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News > AFA solar array saves taxpayers $802,000 in first year
AFA solar array saves taxpayers $802,000 in first year
The Air Force Academy's solar array, pictured here May 13, 2011, occupies 41 acres of land on the Academy's southeast corner, adjacent to Interstate 25. The array, which comprises 18,888 solar panels, produced 12.5 million kilowatt-hours of power since it was activated July 1, 2011. (U.S. Air Force photo)
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AFA solar array saves taxpayers $802,000 in first year

Posted 9/10/2012   Updated 9/10/2012 Email story   Print story


by Amber Baillie
Academy Spirit staff writer

9/10/2012 - U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- After a year of operation, the data is in. The Academy has received roughly seven and half percent more power than anticipated from the 6-megawatt solar array project that began production last summer.

A total of 18,888 solar panels were installed along 41 acres on the Academy's southeast corner and began operation for renewable energy on July 1, 2011. Since then, the project has provided the Academy 12.5 million kilowatt hours in power when it was originally estimated to provide only 11.6 million kilowatt hours in power.

"The project is finished and now we're reaping the benefits from it," said Russell Hume, a mechanical engineer with the Academy's Directorate of Installations. "We're making sure it produces within a reasonable measure of what we anticipated and we're above what we predicted, so that's good news."

The $18.3-million project was awarded to Colorado Springs Utilities who subcontracted to SunPower Corp. in August 2009 through funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Also in 2009, the Academy was chosen as the net zero installation for the Air Force, and this project is one way the Academy has strived to meet the energy goals of the Defense Department's Net Zero Energy Installation initiative.

"The panels have produced 12 percent of the Academy's overall electricity needs," Hume said. "As we target net zero, electrical energy is relatively easy to produce, but thermal energy is much more of a challenge. Our thermal load is currently met by natural gas and a renewable replacement fuel source for natural gas is very difficult to find."

In the first year of operation, the Academy has saved $802,000 in avoided power purchases, Hume said.

"We estimated we would only save $550,000 in direct power savings, so the $802,000 is great news," he added.

The array uses Sunpower Corp.'s T0 tracker technology. The panels don't tilt to the south, like many fixed-axis arrays across the country, but rather remain flat and track the sun as it moves from east to west.

"The panels sit on top of long square tubes connected to motors that draw power directly from the panels and rotate the panels throughout the day. The degree of rotation is based on the normal weather cycle and where the sun should be based on astronomy."

Hume said the main driver of the project has been to save money and allow the Academy to refocus the money spent on utilities toward the direct mission, instead of mission support.

"In these fiscally austere times, we need to focus our resources on the mission. So being green is great, but saving money is equally important" Hume said. "The great thing with energy, and projects like the array, is that it crosses operational and educational boundaries. I have been able to work closely with the Dean of Faculty and other staff to get cadets involved by showing them the solar array site. We want to expose cadets to solar energy so they can take it forward in their Air Force careers and apply it where necessary."

Hume said the Academy continues to take steps in the net zero initiative to meet the Air Force's desire to save on energy costs and meet legislative mandates.

Executive Order 13514 requires that all new federal buildings must be designed to achieve zero net energy by 2030 and after 2030, every building we create is supposed to be net zero, Hume said. Also, beginning in 2025 the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 requires the Academy to either produce or purchase renewable energy totaling 25 percent of its total energy per year.

The economic life of the array is 30 years, Hume said.

"We're one down and have 29 more to go," Hume said. "At this point, everything is looking good."

