Savoring the Sun

How Soaring Heights Communities powers its military family housing.

In 2009, Lend Lease (US) Public Partnerships (Lend Lease) completed work on one of the first solar-powered communities on an Air Force base in the United States. Now, the combined solar ground arrays and rooftop system at Soaring Heights Communities on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (Soaring Heights) offsets approximately 48 percent of annual overall consumption within the community.

“We take sustainability and the long-term impact of our presence in a community very seriously,” said Jerry Schmitz, senior vice president for Soaring Heights. According to the numbers, Schmitz is right. Soaring Heights Communities, a 50-year partnership between the Department of the Air Force and Lend Lease (US) Public Partnerships, is one of the largest solar-powered communities in the continental United States. While it is quite impressive in its own right, it is only a small piece of the larger Lend Lease privatized housing solar portfolio. Overall, Lend Lease maintains approximately 28.5 megawatts of renewable power in communities across the United States, and has an additional 14 megawatts in development.

The 3.3 megawatt ground array at Soaring Heights covers 20 acres of land and consists of 45,000 solar panels. The array took three months to construct and produces approximately 5 million kilowatts of power annually. The second piece to the Soaring Heights solar puzzle, the rooftop system, consists of approximately 37,280 panels installed on 645 homes. The rooftop system size is 2.8 megawatts and works in tandem with the ground array to produce energy that is fed directly to the Soaring Heights power grid.

“The installation is expected to offset more than 570 million pounds of carbon over its lifetime,” Schmitz said. “Arizona is one of the best locations for solar energy in the world, and we’re perpetuating long-term health of our community by heavily utilizing it.” Soaring Heights leadership worked closely with solar innovator SolarCity to install the ground array and rooftop system. Homes were selected based on suitability for panels. Most selections were newer dwellings built to rigorous energy efficiency standards set forth by Tucson Electric Power (TEP), the local utility provider.

“TEP provides incentives through its customer-funded SunShare program, and we’re able to pass those savings directly to our residents,” Schmitz said. “The money we save by using solar technology goes straight back into maintenance, upkeep of communities and resident programs for our military families at Soaring Heights, and Tucson as a whole benefits from the project’s success. It’s a cycle we’re proud of. Our community will benefit for years to come.”

Money that would have been spent on traditionally produced electricity is used for capital repair and replacement, development, reinvestment projects, and resident programs within the community. Short-term funds go toward appliance replacements, carpet and flooring, exterior painting, landscaping, and road paving to maintain the aesthetics of the community and quality of the homes. Long-term savings will be used to accelerate reinvestment in the renovation and new construction throughout the 50-year ground lease.

While Soaring Heights has seen legitimate energy savings since installing the solar array and rooftop system, the Lend Lease investment in renewable energy transcends a dollar amount. By partnering with the U.S. Air Force, Soaring Heights has an opportunity to be at the forefront of energy independence and provide an improved quality of life for service members who reside within.

“Best practices can easily be replicated in the civilian market,” Schmitz said. “We identified an opportunity to invest in clean energy, and we went for it. Our residents benefit, the Tucson community benefits, and we benefit as a company. Investing in solar energy changed the way that we do business for the better.”
Although the sustainable energy industry experienced ups and downs over the past decade, the solar energy project at Soaring Heights Communities on Davis-Monthan Air Force Base has proven that solar technology’s potential is alive and well in the multifamily housing industry.

Lacey Purcell Jamison is marketing coordinator of public partnerships at Lend Lease.