Pentagon wants ‘bombs on target’ first, renewables second

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E reporter • Posted: Sunday, March 20, 2016

Concerns over energy security are spurring branches of the military to get more electricity from renewable sources, inching the Pentagon toward governmentwide climate goals.

But environmental concerns are not a key driver for the Defense Department, the nation’s largest consumer of energy. Instead, military officials say that safer sources of power are needed to enhance national security. That’s a bigger motivation than reducing emissions.

“Our tag line is expeditionary energy. We don’t do green,” said Col. Brian Magnuson, the director of the expeditionary energy office in the Marine Corps. “There’s a perception that the initiatives have to do with something other than extending our combat effectiveness.

“We need to go further on the same amount of energy we have or less,” he said, trying to dispel that perception.

He spoke to Defense contractors, utilities and renewable energy companies yesterday at the sixth Defense Renewable Energy Summit, organized by Infocast, in Arlington, Va.

Since Magnuson’s office was created in 2009, renewable energy systems at the individual or unit level have saved lives by cutting down on refueling trips in battlefields, he said. Two outposts have gotten down to zero fuel use, he said. Technologies developed for Marines include on-the-go solar panels and backpacks that generate electricity.

Representatives from the Navy, Air Force and Army echoed his stance.

“We’re concerned about climate change … but the first mission is bombs on target,” said Bill Anderson, the former assistant secretary for installations, environment and logistics of the Air Force under President George W. Bush. “Where renewable sources and efficiency can help us there, I have seen the military grasp it like nobody’s business, but you’ve got to stay on target. The Department of Defense is not the Department of Energy.”

The Air Force recently made a “significant” shift in how it viewed renewable energy, said Mark Correll, the deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and infrastructure.

The focus is now squarely on security, rather than potential savings. A newly created team will go after contracts for on-site distributed generation and smart microgrids, which he sees as forming the backbone of the “Air Force base of the future,” he said.

Agencies ‘struggling’ to meet renewable goals

The Army is also pursuing renewable energy projects on its bases. Last year, it had enough renewable energy to meet 12 percent of its demand, said Richard Kidd, the Army’s deputy assistant secretary for energy and sustainability.

The Army now has 17 large-scale renewable projects at various stages of development, he said. Those in Alabama, Georgia and Oklahoma are large enough to “open new markets,” he added.

In January, the Army signed a contract for its largest renewable energy project yet with Apex Clean Energy Inc. On-site solar at Fort Hood in Texas will provide 15 megawatts of power, and off-site wind will provide 50 MW.

The Navy met its goal of producing 1 gigawatt of renewable energy by the end of 2015. That happened in large part because it contracted to buy power from a new 210 MW solar facility developed by the Western Area Power Administration and Sempra U.S. Gas & Power in Arizona. The branch is pursuing a goal of getting 50 percent of its energy from alternative sources by 2020.

In 2014, renewable electricity consumption in the federal government reached 8.8 percent, according to Department of Energy data. DOD claimed 22 percent of that, the biggest share of any agency.

Yet according to the latest available data, renewable sources still only provide a sliver of the military’s overall electricity use. At 3.5 percent in 2014, DOD lagged behind most other agencies.

President Obama, looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, has ordered federal agencies to derive 30 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.

Asked if the federal government would meet that goal, Brad Gustafson, a program manager in the Department of Energy’s Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP) presenting at the conference, said it might be hard.

“That’s a tough question,” he said. “Some agencies probably can. Some are struggling.”

Bringing the price down remains a challenge, he added. Wind projects only become cost-competitive for federal facilities at a size of roughly 1.5 MW, according to an analysis by FEMP and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Biomass projects are only viable at 20 MW. Most solar projects, even the smallest ones, already make economic sense, however.

“What may not be cost competitive now might be in five years, and we still need to bring those soft costs for solar down,” Gustafson said.

Around two-thirds of the federal government’s energy use comes from its largest 450 campuses, which FEMP is targeting in a new initiative. Many of those campuses belong to DOD, representing an opportunity for large-scale renewable projects, he said.