Second of two stories on energy security at military bases. Click here for the first part.
Just north of Las Vegas, a shimmering array of solar panels captures energy from the blazing sun to power some of the Air Force's most advanced work, including testing and flying drones.
Nellis Air Force Base's 14.2-megawatt solar power plant has been lauded by the military as a showpiece of a sweeping effort to boost energy security and resilience at bases by integrating renewable energy. Bases get 99 percent of their electricity from the commercial grid, which officials increasingly acknowledge is vulnerable to everything from storms to terrorist attacks. Wind, solar and biomass plants on military facilities can provide vital power if the local grid goes down, they say.
But the 140 acres of solar panels at Nellis are useless when commercial power is out, thanks to a provision in the project's agreement with the local utility that lets NV Energy turn off the array if the grid goes down.
The Nellis solar deal reveals some of the major hurdles facing the military as it tries to tap vast renewable energy on its lands as a buffer against the threat posed by power disruptions.
For NV Energy, the key issue is safety. The utility does not want the renewable power plant feeding juice to the grid if workers are repairing lines. Solar panels connected directly to houses or businesses are not a problem, but they can pose safety hazards when they are hooked to the grid.
There is a technological fix: a switch that would let the base disconnect from the grid and keep the solar panels up, shouldering some of the backup power burden that currently falls to the base's diesel generators when commercial power goes out.
But Nellis has not implemented that fix. Nor has the Navy at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, Calif., where a 270-megawatt geothermal plant makes it the only military installation that produces more power than it uses. Nor have many other U.S. military bases that are quickly amassing fields of solar panels and wind turbines.
To be sure, the idea of using renewable energy to power critical missions wasn't on the Pentagon agenda when the Nellis and China Lake projects were built in 2007 and 1987, respectively. But today, as the Defense Department undertakes a massive effort to build renewable energy generation for "energy security," there is still no overarching requirement that such power sources be able to support vital national missions if the local power goes out.
"It's not energy security if you've got renewable generation that you cannot access if the grid goes down," said Scott Sklar, a 40-year veteran of the renewable power field and a frequent consultant for the military.
Cost is often cited as a barrier for DOD not having the proper grid-access deals or technologies. Utilities charge a "disconnect fee" for the right to drop off the grid and continue generation during a power outage. The fees vary, but military energy managers say they are sizeable enough to affect a project's overall financials.
Money's a problem for the military. Although officials see a security value to on-base power production, renewable energy projects are legally required to yield more in savings over their lifetime than they cost to build. Projects often meet that requirement with thin margins.
"If our leadership determines to us that there is a financial value to energy security, then that will be used in our evaluation of price," said Steve Dumont, an energy manager for the Air Force Command that oversees Nellis. "It's really a policy issue."
And that is the rub: DOD rules and guidance are largely driven by mandates for expanding the use of renewable energy and improving energy efficiency rather than operational need.
Pentagon policymakers have been awakened in recent years to the vulnerability of bases that rely on commercial power, but as they start to devise new standards for renewable power, they must navigate regulatory mazes that vary from state to state. States have authority over utilities, and many utilities must be dealt with individually.
Meanwhile, in the absence of orders from headquarters, base energy managers are left to make their own decisions. That is complicated by turnover on those posts and a lack of training and experience.
The result is expensive, labor-intensive projects -- some funded with federal taxpayers' cash, others by developers -- that meet federal green-energy mandates but provide little security benefit to the military.
As Pentagon officials, especially civilian appointees, raise the profile of the military's renewable energy ambitions, uniformed commanders are beginning to speak out about the problem.
Capt. Jeffrey Dodson, commander of the Navy's China Lake installation, raised the issue at a well-attended energy security event at the Pentagon this fall.
"What people don't realize is the electrons from ... geothermal don't come to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. It goes onto the grid," he told top Pentagon brass and civilian appointees. "That's one of the main limitations from an operator perspective."
