Read Caption
A rooftop solar installation at Pearl Harbor. Photo courtesy of SolarWorld

Historic Pearl Harbor Looks to New Energy Future

A sign on Paquet Hall boasts that it is “the first and still the finest berthing” at Pearl Harbor. The three-story Bachelor Enlisted Quarters, built in a U-shape to enclose a palm-lined courtyard, survived the December 7 surprise attack 70 years ago to become a cherished part of the base’s history. This year, the 1927 building was crowned for a role in the U.S. military’s future, when 1,064 solar photovoltaic modules were installed on its rooftop.

It is part of a $15 million, 2.4-megawatt solar installation covering five buildings at what is now known as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Unveiled this summer (although final wiring was expected to continue late into the year), the project is part of the Pentagon’s ambitious effort to get 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Hawaii is a fitting place to seek energy alternatives, and not just because of opportunity to harvest  “the wash of sunlight” over Oahu, in the words of Ben Santarris, spokesman for the system’s manufacturer, SolarWorld, who blogged about the installation earlier this year.  Hawaii has the highest electricity prices in the United States, about three times the national average. As an island it must import all of its fuel, and nearly three-quarters of its electricity is generated by dirty and expensive oil.  (Petroleum is used for less than 1 percent of electricity generation on the U.S. mainland.)

It’s been a tough year for solar energy. SolarWorld, the company that built the solar PV arrays now at Pearl Harbor, and the largest maker of conventional solar panels in the United States, closed its California factory this fall; it blames unfair competition from China. And a company now at work on a separate solar project at the Pearl Harbor base, SolarCity, saw its effort to obtain a federal loan guarantee for the project collapse in the wake of the Solyndra scandal.

But the anniversary of Pearl Harbor also is an appropriate time to contemplate why the military and others are making the effort—fraught with difficulty, setbacks and expense—to cut reliance on fossil fuels. Japan’s overwhelming oil dependence on the United States was a festering issue in the run-up to war, and the de facto oil embargo imposed by the Roosevelt administration in the summer of 1941 is viewed by historians as a key event on the path to December 7.

In 2011, the U.S. military, the nation’s largest energy consumer, has taken a leading role on clean energy as a matter of security. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has often remarked that the United States would never rely on the world’s most volatile countries to design, produce or provide its weapons. “But in buying oil from these places we give them some say in whether our ships will sail or whether our airplanes will fly,” he says.

SolarCity eventually was able to put together financing for its SolarStrong project, a plan to provide 300 megawatts of solar power to up to 120,000 military housing units around the country. It is expected to be the largest residential solar photovoltaic project in U.S. history, and the first phase is already underway at a site accustomed to having a place in the nation’s annals, Pearl Harbor.

Related coverage of the U.S. military’s energy efforts: