Solar Panel Project Providing Power to USAFA: Is it Worth the Price?

It's hard to miss. An $18 million solar panel array sits on 30-plus acres of Air Force Academy property on the west side of I-25 on the northern part of Colorado Springs.

"Honestly, I don't really pay that much attention to it,” said Melissa Lichtenwalter. “I just drive past it."

To Melissa the array, paid for with Federal Stimulus dollars, is more noticeable at certain times of day.

"Every once in awhile there's a little bit of a blinding glare, but probably nothing as bad as the eastern sun in the morning," she said.

Others have louder complaints. An 11 News viewer commented at an $18.3 million price-tag, the solar panels are a waste of money.

"What we're getting from these is free power, so every taxpayer is not having to pay the government coffers to pay for us to power the Academy," said AFA engineer Russell Hume.

The panels that collect sunlight generate 6 megawatts, or more than 10 percent of the power it takes to run the Academy. The Academy began drawing electricity from the solar panels in March. According to Hume, that translates to a savings of more than $1 million a year in energy costs to the AFA.

Hume projects the project cost should be recovered within 13 years.

According to Hume SunPower, the builder, and part of a partnership behind this project has put a 25-year warranty on any of the equipment if it gets damaged. Colorado Springs Utilities, the third partner in the solar array project will collect a stipend from the AFA for general maintenance.

The solar array is part of an overall effort to make the Air Force Academy capable of generating all its power through on-base renewable energy.

“It’s nice to see that they’re using some re-usable energy,” Melissa said.

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Comments are posted from viewers like you and do not always reflect the views of this station.
  • by John Location: Louisiana on Jul 5, 2011 at 10:47 AM
    I can get a 13 year payback if I only account for the $183M cost and expected electricity savings. What the USAFA rep does not say is that the government borrowed that $18.3M and has to pay interest on it. He also does not include the cost of the land the site sits on. I bet that acerage could be sold for a nice sum. In the end this project will not pay for itself if you use "private sector" numbers. Only using government math does it make sense.
  • by Rick on Jun 15, 2011 at 03:25 PM
    @Billie...the company that installs the panels doesn't provide the warranty, the manufacturer does. A 25 year warranty on panels is pretty much industry standard nowadays...
  • by arnold Location: C/S on Jun 14, 2011 at 02:48 PM
    better than a nuclear plant. Right?
  • by Paul Location: CS on Jun 14, 2011 at 12:58 PM
    The levelized (breaking even), cost of Solar Photovoltaic energy is over twice as much as coal or on-shore wind. The only electricity source more expensive than Solar PV is Solar Thermal at 3 times the cost of coal. Makes you wonder why they picked a Solar PV farm verses dotting the mountain ridge skyline behind the Academy with wind generators???
  • by skeptic Location: CS on Jun 14, 2011 at 09:52 AM
    Another point is that the only reason a photo voltaic system can be cost-effective for a homeowner is because of tax breaks and government credits, not because it’s affordable technology yet. I doubt that anyone else gets discounts like that. But if you do have a PV system, you better not plan on making much money by generating more power than you can use and selling it back to the utilities department. They’ve already thought of that, and they only give you pennies on the dollar when they buy your power. Until PV technology improves, I’d go with passive solar or a solar collector system that heats fluid for hot water, building heating, etc. This AFA system is a joke.
  • by Billie Location: CS on Jun 14, 2011 at 06:13 AM
    I highly doubt the payoff is anywhere close to 13 years. Why would the company that installed these panels give a 25 year warranty? That wouldn't make good business sense...unless of course they go out of business first. And why did they have to build this right next to the highway? First we have the scar on the mountain, now visitors get to see a solar panel farm as they enter the Springs. Come on many thousands of acres does the Academy have that this project could have been built on...seriously! (sigh)
  • by D Location: CS on Jun 14, 2011 at 05:59 AM
    Interesting people actually fall for the whole "solar will save the world" line.... the sun doesnt always shine, the wind won't always blow. $18.3M that our government doesn't have misses the mark on economically friendly!
  • by ME Location: Colorado on Jun 14, 2011 at 05:46 AM
    Government waste--what is new?
  • by John Location: C.S. on Jun 14, 2011 at 05:36 AM
    Solar cells have a limited life. The array may pay for itself in 13 years, but how long will the solar cells last? Also, how much energy and resources does it take to produce the solar panels, and how much pollution is produced in the manufacturing process? What about toxic materials used in manufacturing and toxic materials in the solar cells that will end up in a landfill some day? 11, these would be some good topics for you to cover. Electrical solar energy is a great idea, but a lot of work still needs to be done before it really becomes a viable option. Perhaps it would happen sooner if more time were invested in solar research instead of petroleum research. In short, the AFA array is good for show but that's about it.
  • by Zeb Pike Location: Colo Sprgs on Jun 14, 2011 at 04:54 AM
    Colo Sprgs Utilities is the ones who make out with this because they charge standby fees etc. So the power really isn't free! The pay back period is nearly 30 years, a lot of misinformation to justify the cost. Certainly projects like this build upon technology and move us closer to renewable energy that every consumer can afford. Ready for change, you can't miss this!
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