TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- With fields of solar panels and a pilot microgrid project, the sprawling Marine base here is at the forefront of U.S. military efforts to lessen its reliance on the vulnerable civilian power grid.
But a key component of the energy-conscious base has been ensnared by California's global warming law.
At issue is the Air Ground Combat Center's cogeneration plant that produces electricity and hot water primarily from natural gas. Built eight years ago, the 7.2-megawatt plant provides at least 57 percent of power used by the base's 16,000 or so Marines, sailors and civilians.
The power plant's numbers wow the Pentagon, which is striving to make its bases energy-independent. But California regulators are focused on another number -- 36,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent that the plant emits each year.
Those emissions are enough to subject the plant to the state law for curbing heat-trapping CO2 and other greenhouse gases. The law is set to take effect in 2013.
The Marine Corps argues that the plant is good for the environment. The cogen operation emits half as much greenhouse gases as power the base buys from off-site generators, said Erin Adams, the base's air resources manager. But California's law does not allow the base to take credit for such savings.
"We're producing the least amount of [CO2 equivalent] possible at this plant. We really can't get better," Adams said. "So we're going to be stuck with either shutting down the cogen to meet the requirements, or purchasing allowances, which the federal government really isn't in the business of doing."
The problem is not just that the military is not used to buying and selling emissions allowances, Defense Department officials say. It is that the base might not be allowed to do so under federal law.
In comments filed last December with the California Air Resources Board (ARB), the Pentagon argued that the law may amount to an unconstitutional tax by a state on the federal government.
Moreover, federal law could prevent DOD from participating in the trading portion of cap-and-trade scheme, the military argued. Being unable to buy allowances, DOD said, the base may be forced to produce less electricity from the plant in order to meet emission requirements.
That might force the Marines to buy dirtier power from off-base suppliers, thus making the base more reliant on the civilian grid and possibly affecting power supplies to nearby towns, said Jon Costantino, a former climate change manager at ARB and now a senior adviser with the Sacramento law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.
"I would argue that by requiring the military to comply, you're actually causing more harm to the environment," Constantino said.
And while the Combat Center's cogeneration plant is the only military facility that falls under the state's climate law, DOD is worried that other base facilities and activities -- say, the movement of fuel between ships and land and between major military hubs -- could eventually fall under the law as well.
Military representatives have been pleading their case to California regulators since the climate law, A.B. 32, was signed in 2006, and ARB has made exceptions for the military on other issues in the past.
But Costantino cautions that ARB must be careful in making exceptions if it is going to reach state-mandated pollution-reduction goals.
"Everybody and their mother is trying to get out of cap and trade -- whether it's interstate commerce, whether it's small business -- they're trying every [argument] in the book to get out of it, but the only way cap and trade works is if everyone is included," he said.
Ryan McCarthy, science and technology policy adviser to the ARB's chairman, said the agency understands the military's predicament and is interested in reaching an agreement that goes beyond solving the Twentynine Palms base's problem and addresses the military as a whole.
"The military is sort of unique in a few respects, especially in that they are testbeds for a lot of the technology we will need in the future," McCarthy said. "They also have a number of federal mandates to really reduce emissions as well, so we want to make sure that we really tie it all together in a way that effectively includes them in the program."
The cogeneration plant at Twentynine Palms packs more punch than just the electricity and hot water it produces; it also enables the operation of several advanced energy systems at the base.
The Combat Center's ability to generate its own electricity was a key factor in the decision to test a microgrid system at Twentynine Palms, base energy manager Gary Morrissett said.
Morrissett said he expects the $2 million microgrid system being implemented by General Electric Co. will help the base reduce its energy use and direct limited power to critical missions should the civilian grid go down.
It is nice to keep Marines air conditioned in their barracks, he said, but keeping communications systems powered would be one of his top priorities at this base, where troops train for days at a time in desolate areas of the Mojave Desert.
"If you've got a couple thousand guys out in the field, you need to be able to stay in touch with them," Morrissett said. "The microgrid will help us send power to the most important places."
The cogeneration plant is also the key to keeping the base's 1.2 megawatts' worth of solar power running if the civilian grid goes down, since the panels need to draw electricity in order to produce electricity.
"Just because you have a renewable source doesn't mean it's going to produce power," Morrissett said. "The cogen plant is the power source that lets us keep our renewables running if the civilian grid goes down, ultimately giving us more power when we need it most."
Price signals don't always drive the Pentagon
By putting a price on carbon, a cap-and-trade program is intended to spur businesses, consumers and other entities into more energy-efficient behavior or to switch to cleaner sources.
But the military's bottom line is national security, not profit. The Pentagon does not always respond to price signals.
Take for instance, the possibility of a military surge. The Combat Center here trains 90 percent of Marines deployed to the war in Afghanistan, and it is the only place other than the battlefield where troops can use some weapons to their full extent. If the president were to order more troops overseas, DOD says, the base would have no choice but to host the troops for training and accept the emission spike that would come with it.
"Capping the emissions of military electrical generating units, in war time and in peace time, to the extent envisioned in the draft [cap and trade] regulation, threatens readiness," DOD wrote in its December comments to the ARB. "This cap ratchets down periodically and does not provide the flexibility needed to accommodate the unpredictable nature of the operational tempo of military readiness training."
Some elements of military facilities should not be handled any differently from their civilian counterparts, according to Costantino, the former ARB official.
"A gas station on base should be permitted the same way as a gas station off base," he said.
Where ARB has made exceptions in the past is for tactical elements, like military-specific equipment that gets moved around the globe. It has also, in specific instances, given DOD permission to subdivide large bases that are similar to municipalities into smaller pieces based on operation. That means that emissions from a base's airfield, hospital and ship repair center could each be counted separately.
DOD and ARB are being tight-lipped about the options being discussed for resolving the cap-and-trade issue. But in its December comments, DOD asked for a similar ability to subdivide its operations if it is forced to comply with the law.
Costantino said other options short of full exemption likely include flexibility with offsets, operational controls and the ability to delay compliance for a few years.
But, he warned that DOD's arguments are being echoed by other public entities, such as hospitals and schools.
"Anything you do for one person -- everybody knows about it," he said. "So you risk opening the door up for everybody."
Click here to read DOD's comments to ARB.