Pentagon still can't define 'energy security,' much less achieve it

First of two stories on energy security at military bases.

Hurricane Katrina humbled U.S. military bases in 2005, cutting power at air towers, training facilities and command centers just as it did everywhere else along the Gulf Coast.

The Naval Construction Battalion Center in Gulfport, Miss., for example, a staging ground for regional relief operations after the storm, needed relief itself after running for two weeks on backup power systems. And Keesler Air Force Base near Biloxi, Miss., lost its airfield lights and had to scramble to keep its hospital running after a generator was swamped.

While diesel generators kept critical missions going during Katrina, the storm provided a wakeup call for Pentagon leaders concerned about terror attacks on the electric grid, which provides 99 percent of the energy that bases consume. Could bases withstand a power outage that outlasts their three-to-seven-days' supply of diesel for backup systems? Is it wise for the military to rely on the same power plants and transmission lines that feed homes and businesses?

A terrorist attack that caused a long-term grid disruption "could significantly affect our military forces globally -- potentially blinding them, neutering their command and control, degrading their mobility and isolating them from their principal sources of logistics support," Paul Stockton, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for homeland defense, wrote recently in the online journal Homeland Security Affairs.


A board of outside experts tasked by the Department of Defense to study the issue found in a 2008 report that there are significant gaps in DOD's ability to prevent and respond to major electrical outages.

"Critical national security and homeland defense missions are at an unacceptably high risk of extended outages from failure of the grid," the Defense Science Board concluded. "The grid is fragile, vulnerable, near its capacity limit, and outside of DOD control. In most cases, neither the grid nor on-base backup power provides sufficient reliability to ensure continuity of critical national priority functions and oversight of strategic missions in the face of long-term (several months) outage."

And while the Pentagon has joined interagency efforts to beef up grid security, experts say solutions remain elusive. Four years after the Defense Science Board report, DOD has yet to define what "energy security" means at its bases, let alone how to assure it, according to dozens of interviews with military officials, lawmakers, defense energy experts, project developers and utilities.

How DOD ultimately answers these questions will not only determine the limits of U.S. defenses; it is also likely to send waves through civilian energy and technology industries.

'Sliding scale'

Richard Kidd is a man who relishes a challenge. Before the Army's deputy assistant secretary for energy could even be asked how his service thinks about energy security, he hollered for a staffer.

"Hey Dustin! Is Dustin out there?" he called from his dimly lit Pentagon office where every surface was piled high with files. "Dustin, you got that piece of paper that lists all the different definitions of energy security we were able to pull up?"

Moments later, a young man appeared in the doorway waving a list culled from a half-dozen military policy documents.

At the top was: "Energy Security -- Having ensured access to reliable supplies of energy and the ability to protect and deliver sufficient energy to meet operational needs."

That definition is drawn from the military's top public strategy document, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, and is the one most frequently cited within DOD. But while it is widely agreed to, it provides little tangible direction.

What does "ensured access" mean? How much is "sufficient"?

"At some point we've got to get a definition that we can put into engineering specs, right?" Kidd said enthusiastically.

"We've got to be able to define it so that we can build it. We've got to get from the statement in the QDR -- which I agree with, which is a good macro-policy statement -- down to what does it look like at Fort Bliss? How much power? What installations need that power? For how long? And to what degree of reliability?"

Some argue that all military facilities should be able to operate off the grid for an unlimited period of time, a concept called "islanding." But full islanding has fallen out of favor with most Pentagon officials, who say that even with such capabilities, a base would not be able to operate for long if its neighbors were devastated, at minimum because most service members live with their families off-base.

"If the grid is down for days and everything in the nearby town is out, but you've got a lit up base -- what kind of message does that send?" asked Kevin Geiss, deputy assistant secretary for energy for the Air Force. "We either need to be prepared to figure out how we can also support outside the fence, or maybe that's not the solution."

Geiss argues that the focus should be on building a system that lets the most important missions stay up for as long as necessary, while letting go of lower-priority missions during outages. The Defense Science Board also took this tack and included a classified appendix to its report that lists facilities where the board believed building this limited form of islanding is most important.

