GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL STATION -- As the Pentagon looks for ways to build a military that runs on less but remains every bit as lethal, Guantanamo Bay Naval Station is gaining a reputation as an ideal test bed.
It is a reputation decades in the making and spurred by necessity. Ever since 1964, when Cuban leader Fidel Castro cut off the U.S. base from the country's electric grid and water system amid sparking Cold War tensions, the naval station has had to quench its own substantial thirst for power and water.
The high cost of shipping in fuel for inefficient generators that run the base's power grid and desalinization plant had the base's public works staff looking to cut consumption and bring new sources of power online long before defense chiefs were giving the topics the spotlight.
Eleven years ago, for instance, staff began drawing up plans for wind turbines that now sit on the base's highest ridge.
But there are as many lessons for the military in the bumps Gitmo's staff has hit in its quest for energy security as there are in its successes.
When plans for those wind turbines were drawn up in 2001, the base projected that they would provide a quarter of the base's energy and provide major savings by cutting the amount of fuel being shipped in. But that was before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, before the U.S. undertook two wars, and before detention centers were set up on the east side of the base to house those wars' prisoners.
By the time the wind farm was finished in 2005, the base was home to more than twice as many personnel and supported a whole new, energy-intensive operation.
Today, four 950-kilowatt wind turbines tower over the base's Cold War-era bunkers, but they account for about 2 to 3 percent of the base's overall power generation. And although the turbines are operating as expected, the naval station is actually shipping in more fuel, not less.
The story of Guantanamo Bay's wind power speaks to the particular challenges the military faces as it aims to become less reliant on fuel: Missions change quickly, and energy is rarely an important factor when deciding how to tackle them.
With energy security now commanding attention at the highest levels of the defense world, the pressure is on Pentagon officials to find solutions that will work for U.S. forces. For them, Guantanamo Bay Naval Station has become a case study in the benefits -- and the challenges -- of trying to reduce energy and water use and switch to alternative sources.
Cost of self-sufficiency
When Castro cut off Guantanamo in 1964, the Navy spent five months importing potable water by barge while a desalination plant was built at break-neck speed.
It was such an astonishing feat that Castro did not believe it could be true. He accused the United States of stealing Cuban water.
To prove him wrong, the base's commanding officer, Vice Adm. John Bulkeley, invited reporters to join him at the base's northeast gate, where he cut the pipe connecting the base to the Cuban water system. He held up the pipe, and it was bone dry.
Today, the 45-square-mile naval station in southeast Cuba -- the United States' oldest overseas base and the only one located in a country with which the United States has no diplomatic relations -- produces about 1 million gallons of water each day and generates enough power to meet a summertime peak demand of some 22 megawatts.
In April, the Navy's top environment and energy official, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, visited the base to get a first-hand look at the base's unique energy strategy.
"The Navy recognizes that we have a national need to wean ourselves from imported oil products," Pfannenstiel said after touring the base's utilities. "[Guantanamo] could be a model for what can be done."
The energy to run Guantanamo Bay Naval Station's desalinization plant and power the military operations, including the nine prisons, comes primarily from a network of 19 diesel generators that run on fuel barged to the island. They consume between 25,000 and 30,000 gallons of fuel each day.
It is an extremely expensive arrangement. DOD pays on the order of $80,000 a day for fuel and lube oil, according to Tim Wagoner, the base's resource efficiencies manager.
"I used to work at Fort Campbell," Wagoner said, referring to the U.S. Army base in Kentucky. "They consume about twice as much power as we do here, but their bill is about a third of what ours is."
If DOD were not footing the costs, the monthly power bill for a two-bedroom house on base would run about $550, according to Navy calculations.
But the cost isn't the worst of it. The base's commanding officer said Guantanamo Bay's energy situation also makes it vulnerable to accidents or attacks.
"Energy and water -- that's kind of my Achilles' heel here," said Capt. Kirk Hibbert, who took command of the naval station last September.
"We certainly cannot go across town and say, 'Hey, can I borrow some of your power?'"
No simple calculation
The Pentagon spends about $16 billion a year on fuel, and when oil prices spike, they hit DOD's budget to the tune of $130 million a year for every $1 increase per barrel.
