Fort Carson adds solar panels to power 615 homes 

click to enlarge Balfour Beatty has installed solar unit at the Army post. - COUETESY FORT CARSON
  • Couetesy Fort Carson
  • Balfour Beatty has installed solar unit at the Army post.

Hundreds of rooftop solar panels are going up on Fort Carson's base housing that will help the post reach its goal to obtain 25 percent of its energy needs with renewables by 2025.

The panels will provide the equivalent of 3 megawatts of power, adding to the post's two solar arrays that total 5 megawatts and were installed in the past eight years. The solar panels will generate power for the equivalent of 615 homes and comprise one of many such projects in the works at military bases across the country.

As a long-term partner with the Army, Balfour Beatty Communities operates all family housing on Fort Carson. The company, part of London-based Balfour Beatty, is partnering with solar-power giant SolarCity — co-founded and chaired by Tesla's Elon Musk, cousin to owners Peter and Lyndon Rive.

The panels at Fort Carson will sit atop roughly a fifth of the post's 3,247 housing units, as well as two maintenance buildings.

SolarCity is funding the project, including hardware and labor, says Vince Guthrie, utility program manager at Fort Carson. The post then pays SolarCity for the power the panels generate, he says, and Balfour Beatty will receive a credit on its housing utility bill for the amount of energy generated and integrated onto the post's power grid from the solar panels.

Residents' electric bills won't change, says Steve McIntire, Balfour Beatty's project director for Fort Carson family housing. "The benefit of this project is, it helps our partnership with the Army by contributing to their Net Zero initiative," McIntire says. "It levels out the cost of our utilities over a long period of time." In other words, the cost of solar power doesn't fluctuate as natural gas does in response to supply and demand and market conditions.

"The more diversified we get, the less risk there is," says Guthrie.

Balfour Beatty has 57 housing projects across the military that are either approved or are being considered for solar power, says Carson spokesperson Dani Johnson.

Three years ago, SolarCity teamed with Fort Bliss in El Paso and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico on a project rated at 13.2 megawatts, which powers 4,700 military homes. It was the largest phase of the company's SolarStrong, a five-year plan to build more than $1 billion in solar projects for up to 120,000 military homes throughout the country.

The military's Net Zero initiative strives to have installations produce as much energy as they use in a year's time. Among the specific steps to attain Net Zero is using renewables for 25 percent of a post's power needs by 2025, Guthrie says.

"We all realize our energy has environmental implications [and] contributes to climate change," Guthrie says.

At present, 8 percent to 10 percent of the Mountain Post's power comes from renewables. The SolarCity project, which got underway in November and is to be completed by March, will increase renewables usage by 2.5 percent, Guthrie says.

He notes the recent decision by Congress to extend solar tax credits for five years beyond 2016, when it was set to expire, helps make solar economically feasible. The bill includes language introduced by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, to allow projects to take the credit as soon as they have "commenced construction."

"Any project that starts construction before January 1, 2022 and is completed before January 1, 2024 will be eligible to receive the credit," Bennet's office says in a release.

Because of the extension, Carson wants to add another 5 to 7 megawatts, Guthrie says. "It's looking fairly promising in terms of economics and Army support," he says.

The SolarCity rooftop project's solar renewable energy credits will be purchased by Colorado Springs Utilities for about $1.1 million over the 20-year solar renewable energy credit agreement. These credits will help Utilities reach its 20 percent renewable energy goal by 2020 as directed in its Energy Vision, says Utilities spokeswoman Amy Trinidad.

The Utilities Board, comprised of City Council, also recently agreed to pay $253,000 over 25 years to the Air Force Academy and SunPower, of San Jose, Calif., to acquire the renewable energy credits from the 5.2-megawatt solar array on USAFA property.

In addition, Utilities is partnering with NEXTera Energy of Juno Beach, Fla., to enter into a 25-year solar purchase power agreement for roughly $37.6 million, which includes annual operations and maintenance costs over the term. The 10-megawatt solar array will be built on Utilities' Clear Spring Ranch south of Colorado Springs.

"This array will help diversify the community's energy supply and provides long-term compliance with the 10 percent renewable energy requirement as stated in the Colorado Renewable Energy Standard," Utilities said in a release in August.

NEXTera Energy is building the array, to be completed by the end of 2016.

But Guthrie says one of the cheapest ways to reduce the carbon footprint isn't through new construction but rather energy conservation. Toward that end, McIntire notes, Balfour Beatty has demolished 144 older housing units on the post and will replace them with energy efficient construction.

"They will be some of the highest performing energy homes in the Army," he says. Demolition began in August and the new homes will be ready for occupancy in November.

"As we build new projects," McIntire says, "we want them to be as efficient as possible. It's good stewardship from our perspective."

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