What this would actually mean depends on the installation. Sites focused on training may be able to stay offline for a while, but facilities involved with battlefield missions like drone flights or real-time intelligence analysis likely cannot afford a gap. It would also depend on the circumstances surrounding the outage. During a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, for instance, facilities that would not normally be prioritized could become critical as regional relief centers.

"If all I could produce is 20 megawatts, I want to be able to do that 20 megawatts at the most important facility on the installation at that time," said Coby Jones, who manages the energy program at the Army's Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

"The situation and the mission determine what buildings are critical," he explained. "If it's just a natural disaster, different facilities are more important than others. If it is a military situation or mission that's going on, it's other facilities that need to have power to them. It's hard to put your finger on which building is most important and how to define that, because it is a sliding scale."

Jones' team was tapped by headquarters to help develop a template for approaching these challenges, but he said he himself is still trying to wrap his hands around the goal, calling energy security "still a big nebulous."

The only real guidance for Jones and others in similar positions comes from a Pentagon program focused on the most important defense assets. The list is classified, but a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office said DOD had at the time identified 34 assets around the world for the Defense Critical Infrastructure Program, which covers a number of risk areas, including access to power.

After the report criticized the program for not considering lengthier outages, Pentagon officials say they are now increasing the length of time that top assets will be able to run without the grid.

But many important assets did not make that list, officials say. For those computer systems, weapons platforms and buildings, base commanders are right now left to guess about what dangers they might encounter and how to prepare.

'Triple play'

Although DOD is struggling to define energy security, this much is clear: The military needs to have a better grasp of how it uses energy. It needs to use less. It needs a bigger portfolio of power sources. And it needs a more sophisticated way of managing its energy.

Dorothy Robyn, the Pentagon's top official for installations, calls helping the military achieve energy efficiency, expand renewable energy and improve power security a "triple play."

The less energy a given mission requires, the easier it is to keep going during a power shortage, she said. And with the right infrastructure, renewable energy can provide power to bases when the grid goes down, she argues.

"Energy security is the most important thing for us," she said during an interview in her Pentagon office. "Reducing demand, expanding supply -- energy security benefits from both of those things."

But critics say DOD's clean energy work is more about politics than security.

"Military investment should be driven by operational capacity -- whether something gives the military better or new capabilities," said Jack Spencer, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "The problem here is that neither of those things are what drive renewable investment in the military. Instead it's a political agenda. It's this desire to promote renewable energy sources."

Even for those who see clean technology as important, the lack of a clear definition of energy security means federal mandates for renewable energy and energy efficiency end up determining projects.

"Right now, the renewable energy mandates are what is driving investment, not energy security," said John Carroll, who directs military sales for the firm Petra Solar. "It's just this hodgepodge of technology without any direction."

Meanwhile, officials acknowledge that clean technology won't solve all their problems and can sometimes create troubles of its own.

"We don't care about energy for energy's sake, we care about energy and what it does to enable our mission," the Air Force's Geiss said. "The diversity of the missions and the installations that we have are going to require a number of different things. The solution could be a diesel generator. ... It could be a coal power plant. Or it could be solar panels with some battery backup or pumped hydro[power]. It really depends where you are, the amount of power you need to do the mission, and what the other potential partnerships could be."

There is agreement on one point, though: Real energy security will ultimately require a smarter grid.

"You simply can't call it energy security until you can control the electrons," said Robyn, whose office has invested in researching a military version of smart-grid technology, a microgrid, as part of a program that tests emerging energy technologies at military installations (Greenwire, Nov. 21, 2011). "We're making a sizeable investment in microgrids. That's a real priority."

The Pacific Command's headquarters on Oahu, the largest Hawaiian island, will soon be the showpiece of the military's microgrid efforts.

Last month, a coalition of national labs, universities, companies, utilities and the military kicked off a multi-year project that aims to pair smart microgrid systems with a "who's who" of cutting-edge energy technologies to show how an entire base can be islanded in a cyber-secure way.

Planners intend to tap an array of renewable energy technologies, as well as hydrogen fuel cells, batteries, vehicle-to-grid systems, energy efficiency technologies and a number of demand-side management and dynamic control systems.

