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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 9:39 am | Fair 56º


Ron Fink: Is Vandenberg AFB Solar Project a Good Deal?

Back in 2014 when I read that the Air Force was considering a solar power generating facility at Vandenberg, and then recently after reading that they had awarded a contract to build it, I had to pinch myself.

For anyone who has lived in the Lompoc area or in Vandenberg base housing for more than a couple of years knows the former housing area near Vandenberg Middle School is often shrouded in fog until late in the morning and then the fog returns late in the afternoon.

In fact, military housewives used to complain that it was hard to dry their clothes outdoors because the sun only came out for a few hours each day, and if they didn’t bring the wash in quickly it just got wet again when the fog returned.

This was long before military families could afford the extravagance of a clothes dryer; of course, now not many people dry their clothes outside.

How efficient this project will be is questionable, but I guess that’s a risk the project builder/operator will have to take. Specific details concerning this project, such as to whom it was awarded, or the financial details are hard to find.

Per the Environmental Impact Report, the solar project will be built and operated by a private developer who would then sell power to VAFB and, theoretically, provide 25 percent of the base’s power needs.

The Air Force has 13 solar projects planned; only five are in coastal areas. Vandenberg appears to be the only site with persistent fog/overcast sky conditions.

There were some misleading statements in the EIR; one is that “the proposed facility would not be visible from most areas within a 2-mile perimeter of the project site.”

However, in the same document, the site location is shown immediately adjacent to Highway 1 and would be clearly visible from the roadway just a few yards away.

These very expensive environmental projects evolved from an executive order signed in the late 1990’s by President Bill Clinton specifying that the Department of Defense was obligated to comply with all environmental mandates.

It didn’t matter if compliance meant defense dollars needed to operate, maintain and upgrade defense capability or maintain aircraft and ships would now be spent on protecting bugs and bunnies instead of defending the nation.

Since then, billions have been diverted to projects like this while critical defense projects and much-needed troop readiness maneuvers are consistently put off due to budget constraints.

I located a 2014 solicitation issued by the Defense Logistics Agency and found that: “The Government contemplates award of a Firm-Fixed Price contract up to 26 years” to construct, operate and maintain a solar facility.

This means the Air Force will pay the contractor to build and operate the facility even if they never produce the power estimated by the Air Force.

While PG&E commercial rates are 25 cents a kilowatt hour and Lompoc 20 cents, the Air Force guarantees a first-year rate at $0.085/kWh or less.  But don’t let this fool you; unlike PG&E and Lompoc, the Air Force contractor gets paid even if he doesn’t sell any power.

So, does this project make sense to the average person?

If Vandenberg enjoyed the same arid climate as other selected locations like other Air Force bases: Edwards (near Palmdale), Nellis (north of Las Vegas), FE Warren (near Cheyenne, WY) and Hill (near Ogden, UT), then it would make more sense.

We will never know whether this project produces the power the Air Force thinks it will, but one thing is certain: Environmentalists will get a warm cozy feeling thinking they are conquering global warming by spending critical defense dollars on projects like this.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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