Interior, Defense departments team up

Source: Annie Snider, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Vast swaths of land on U.S. military bases will be available for renewable energy development under an agreement between the Interior Department and the Pentagon announced this afternoon.

More than half the land used by the military in the United States — 16 million acres — is actually owned by the Interior Department.

The military has come to see renewable energy generation on its bases as a matter of security in recent years; bases get 99 percent of their electricity from the civilian grid and are vulnerable to disruptions caused by everything from thunderstorms to terrorist attacks (Greenwire, Jan. 16).

Each of the military branches has committed to building 1 gigawatt of renewable energy on or near its bases in the coming years, which would produce an amount of energy equivalent to the output of three nuclear power plants.

But lawyers have been wrangling over the details of how to make such projects work on withdrawn land, the term used for land owned by the Interior Department and leased to the Defense Department for a set period of time.

Each “withdrawal” has its own individual statute, and it was often unclear whether renewable energy qualified as a military purpose for which DOD could claim use of the land.

A memorandum of understanding announced today by the two departments aims to resolve that issue, putting DOD in the lead for such projects.

“Renewable energy is enormously important to the military for mission reasons and our installation energy security, primarily,” Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of Defense for installations and environment, said on a call with reporters. “Withdrawn land will play a key role in our renewable energy strategy, and the MOU that we have signed with Interior will facilitate our ability to develop that land in the months ahead.”

Robyn later told E&E News that the agreement also creates a framework for resolving other issues, such as how lease revenue is shared between the two departments and how to handle situations where DOD wants to sign a contract with a developer for a period of time longer than the land is currently withdrawn from the Interior Department. She said legislation to codify the agreement is in the works.

The announcement comes at the beginning of a week in which the Army is expected to put out a major request for large-scale renewable energy projects, designed to attract billions in private investment.

The military-used land is a significant addition to the Interior Department’s efforts to develop renewable energy on public land. Thirteen million acres is located in the Southwest, in areas prime for solar, geothermal and wind development, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

“This partnership will truly have a profound effect across the nation,” he said.

A study commissioned by the Pentagon earlier this year found that solar projects on just four California bases could produce 7,000 megawatts of energy (Greenwire, Jan. 16)

Under the agreement, the two agencies will develop a pilot process for authorizing solar energy projects on a handful of military installations in Arizona and California.

The MOU also creates a framework for the Pentagon and Interior Department to work together on offshore wind development. The two departments plan to hold a joint conference for industry on the topic this fall.

According to the agreement, they are looking at ways in which the military can help encourage offshore wind projects, for instance by providing an offtake contract that would help companies attract financial backing, or by providing a landing site onshore.