The military's interest in the technology has spurred microgrid investments by defense, energy and engineering firms.

"This is a market that's undergoing a transformation right now," Boeing Energy Vice President Tim Noonan said when his company teamed with engineering giant Siemens last summer to work on military microgrids (Greenwire, Aug. 8, 2011).

"We see DOD leading the way to commercialization. If we can get it right at the Department of Defense, we think we can drive it across and into other commercial markets."

Creating business models

But this is not a good time to be requesting money at the Pentagon.

Military budget planners have spent the past year carving nearly a half-trillion dollars in budget cuts, while top brass have worn out the thesaurus' list of synonyms for "decimate" as they decry the damage that additional looming cuts would do to their forces and weapons.

At the same time, no one has yet made the business case for investing in energy security. Current rules require that renewable energy and efficiency projects prove they will bring savings over the long run, even if they carry an added security benefit. In fact, because the Pentagon operates on a five-year budget cycle, projects that pencil out to great investments over the long term often get turned down because they register to the budget as a near-term loss.

Microgrids are still in the pilot phase and the military has not yet decided what the business model will be for them. Because the technology would help energy managers use power more efficiently on a day-to-day basis, for instance by bringing unnecessary loads offline during peak demand times, some officials say microgrids may be able to create enough savings to pay for themselves. Not all of industry is convinced, though, and a group of business executives will be suggesting financial models to Robyn's office in a report this spring.

Ultimately, many say the military is going to have to decide what "secure energy" is worth to it if it wants to fix its vulnerabilities.

"Until someone establishes the value of energy security, I only have the business case to rely on, because right now the value of energy security is apparently zero," said Dan Nolan, a retired Army colonel who writes a defense energy blog.

The Navy has made a rough attempt to do this for its Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Va. Like many military installations, the base sits at the end of the power line. Last year it lost electricity 11 times.

Capt. Kenneth Branch, the commander for Naval Facilities Engineering Command Washington, estimates that the two days the center was without power during Hurricane Irene this summer cost it $60,000.

"That's just lost industrial productivity," he said, noting that the numbers helped him justify infrastructure investments. "I also spend a lot of money on my labor trying to figure what were the problems and get back up and online."

A fuller accounting could also count the costs associated with backup generators, including labor required for maintenance, the price of buying and transporting fuel, and the risk of failure.

Pentagon officials say they are beginning to think through some of these calculations, but nobody is sure yet whether extra money would follow.

"If the military is really serious about this, are we going to have to spend some dedicated funds on energy security?" the Army's Kidd said. "I don't know the answer to that, but I think those are the questions we need to start to ask."

Looking to Congress

Ultimately, the answers to those questions will come from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been bitterly divided on energy policy.

Indeed, a military energy issue that has become a symbol of the larger energy policy debate was one of the final points to be resolved in last month's congressional budget deal. Republicans mounted an effort to exempt the military from a 2007 ban on purchasing fuels like liquefied coal that have a higher greenhouse gas content than traditional petroleum, but in the end they acquiesced, leaving the ban intact.

While such clashes have commanded most of the attention, defense energy issues have quietly gained a bipartisan following in recent years. Provisions in line with Robyn's "triple play" have been steadily growing in the last three defense policy bills, and last summer eight Republicans and 15 Democrats launched a House caucus dedicated to educating their colleagues about the importance of "sustainable energy sources" for the military (E&E Daily, July 8, 2011).

At a briefing sponsored by the Defense Energy Security Caucus last month, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) said he sees defense energy issues as a big tent, where people concerned about climate change, national security and peak oil can find common cause.

"They're all sniping at each other when they ought to be locking arms and marching forward because they all have the same solutions," Bartlett said.

Now, as the military moves from recognizing its energy problems to acting on them, many say the department's work could provide the roadmap for the rest of the country.

"DOD does not make quick decisions," said Ray Clark, who served as an environmental official for the Army and at the White House Council on Environmental Quality during the Clinton administration. "They do a lot of thinking about it and when they do make these big transformations, the impact is huge."

Next week: A closer look at the role of renewable energy at military bases.

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