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Solar project aims to help wean Army off grid

Published: Friday, Aug. 17 2012 5:58 p.m. MDT

A PowerDish on display during a groundbreaking ceremony for the new $10.8 million, 1.5 megawatt solar project at the Tooele Army Depot Friday, Aug. 17, 2012.

Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News

TOOELE — A celebratory fanfare with gushes of awe and respect dominated a Friday groundbreaking of a $10.8 million, 1.5-megawatt solar project at the Tooele Army Depot.

A glistening PowerDish standing 21 feet tall was one reason for the rush of excitement, and the presence of Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the other.

Depot commander Col. Chris Mohan told the small crowd that the last time a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff visited the 70-year-old military installation tucked away amid the grasslands south of Tooele was in the 1940s. That chairman was Dwight D. Eisenhower, before he became president of the United States.

"The bar has been set pretty high," Mohan said.

Dempsey, flanked by an entourage of military officers and assistants, was affable and unassuming under the hot August sun, taking sips from a bottle of water as he milled through the crowd.

He told them that projects like the Stirling Solar Array, which when finished will feature a field of 430 PowerDishes on 17 acres, exemplifies the innovative and new direction the military has to embrace to meet the needs of the country.

"This is a glimpse, just a glimpse of the future," he said.

The military is on a path to have its armed services branches produce 3 gigawatts of energy to help wean military installations off the electrical grid as much as possible, and Tooele Army Depot is marching quickly toward the goal of being one of 16 Army commands in the country to become "net zero," or practically off the grid. Depot officials said the solar field, in addition to a wind turbine installed in 2010, will get them to nearly 60 percent of their power derived from renewables.

"We are on a campaign of learning, particularly as it relates to renewable energy," Dempsey said. "The less we depend on fuel the better off we are from an operational standpoint."

He added the military's embrace of renewables will also make installations less vulnerable overall to domestic terrorism.

"I've been outspoken in my comments about threats from the Internet and cybersecurity," he said.

Ogden-based Infinia Corp. came up with the PowerDish that is made up of parabolic mirrors that track the sun, collect its heat and churn it into power. The field of mirrors in this remote section of Tooele County is the company's first large-scale project, but it has deployed the technology at a commercial dairy in Yuma, Ariz., as well as a Frito-Lay plant that coincidentally makes SunChips.

CDM Smith, an engineering and construction firm specializing in environmental projects, will begin installation of the dishes tracking east on the base property, with the PowerDishes anticipated to be fully operational by early next year.

Dempsey said collaborative efforts like this project will help ensure the military is successful.

"The days when the U.S. military could figure this out by ourselves are long behind us."

When he is asked to speak at events like Friday's, Dempsey said he looks for important historical milestones that happened on that particular day in history. He said it was worth noting that on Aug. 17, 1915, Charles Kettering invented the electric automobile starter and with his riches went on to establish a cancer center and patented the technology for an incubator for premature infants.

That combination of trust in ingenuity and generosity found in the American spirit is what Dempsey said inspires his faith in the United States and is his answer when probed if the country is on the decline, or an incline.

"As long as we got the people right, this country's going to be fine," he said.

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