But alternative energy projects are not always financial no brainers for DOD.
While transporting energy can be extremely expensive and at times dangerous, so too can shipping the materials, equipment and people that it takes to build new renewable energy infrastructure.
At Guantanamo Bay, the rule of thumb is that everything costs about one-and-a-half times what it costs in the United States since it has to be flown or shipped in to the base. That can make it tough to justify investing in something new when the old one still works.
The base has a number of landmarks from its 108-year history, testifying to how slowly things change here.
The base's original desalinization plant still stands, rusting but intact, because tearing it down and shipping it off base is prohibitively expensive. Poorly insulated buildings, some dating back to the 1950s or earlier, remain in use today with air conditioners whirring against the piercing tropical sun.
The tug of war between long-term and short-term costs, combined with the constant need for backup options, is especially stark at the base's power plant.
The base recently got two new, high-efficiency diesel generators, joining the two it had previously received as part of the same Energy Savings Performance Contract that brought the wind turbines in 2005. But when the four were off-line for maintenance on a day with temperatures of nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit in late April, the base was running on seven 1970s-era generators that had been pulled from a salvage yard in Norfolk, Va., as well as three "old workhorses" as the staff calls them, that were built in 1957.
The high-performance generators, which are about 25 percent more efficient, make economic sense, Pfannensteil said, and the base staff are hoping to get a few more. But they are not giving the old ones up yet.
Other renewable energy projects have won funds by piggybacking on existing construction projects. For instance, there is a new gym in the works that will include a concentrated solar array that is expected to produce 440,000 kilowatt-hours in a year.
"We've got a top-down strategy for renewables for the base with 15 sites identified for different renewable projects," Wagoner said. "At the same time, if we get a big project like our gym renovation project ... then we have the opportunity to say, 'Hey, we can add this much solar power to the building to get it closer to a net-zero building, can we move forward with that?' We've had a lot of success moving things forward that way."
Meanwhile, Pentagon purse-holders are beginning to choose renewable energy investments based on more than just financial payback, with items like energy security ranking high.
The military recently implemented "a new investment decision-making tool called Energy Return on investment (eROI)," Pfannenstiel said in an email. The tool considers a project's financial and nonfinancial benefits, she wrote, including "energy security capabilities, legislative mandate compliance, political/public affairs enhancements, and linkage to other long-term goals."
A central DOD program also recently revised its calculations, considering the ability of a project to produce "game-changing" improvements in energy consumption, costs and security when deciding where to invest its $135 million budget.
Alt-energy proving ground
With a high cost of conventional fuel and a bounty of sun and wind, DOD officials say Guantanamo Bay makes an ideal laboratory for testing alternative energy and energy efficiency technologies.
The base also has a unique amount of autonomy when it comes to trying something new.
"The thing about Guantanamo Bay is, you don't have to go through a lot of the bureaucratic red tape -- with corps meetings, with local governments -- that folks may have to do back in the states," said Commanding Officer Hibbert. "Here, you may be able to bring things down here and test and validate here, so we can provide those results back to the states."
Turning DOD's 300,000 or so buildings and 2.2 billion square feet of space into an energy test bed is an idea that has both DOD officials and energy technology businesses excited. In 2009, the Pentagon launched a $20 million pilot project and this year is looking to institutionalize it with a $30 million research and development budget.
This program makes good, plain sense, the DOD official in charge of the military's bases told Congress earlier this year.
"Emerging technologies offer a way to cost effectively reduce DOD's facility energy demand by a dramatic amount ... and provide distributed generation to improve energy security," said Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment Dorothy Robyn in written testimony. "Absent outside validation, however, these new technologies will not be widely deployed in time for us to meet our energy requirements."
Energy technology entrepreneurs like the idea because it gives them an early adopter to prove the technology. It also helps them clear the military's particular hurdles for approval and opens them up to DOD's vast market (Greenwire, March 31).
Now, Pfannensteil said her Pentagon staff is considering whether the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station's generators could switch to biofuels and is also looking at waste-to-energy technology for the base.
Hibbert welcomes all of these ideas.
"As a military and as a country, we've really got to get a lot smarter and get away from this dependence on brown fuels," the commander said.
That, he hopes, might just be his base's next legacy.