techstar | |
Obama praises Nellis - unaware of flaws has written many stories over the years about the US military’s early-adoption of off-grid energy strategies.  But some army and USAF bases are stymied by the big energy companies when it comes to readying themselves for a big outage caused by anything from solar storms to terrorist attacks.

A recent report from Nevada by Greenwire focuses on a base that carries out some of the Air Force’s most advanced work, including testing and flying drones.The 140 acres of solar panels at Nellis Air Force Base’s 14.2 megawatt array are useless when commercial power is out, thanks to a provision in the agreement with the local utility that lets NV Energy turn off the array if the grid power goes down.

It seems mad, but “ contractual and technical obstacles mean Nellis’ array won’t produce a watt of power if the grid goes down any time soon.  The deal reveals the hurdles facing the military as it tries to tap renewable energy in its search for energy security..

NV Energy claim the key issue is safety. The utility says it does not want the renewable power plant feeding energy to the grid if its engineers are fixing lines. But that is a ruse used widely by energy companies around the world.  A simple switch could solve that problem, and for large scale projects like this, a trusted operator would be required to throw it.  A similar arrangement may not work for ordinary households.  But what about an automatic switch in homes that have solar panels?  One that cannot be overridden and simply disconnects solar from the grid when the grid is down and connects back again when power returns to normal?  The electro-mechanical technology is child’s play but the gadget does not exist.  Why not?

Getting back to the US military, Nellis has not implemented that fix. No switching is allowed in their contract with the energy company.  Nor has the Navy at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, Calif., a 270-megawatt geothermal plant —  the only military installation that produces more power than it uses. Nor have many other U.S. military bases that have fields of solar panels and/or wind turbines.

The idea of using renewable energy to power critical missions was on the Pentagon agenda when Nellis was built in 2007 (though not when China Lake projects went up in 1987).

Today, as bases recognize the need to build renewable energy generation for reasons of energy security, there is no absolute requirement that vital services are maintained if the local power goes out. And that seems self-defeating.

“It’s not energy security if you’ve got renewable generation that you cannot access if the grid goes down,” Scott Sklar, a veteran renewable power consultant told Greenwire.

“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”  says the report.

The problem lies in the way the military were authorized to take on renewable energy projects, which are legally required to yield more in savings than they cost to build. Because of bad management and inaccurate projections of future costs by energy companies – projects can appear to have thin margins.  However as energy costs rise faster than predicted, the energy companies’ position looks increasingly tenuous.

“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,” says Greenwire.

Capt. Jeffrey Dodson, commander of the Navy’s China Lake installation, raised the issue at the Pentagon this fall.

Meanwhile, reported three years ago on one base which does have its own off-grid facility.  California’s Mojave Desert is home to the Marine Corps’ Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms. It has an off-grid energy system that will work during a grid outage.  It can disconnect from the grid.  It has a  7.2-megawatt gas cogeneration plant, so will be immune to solar storms, and it is building a smart microgrid independent of the power company’s.

The military is investing elsewhere in smart microgrids that respond to changes in renewable energy generation and send 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.

“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.”

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 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, Air Force’s energy spokesman.

Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the web site

2 Responses to “Energy companies halt USAF attempts to go off-grid”

Leave a Reply