Solar Could Win Big In Army’s $7B Energy Buy

By Dietrich Knauth

Law360, New York (August 17, 2012, 9:17 PM EDT) — Solar power companies are well positioned to compete for U.S. Army energy contracts worth $7 billion over the next 10 years, considering the solar-friendly terrain around bases and the attractive pricing of renewable energy projects as utility-scale development slows and competition for projects increases, experts say.

The U.S. Army issued its formal request for proposals for the energy contracts on Aug. 7, outlining a plan to hand out so-called indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contracts companies that meet the qualifications to provide renewable power on military bases. Once the pool of contractors is selected, the winners will compete for individual task orders to build specific projects, signing power purchase agreements that could last 30 years.

In its request for proposals, the Army plans to buy a mix of solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and other renewable power, although its requirements could favor solar over others, with wind potentially being a runner-up, according to experts.

“Solar and wind will probably dominate the response,” said Jeffery Atkin, head of the solar enery team at Foley & Lardner LLP.

Solar has a few advantages over wind for the miltary’s purposes, starting with its smaller footprint and the fact that many Army bases are located in flat, sunny areas. Wind power requires more land and would need to be transported over larger distances, and an expiring tax credit for wind energy production could lead to higher prices that make wind projects less competitive, experts said.

“Solar would probably have more opportunities than wind, simply because there are operational issues associated with wind projects that can make some base commanders nervous,” including the increased land use and the potential for wind turbines to interfere with flight training, said Amy Koch, the regulatory team leader for Reed Smith LLP’s energy and natural resources industry group.

Wind power could suffer another disadvantage because of uncertainty surrounding the production tax credit for wind. Based on the Army’s reverse auction approach, wind developers might be less viable or reluctant to bid, because without the tax credit, their prices will go up, according to Joel A. Goldberg, a partner at Porter Hedges LLP.

“The tax credit is sort of in limbo,” Goldberg said. “It expires at the end of the year, and in an election year there’s a lot of uncertainty about where that is going.”

On the other hand, the Army’s RFP could throw a lifeline to the wind power industry if the tax credit is not extended, Iverson said.

“With the expiration of the wind PTC, this RFP may spur new development in the sense that it may open new markets to the private sector that offer higher wind regime sites that will increase productivity and revenue, and help off-set the loss of the PTC, thus making wind project profitable in a PTC-less era,” Iverson said.

Solar developers were also helped by lowered energy thresholds for proposed projects in the final RFP, compared to other industries and the initial draft released in March. While the draft RFP required potential contractors to propose 10 projects, including at least three that would provide 4 megawatts or more, the final RFP allowed solar energy companies to drop that threshold to at least three projects of 2 MW or more.

“This was an important change to expand the list of potentially qualified solar offerors,” said Bruce Iverson, a senior project manager at TRC Companies Inc., which provides engineering, consulting and construction services to the energy, environmental and infrastructure markets.

The timing of the RFP will also allow the Army to take advantage of maturing technology and a lull in development that will maximize competition and help drive its prices down, according to Atkin.

Demand for new projects is low because most of the utility-scale purchasers have already made their investments in renewable technology — in part because they wanted to get started to take advantage of the expiring 1603 Treasury Grant program, which covers up to 30 percent of an eligible renewable project’s construction costs through grants instead of tax credits, according to Atkin.

“We’ve seen the prices just continue to drop and drop, and most of the major buyers of these clean energy projects are not as aggressive in buying right now,” Atkin said. “There will be very high interest in this RFP, and there will be a lot of competitors.”

Geography will play a key role in determining the technology that the Army chooses for individual bases as well. In many cases, biomass could also be in a good position because its smaller footprint allows for easier on-base production than wind or solar, while geothermal opportunities could be available only on a limited number of bases, according to Goldberg.

“It really depends on where these bases are and what kind of spaces are available,” Goldberg said.

While biofuel’s smaller footprint could play to its advantage, the Army RFP’s insistence on proven power production could still make wind and solar technology a better fit, because of recent technological advances made by private developers, according to Atkin.

“The industry has been well seeded and grown in,” Atkin said of wind and solar. “This will certainly help maintain the momentum that’s built up over the past couple of years.”

While the Army is relying on proven technology for power production, the RFP could spur innovation in other areas, such as energy efficiency and smart grid technologies, such as technology that would automatically adjust a base’s energy use to reduce power at times when prices are the highest, Koch said.

“Where they may push the envelope a little bit is in their smart grid needs, and smart grid issues are going to be part and parcel of some of the upcoming task order RFPs,” Koch said. ”It is possible that they may be a bit more flexible as far as not requiring fully commercialized technology for smart grid because that is more of an emerging area.”

While some politicians have criticized the military for buying alternative energy at higher prices than traditional fuels, Atkin said that the long-term agreements contemplated in the RFP will help shield the Pentagon from volatile energy prices and could save money in the long run.

“They’re locking in their power price for 20-plus years, reducing the risk of price escalation,” Atkin said. “When we look back at this in 20 years, it will probably have turned out to be a pretty good deal.”

Published by Law360

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