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    The Army Just Rolled Out the Biggest Low Concentration Solar Plant in the World

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    The most powerful proponent of clean energy in the nation isn't any bleeding heart environmental group or a massive private investor in green tech, but the U.S. military. The Navy is driving major investment in biofuels, the Air Force is backing wind power, and the Army is a vocal champion for solar power. Case in point: At the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, the Army just unveiled a 4.1 megawatt capacity low concentration solar plant--the biggest in the world, and first of its kind here in the U.S.

    Concentrated solar power plants, or CSPs, differ from conventional photovoltaic arrays, in that they reflect and concentrate the sun's rays onto a single point, so that it can be harvested more efficiently. The cells at White Sands are designed to track the sun's movement in the sky, making them 30% more efficient still. The plant will thus generate 10 million kilowatt hours a year, and will eventually save the army $930,000 in annual energy costs. 

    Siemens will build and operate the plant, and solar company Solaria will provide the panels.The Solaria CEO explained the advantages of his company's panels to Forbes:

    Instead of being flat, the glass is slightly wavy (somewhat like the glass a shower stall), which more effectively focuses the light on the underlying solar cells. And secondly the silicon cells are “singulated” into thin strips, and reassembled as cells groups in a robust parallel design. As a consequence, they can reduce the amount of expensive silicon cells by approximately 60%. In addition, the glass is extremely strong, obviating the need for expensive aluminum frames, and reducing costs by another 10%. The Solaria panels thus produce similar power at comparable efficiencies as standard panels while using fewer materials. 

    Those panels, mounted on sun-tracking machinery, will now meet 10% of the army base's demands. Which, at 4 MW-hours, is a lot. And that serves as a fine segue to why the military is so eager to adopt clean energy--it sucks down power faster than Lance Armstrong sucks down dope. It's thought to be the world's largest single consumer of energy, and by far the biggest in the U.S. government.

    It's also interested in solar technology for strategic reasons. The Army is increasingly turning to solar in its deployments, because foregoing bulky generators means foregoing fuel--which means foregoing vulnerable supply trains necessary to keep bases juiced. 

    Of course, clean energy, it seems, is the one area where the otherwise army-loving, more-patriotic-than-thou American right consistently fails to support the military. Conservatives tout their undying trust and faith in the good men and women of the military--we've all heard the lines; they constitute around 90% of the perennial Republican political platform. But the moment that same military calls for more funding in green energy tech to help keep its soldiers safe, they side with Exxon and the coal industry and all those fringe think tanks that claim clean energy is a too-expensive pipe dream. 

    Except that it's not. The Army knows what it's doing. It's been in the business of deploying cutting edge technological advances to increase its tactical advantage for decades--and as innovative projects like White Sands demonstrate, not even the opposition of its alleged biggest fans will slow it down.