritime exercise this summer.