22 December 2012

Largest Solar Farm in Virginia

By Scott Harper
The Virginian-Pilot
© December 4, 2012

The Navy has completed construction of the largest solar energy project in Virginia, a 10-acre landscape of black solar panels in neat rows within sight of the Chesapeake Bay and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

The solar farm contains more than 8,600 panels, each bolted onto steel stilts in a marshy field called Monkey Bottom, just outside the fenceline of Norfolk Naval Station. Together, they can generate up to 2.1 megawatts of electricity - enough to power 200 homes, said Michelle Perry, project manager for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

That's only about 2 percent of the electricity required to run the Norfolk Navy base, the largest of its kind in the world, "but you have to start somewhere," Perry said.

Although construction was finished late last month, the photovoltaic panels are not yet connected to the electricity grid that feeds the base. The connection is expected by Christmas, Perry said, allowing the base to start using the renewable energy and not have to pay Dominion Virginia Power for it.

"It's an absolutely amazing sight," Perry said Tuesday, as she and colleagues looked at the farm from a small sand hill. One colleague, Tom Kreidel, said the facility is the largest solar project at any Navy base on the East Coast, outsized only by ones in Western states where solar energy is more common.

The project cost $21 million and was part of President Barack Obama's stimulus package. According to Pentagon figures, the government allocated more than $335 million in stimulus money for renewable-power projects at bases - a move intended to speed the military's conversion from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, and to advance green technology.

Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, signed executive orders for the Department of Defense to pursue alternative energy. One mandate calls for each base to be using renewable sources for 50 percent of its power by 2020.

The solar project will help the Norfolk Navy base meet this requirement, said Paula Teague, an energy management specialist with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

No other solar-panel projects are in the pipeline at Navy bases in Hampton Roads, Teague said - though if the Monkey Bottom facility does well, the Navy might be inclined to seek money for more.

The project comes as Virginia is struggling to keep pace with neighboring states in developing large-scale solar energy.

Monkey Bottom is "by far the biggest project in the state right now," said Ken Jurman, who tracks such facilities for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Jurman said the closest competitors can be found at an Ikea department store in Northern Virginia and at Washington and Lee University in Lexington. There, the school installed solar panels on a parking garage and atop a main campus building.

Those projects, he added, are each about a quarter of the size of the Navy's.

Jurman said North Carolina and Maryland are seeing major solar projects advance while Virginia remains near the starting gate.

The Pentagon's investments in clean energy have not been without controversy. House Republicans, especially, have questioned the efficiency and wisdom of spending so much money on noncombat programs during times of foreign wars.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon's inspector general has been watching how stimulus money has been spent over the past three years. Among many critical reports nationally, one issued last year found fault at Norfolk Naval Station and its handling of $1 million in solar and lighting upgrades.

Under Pentagon guidelines, the work was supposed to save enough money through lower utility bills and other discounts to make the investment worth it. But the report found that it would take 447 years for the Navy to make back its money because the savings are so scant.

Despite the criticism, an undersecretary of defense did not halt the work, as the inspector general recommended, arguing that it still was in the best interest of the Navy to finish the project.

There was no mention of Monkey Bottom and its expected performance in the report.

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