The federal government owns approximately 650 million acres of land. That’s nearly 30 percent of all U.S. land, and much of it is unused desert.

Now a 21-square-mile area of federal property in the Mojave Desert is scheduled to become a 500-megawatt (MW) solar power system to serve the U.S. Army base at Fort Irwin, Calif. Scheduled to be built in phases between 2013 and 2022, it will annually generate approximately 1 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. At 500 MW, it will be by far the Department of Defense’s (DOD’s) largest solar project. The next largest is a 14 MW solar plant now operating at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.

The fact that the government owns so much desert with enormous energy potential led to this pilot public-private partnership that can benefit taxpayers, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and increase our country’s energy security.

In October, the DOD inaugurated the Fort Irwin project by signing a memorandum of agreement for an enhanced-use lease with the Clark Energy Group and Acciona Solar Power, the private industry partners.

Under an enhanced-use lease, private money builds and operates an installation in exchange for long-term leases of Army land. The agreement claims no additional costs to taxpayers. A power purchase agreement (PPA) has yet to be signed between the government and the private partners. Under a PPA, the electricity produced usually is sold to the host at a rate below what a traditional utility would charge. This project is primarily intended to address energy-security issues at Fort Irwin, home to the Army’s premier heavy maneuver Combat Training Center and NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Complex.

“The Army is demonstrating how creative thinking will make it possible to achieve critical national priorities without increasing government spending. Our partnership with the Army will address energy security vulnerabilities, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, help the Army to achieve numerous energy-related goals and create local green jobs,” said Francis Coen, managing director of Clark Energy Group.

Clark and Acciona were selected earlier this year in a competitive qualifications process administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 13-year, $2-billion project will consider site characteristics, environmental constraints, available resources, current and future technologies costs, access to transmission lines, length of the approval, and connection processes at each stage of development. The project will use multiple solar-energy technologies, such as flat-panels and concentrated photovoltaics.

The initial 500 MW plan may increase to 1,000 MW should demand and transmission line capacity materialize during the development period.

“The Fort Irwin Solar EUL is an important component of the Department of the Army’s goal to implement bold energy initiatives that lessen dependence on foreign sources of fuel and enhance stewardship of the nation’s energy resources,” said Jerry Hansen, acting assistant secretary of the Army for installations and the environment and the Army’s senior energy executive.