The solar project at Davis-Monthan will be the largest in the U.S., powering 900 homes at the base. (COURTESY OF SOLARCITY)
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The largest solar neighborhood in the continental U.S. will be on an Air Force base in Arizona's Sonora Desert, where the sun shines 350 days a year.
Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson is putting the finishing touches on its record-setting "green" privatized housing development called Soaring Heights Communities, according to Col. Charles Hunter, commander of the base's 355th Mission Support Group, which oversees the project.
The installation of 81,000 solar panels — 45,000 on the ground and 36,000 on some 900 rooftops — should be wrapped up by early December. Work started in October.
Once up and running, the panels will generate about 6 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 75 percent of the community's power needs. The savings will translate into lower utility bills for airmen and more energy for Air Force missions, and will press home the Air Force's intention to be a good neighbor to Tucson, Hunter said.
"Tucson is a green-conscious community with many innovations in renewable energy and water conservation," Hunter wrote in an e-mail to Air Force Times. "It is vital to the long-term survival of [Davis-Monthan] to show that the Air Force is … leading the way in green initiatives. Additionally, the [Defense Department] is the largest consumer of energy in the federal government, and we need to show the American people we're addressing that fact in environmentally responsible ways."
Soaring Heights Communities is a partnership of Tennessee-based Actus Lend Lease, which develops and manages privatized housing for the military; SolarCity, a California-based solar power company; Tucson Electric Power, a local utility; and National Bank of Arizona, which financed the project and will own more than half of the system.
Most of the 900 homes are new, designed to be up to 30 percent more energy efficient than a standard home, making them particularly suited to solar power, according to Actus Lend Lease.
"Soaring Heights Communities is truly a solar city," Lyndon Rive, SolarCity chief executive officer, said in a statement. "We expect this project to be a springboard for additional clean power development in Arizona, one of the best locations for solar in the world."
The project is expected to increase Arizona's supply of solar power by 15 percent, according to SolarCity information.
Hunter sees the housing development as another step, albeit small, to reducing the nation's reliance on foreign supplies of energy.
"By choosing to live in this solar community, airmen and their families can feel good about their contributions toward gaining energy independence for our nation," he said.
More sunny projects
While the neighborhood is the largest to date of Davis-Monthan's green initiatives, it is far from the only one.
The biggest will be a 24-megawatt solar array project that will provide nearly 100 percent of the electricity used by the mission-centered side of the base. Base engineers are preparing to solicit bids for the project, now in the planning stages.
Among the smaller solar projects are a water-heating system for the outdoor swimming pool, crosswalk signals at road intersections and water preheaters on three dormitories, which the base estimates will save $24,000 a year.
Davis-Monthan is also being aggressive about water conservation. The base recently completed a survey of how it can reduce water demand for landscaping, and several projects are in the works to install drought-tolerant native plants and more efficient drip irrigation systems. Hunter expects the measures to save the base 680,000 gallons of water annually.
"We're proud to be able to partner with forward-thinking companies and institutions to lead the way in renewable energy and in promoting energy and water conservation," Hunter said.