7/10/2013 8:22:28 AM ET
Love how people even think to complain about this after clamoring for the suckhole that is the F-22.
Mike, New York New York
3/13/2013 9:21:21 AM ET
What happens when this array gets trashed by a hail storm Broken windows and hail dings were fairly regular occurances in the cadet parking lots when I was there.
Ben, Illinois
2/16/2013 3:37:51 PM ET
We cannot produce better technology if we don't spend money and make a market for that technology. Renewable energy will save us money. We just need to spend it first. The trillions of dollars that we owe could be helped by making a new market on a global scale for renewable energy.
Jordan, Co
9/17/2012 3:58:33 PM ET
22.8 years to recoup the cost if performance were linear. From my reading performance degrades over time so it may take longer to recoup the cost of something that only replaces 12 percent of electricity requirements. Don't get me wrong I would love to see the efficiency and service life of solar cells improve but I have to wonder if the military is being used as a whipping boy for an administration that has effectively shut down drilling in the Gulf stopped the Keystone pipeline and is trying to kill the coal industry all in the name of political correctness.
Jim, NC
9/14/2012 12:10:06 PM ET
@Mike - Do you get paid in environment or dollars?
TJH, Shaw
9/14/2012 9:02:26 AM ET
@Mike- Stop putting all your concerns into dollars Please tell me you're donating your own money to these projects. Last I checked our gov is $16 trillion in the hole.
NothingIsForFree, here
9/13/2012 8:50:38 AM ET
I think the title of the article is the issue. USAFA may've indeed deferred some utility expenses due to the project...and will probably have their next budget reduced by that much...but to say it's saved taxpayers that amount isn't accurate given the taxpayer funding spent to initially put it in place. Say what you want about numbers and the environment but return on investment is Economics 101.
9/12/2012 11:02:32 AM ET
Y'all care about the environment This is a great investment. Stop putting all your concerns into dollars. Every house every business should have solar panels andor a wind farm.
Mike, Falcon CO
9/12/2012 7:45:46 AM ET
Numbers don't always tell the truth and 11 doesn't always equal 2. This project is more about an alternative soultion to power and not a current or future years cost. Sure the math above is correct to a point. Rising fuel costs equal a rise in energy costs. The math above does not take into account the cost of electricity in the future years. The US needs to develop ways to reduce our reliance on foreign oilsfuels to ensure our independance. Bottom line you can pay me now or you can pay me later at least the money is not going to the Middle East
Tom, FL
9/12/2012 1:47:46 AM ET
By the way have they stopped the program at the Academy they had when I was there where they'd wake us in the middle of the night drug us and put us to work. If energy is needed they could bring this program back and have cadets ride power generating stationary bicycles or something.
Maj, Home for a change
9/12/2012 1:47:29 AM ET
Not to mention that they only planned on it saving 550000 per year meaning the break-even point would be 33 years 3 years longer than the economic service life. Who made that terrible decision. I'm sure they got a great OPR bullet though.
Maj, Home for a change
9/12/2012 12:35:26 AM ET
Seems like a great idea. Now install them on more buildingshouses for additional savings cost.
Dan, Colorado
9/11/2012 10:09:21 PM ET
@ AllWe have to remember the politically charged environment within which we work reference EO's circa 2006 pertaining to energy reduction. Each MAJCOM is charged with ensuring that its bases carry some of energy reduction responsibility as well as water conservation and footprint reduction. It's my understanding energy projects are considered for funding based on Savings to Investment Ratios and payback period I'd like to see the 1391 for this project and it's overall contribution to the Air Force's energy consumptionintensity reduction goals. That's the true metric.
9/11/2012 3:57:53 PM ET
If the array cost $18 million and saves $800 thousand a year it would take 23 years for the return on investment to kick in. Inflation and maintenance aside there will only be $6 million in savings over the 30-year lift span. Amazing....is it worth the cost?
Fustrated, CONUS
9/11/2012 2:02:38 PM ET
Sunny's math sounds about right except that the array will continue saving about the same amount of money per year after the break-even point. It's a long-term investment but one that will ultimately pay dividends.
Don Branum, US
9/11/2012 12:00:34 PM ET
The title to this article is misleading in stating the panels saved taxpayers $800K. The panels allowed the Academy to avoid $800K in power expenses, but that only came after an $18.3M project funded by taxpayers. Even if you dont take into account the time value of money, taxpayers are at least 23 years from breaking even on this project. If you do assume a modest inflation rate and the fact there will be some type of maintenance associated with these panels, the taxpayers will likely never realize an actual savings. People often complain about the ever-growing DoD budget, but they dont take into account the thousands of green projects DoD wide such as this one that cost taxpayers hundreds of millions. FYI, I realize that initial funding for this project came via the stimulus bill.
Ben, VA
9/11/2012 10:44:20 AM ET
So if my math is correct, at this rate it will only take 22 years to recoupe the $18.3mil. Until then it operates at a loss. Is it really worth it?
Sunny, Earth
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