The Air Force is building the largest solar power plant in North America and will soon provide electricity to an Air Force base in the Nevada desert, USA Today reports.
The project is proof positive that solar will work provide a sizable chunk of the nation's energy needs.
"It allows the Air Force to show its leadership in applying renewable energy and new technology to reduce our needs to use traditional forms of electric power," says Maj. Don Ohlemacher, operations flight chief and acting commander of the 99th Civil Engineer Squadron at the base.
But solar still is a problematic energy source, mostly because of the expense of panels.
"The industry has some problems to solve," says Paula Mints, associate director and photovoltaic specialist with Navigant Consulting of Palo Alto, Calif. "Solar energy has been around 30 years and is still a start-up industry."
With 140 acres dedicated to a massive photovoltaic array, the solar plant will produce 15 megawatts of power, about 30% of Nellis AFB's needs. Projected savings in energy costs: $1 million. But even the Air Force requires multimillion-dollar financial subsidies and incentives to build the plant, recover investment costs and produce electricity at a savings.
"This is possible because of state and federal incentives. Without those, prices wouldn't be competitive," Daniel Tomlinson, editor of a solar newsletter for Navigant Consulting, says of the project.
The Nellis installation will only serve as a daytime energy source. It will not have battery storage capacity and thus will be useful as a power supplement but not a primary generating source.
"A lot of people are focusing on these large fields as a way to bring down the price of solar," Mints says. "They certainly have their place in the energy portfolio, but there are a lot of other technologies out there."