Making renewables 'doable'
A four-hour drive south of Nellis is a military base that is quietly beginning to paint a picture of how renewable energy may one day translate to energy security.
Nestled in California's Mojave Desert, the Marine Corps' Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms is building an energy system that by 2013 is slated to include 26 megawatts' worth of solar.
Gary Morrissett, the base's energy manager, said three elements are key to making certain that solar power will be useful to his base during a grid outage: the ability for the base to disconnect from the grid, the base's 7.2-megawatt gas cogeneration plant and a smart "microgrid," or a small-scale version of a centralized electricity system, that the base is currently building.
While it is widely known that renewable power is intermittent -- solar panels produce power only when the sun is shining and turbines yield juice only when the wind blows -- many people don't realize that photovoltaics won't even turn on unless they are connected to the grid or a battery.
"If you have a bunch of renewables, you have to have some element of standard generation" to keep feeding power to a base that is disconnected from the commercial grid, Morrissett said. "If it's not tied back ... it's just going to sit there until it sees the grid power come back on."
The military is keenly interested in smart microgrids that can let energy managers respond quickly to changes in renewable energy generation and send limited amounts of power to the most important facilities.
Consider this scenario: The commercial grid is down, so the base is running its cogeneration plant and 5 megawatts of photovoltaics at full tilt. Then, clouds pass, and suddenly 5 megawatts of power is gone.
"You have to be able to [manage loads] not just in a second, but in milliseconds," Morrissett said. If not, he explained, the cogeneration plant will overload and shut off automatically.
That is why no one at the Pentagon is publicly talking about doing away with traditional sources like commercial grid power and backup diesel generators. DOD energy officials say renewable power can be an important piece of a base's overall power portfolio, but there are limits to how much of the load it can shoulder.
But Sklar, whose firm, the Stella Group, works with companies and the military to design distributed clean power systems, says the technological barriers to powering a large portion of military missions with renewable energy are not insurmountable.
"Once you start doing high-value energy efficiency at your facility and you're shrinking the loads, what seemed to be out of line and not able to do with the technology is becoming doable," he said. "Those two trends together is what's making this become real."
Although the military is unique in its approach to energy, it is ultimately grappling with the same problem facing everybody else: How do you get the price of energy to reflect its real costs?
The answer is extra-complicated in the military, where energy security hasn't yet been given an economic value and layers of bureaucracy often drown out price signals.
Tom Hicks, the Navy's deputy assistant secretary for energy, said he cannot get around a requirement that projects save enough money to pay for themselves. But, he said, the service has a new tool that allows him to bring energy security benefits to the forefront.
"We always have many more projects that are financially viable and meet anybody's definition of what a good return on investment would be, but there are some within that that also address some grid security or defense critical asset issues," he said. "This should give them more visibility or greater interest."
For example, a solar array that requires a new substation might get bonus points for security since that would have positive implications for grid security, he said.
Meanwhile, the Army has launched a team of renewable-power experts to help bases maneuver technical and legal hoops as the service pushes to vastly increase the amount of clean energy produced on its bases.
And the Air Force is beginning to think about the issue even more creatively.
Even renewable power that is tied to the grid can have security benefits if it brings cost savings that can be put toward other security measures like building an extra power line out to a base, said Kevin Geiss, the Air Force's point man on energy.
"If it makes absolute financial sense to put up solar panels, that gives you a little bit of flexibility to spend money somewhere else to robust up the system independent of having to do something directly with that solar system," he said.
Ultimately, moving toward these more sophisticated ways of thinking about power's costs and benefits is the only way the military's energy problems can be solved, the Pentagon's top base energy official said.
"You can't think about energy security without thinking about the economics," said Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.
"At the end of the day, what is going to make us energy secure is having people begin to think about energy in much more economic terms, having people confront the real cost of the energy that they're consuming, including the risk of some disruption."
Click here to read last week's story on the military's struggle to define what energy security means for its bases.