Air Force affirming role of renewables in energy security

Source: Ariel Wittenberg, E&E reporter • Posted: Friday, April 15, 2016

The Air Force is affirming its commitment to renewables, beefing up its energy policy in response to a new slew of 21st-century threats.

Armed with the new slogan “mission assurance is energy assurance,” the service is working to increase the energy security of its bases with large-scale renewable projects that could keep the lights on in the event that a natural disaster or cyberattack knocks out local power.

“There has been a change from the mission perspective,” said Mark Correll, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for environment, safety and infrastructure. “At one point, we were an Air Force; now we are an Air Force, a space force and a cyber force.”

Correll heads the service’s newly formed Office of Energy Assurance, which is dedicated to coordinating large-scale renewable projects. Staff will pursue clean energy projects that are not only 10 megawatts or greater but also located close to or on military bases. The energy projects will not have to provide power to military installations on a regular basis, but Correll said his staff will only enter into contracts with utilities that agree to direct power from the renewables to the base in the event of an emergency.

Such an arrangement, he said, is critical to keeping Air Force missions and operations running at a time when the service is ever more reliant on electricity to keep the country safe, while new threats like cyberattacks become more likely.

“We are realizing all of a sudden that, without energy, it’s not just the runway lights that go out anymore,” Correll said. “It is how do we do a [remotely piloted aircraft] mission, how do we do a space launch, how do we do a missile launch or satellite control if we do not have assured power?”

‘A good start’

The Air Force, like all military services, is no stranger to renewable energy. In fact, for a time in 2007, a 14 MW solar farm at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada was the largest in the nation. The Air Force, like the Navy and the Army, has also committed to producing 1 gigawatt of renewable energy from projects on installations by 2020.

But the Air Force has often been behind the Army and Navy in achieving that goal, typically focusing more on reducing energy use than building renewables (Greenwire, Sept. 15, 2011).

The recent formation of the Office of Energy Assurance is a prime example of that — the Army has had an Office of Energy Initiatives and the Navy has had a renewable energy program for years to help coordinate such projects and act as a one-stop shop for industry hoping to get military contracts.

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Sharon Burke said the Air Force’s Office of Energy Assurance is “a good start,” so it can catch up to the other services.

She also said the office’s explicit focus on energy security is unique among the services.

“They are not calling it the Office of Renewable Energy; they are stating what their priority is and putting it in terms of something that is militarily relevant and significant, and that is a really helpful lens,” she said.

Burke, like Correll, noted that the military is now more than ever “fighting from domestic bases” thanks to the internet, meaning energy security is also more important.

“That the Air Force, which seems to have been lagging behind in the past, is signaling a new way forward I think is really promising,” she said. “They are saying they don’t just want renewable energy projects, they want projects that are mission essential.”

To Correll, the Office of Energy Assurance represents the Air Force’s effort to adopt a more coordinated approach to energy security. He views it as a means to achieve resilience — a military buzzword for the ability to adapt, recover and respond to changes. While the Air Force has long pursued energy projects, Correll called those efforts “siloed.”

“If we had a demand reduction project, it was just about demand reduction. If we had a renewable project, we only worried about renewables,” he said. “What we are trying to do is look at this from a more holistic approach and say, ‘We have to look at these things together.’ Cleanliness and demand and cost reduction is the sweet spot where I get resilience.”

That means the Air Force is thinking about the price of energy differently, too. While the service once would only approve renewable projects that cost less than traditional grid energy, the Air Force will now also choose projects with grid parity, meaning they could cost the same as grid power.

The cost calculations now include the “inherent value” in the resilience clean energy can provide.

“The epiphany that we had is that we have been paying for it all along with our diesel generators,” Correll said. “When you pay for a generator, you pay to set it up and to connect it and for the air pollution permits; that is paying for resilience. So if we are already paying for it, the question becomes whether there is a better way. And we think renewables are that better way.”

The Office of Energy Assurance will not limit its projects to renewable energy but to “clean energy,” including natural gas. But Correll said that, when it comes to responding to a prolonged power outage caused by a natural disaster or cyberattack, renewables are preferable.

“I may have a natural gas plant on my base, but if I don’t have enough natural gas on site, I don’t have power,” he said. “Renewables might be intermittent, but they are not going away. No one is going to take the sun away.”

Expeditionary forces

Beyond the focus on domestic bases, the Air Force is also renewing its emphasis on energy security for its expeditionary forces.

Dispatched to fight in foreign countries, expeditionary forces often live out of sophisticated tent cities known as forward operating bases (FOBs). To get fuel and water supplies, such bases rely on convoys or air drops, which are costly and often deadly for those involved.

So the Air Force’s Research Laboratory is working on a “FOB of the Future,” which would use solar panels and batteries to power operations while also reducing energy demand.

“FOBs operate in environments that are critical such that the mission cannot fail,” explained Lt. Col. Scott Fitzner, who runs the project. “So we are trying to generate on site to reduce the diesel reliance.”

The FOB of the Future has modernized tents equipped with insulation; extra tarps to put the tents in shade; LED lights; updated heating, venting and air conditioning systems; and solar panels that are affixed to the tents through rollers that lift them up from the ground.

Because of the harsh working and environmental conditions the FOB of the Future will have to withstand in theater, it is being tested as part of a yearlong demonstration at the Basic Expeditionary Airman Skills Training facility in San Antonio.

“It is not as simple as going out to the commercial sector and incorporating off-the-shelf renewables,” Fitzner said. “There are several mission parameters that they have to meet.”

One of those parameters is making the FOB easy to assemble for average airmen with no special training in renewables installation.

That’s one reason the demonstration is taking place at the San Antonio facility, where 39,000 airmen per year go for a week’s worth of expeditionary training.

“By injecting this technology into the training, it teaches them to be energy focused as they are going out into these environments,” Fitzner said. “It shows you have to pay attention to how you are getting your energy, because it cannot be assumed that you can plug into a grid.”