Military Microgrids Increase Resiliency for Mission Critical Operations

This is the fourth post in a Microgrid Knowledge series and focuses on military microgrids and how this clean energy option can increase resiliency for mission critical operations.

Military Microgrids

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Mission critical is a phrase almost synonymous with military operations, and in an increasingly electrified world, critical missions cannot be accomplished without electricity. Today’s military needs electricity for everything from logistics and communications to vehicle repair and field hospitals.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) recognized its vulnerability to the flow of fossil fuels years ago and instituted programs to reduce its reliance on those fuels, often replacing them with cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy.

Across all branches of the military, the DOD has a goal of meeting at least 20 percent of its demand with renewable resources by fiscal year 2020. By that same date, the DOD is also looking to reduce facility energy intensity by 37.5 percent and decrease non-combat greenhouse gas emissions by 34 percent.

Concerns about energy security are not new among the top military brass. The military has long used backup generators and small, isolated, self-contained grids in remote locations to ensure operational integrity. But the advent of the modern microgrid has changed the way the military and the federal government approach reliability and sustainability.

Microgrids are resilient because they can “island,” that is, separate from the grid and operate autonomously during a natural disaster—think of Hurricane Harvey or Irma—or other emergencies, enabling the uninterrupted flow of power.

“The desire to meet renewable energy goals turns a light on in people’s’ heads. They say, ‘While we are doing this, can’t we use this to power our facility in case of an outage?’” says Anthony Colonnese, vice president of energy security solutions at Ameresco.

Weaving in reliability with military microgrids

For instance, a military base could plan to install solar panels for some portion of its load and to help meet its renewable goals and realize that solar power could also make the base more resilient and self-sufficient.

“The trick is to take something like solar power, which is a variable generation source, and to make an application to weave that into reliability,” Colonnese says.

military microgrids

Today’s military needs electricity for everything from logistics and communications to vehicle repair and field hospitals. Many are turning to military microgrids.

The Navy was one of the first branches of the military to embrace microgrids. Not only did the Navy build a microgrid in San Diego, it linked three microgrids together, one at the hospital at Naval Base San Diego, another at a data center at Naval Base Coronado, and the third at Naval Base Point Loma.

The Navy identifies three main benefits it derives from microgrids: energy resilience, energy security, and cost savings.

Microgrids are resilient because they can “island,” that is, separate from the grid and operate autonomously during a natural disaster—think of Hurricane Harvey or Irma—or other emergencies, enabling the uninterrupted flow of power.

The Navy was one of the first branches of the military to embrace microgrids. Click To Tweet

Much of the U.S. power grid relies on technology that dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, making it vulnerable to both physical and cyber attacks. Microgrids can be built from the ground up using the most up-to-date cyber security protocols.

Cost of power outages to the military

The DOD reported 114 utility power outages that affected military installations and lasted eight hours in fiscal year 2014. Those outages cost the DOD $246,000 per day. Military microgrids can provide cost savings by helping to avoid losses due to outages. Microgrids can also help reduce electricity bills, if they are programmed to switch to lower cost local generation sources when grid power prices spike.

In 2011, the DOD joined with the Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security to launch the Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security (SPIDERS) project. The aim was to demonstrate a secure microgrid architecture able to maintain operational integrity at military installations. The program resulted in three microgrids that function as permanent energy systems at Joint Base Pearl Harbor- Hickam in Hawaii, at Fort Carson in Colorado, and at Camp Smith in Hawaii.

According to a Navy report the SPIDERS program met all of its operational objectives. The military microgrids withstood a simulated “red team” attack, improved reliability and efficiency—resulting in a 30 percent reduction in fossil fuel usage, and enabled the successful integration of renewable energy resources while providing a platform for future cost reductions.

The solar panels of the Alcatraz microgrid have cut fuel consumption at the facility by 45 percent since they were installed in 2012. The facility is naturally islanded, and high fuel costs were one of the main reasons why the prison closed in 1963.

Other microgrid applications for government

The military isn’t the only branch of the government pursuing microgrids. Alcatraz, the former prison in San Francisco Bay now run by the National Park Service, is home to one of the largest military microgrids in the country. The solar panels of the Alcatraz microgrid have cut fuel consumption at the facility by 45 percent since they were installed in 2012. The facility is naturally islanded, and high fuel costs were one of the main reasons why the prison closed in 1963.

Overall, federal buildings consume $6.5 billion in utilities every year, including $400 million spent directly by the General Services Administration. Like the military, the GSA is trying to improve efficiency, lower emissions and reduce costs at the buildings it manages. Between 2003 and 2014, the GSA reported a 23.54 percent reduction in energy consumption.

military microgrids

Despite the many benefits of microgrids, even within the government and the military with its high priority on mission critical performance, the biggest barrier to implementation is still costs.

Microgrids are one of the tools the GSA is using to meet those goals. In Washington, D.C. the GSA is looking at using a microgrid as part of an upgrade of a large block of buildings it operates.

Among the GSA’s goals are increasing the comfort of occupants, ensuring reliability, improving the ability to engage in sophisticated demand-side management measures, and even winning LEED Gold certification. The U.S. Treasury building, built in 1836, won a LEED Gold certificate and reduced its annual operating costs by $3.5 million.

Despite the many benefits of microgrids, even within the government and the military with its high priority on mission critical performance, the biggest barrier to implementation is still costs.

How to pay for energy security

“Everyone is interested in having energy security, but it can be difficult to budget the money,” says Colonnese. One way to approach the problem, he says, is to combine conservation and energy efficiency with resiliency in order to enable the combined package to pay for itself out of savings. One of the first things to do when looking at installing a microgrid, he says, is to reduce load. “If you can get your load down, your overall costs are going to be different.”

“One of the first things to do when looking at installing a microgrid is to find ways to reduce load. If you can get your load down, your overall costs are going to be different.” – Anthony Colonnese, Vice President of Energy Security Solutions, Ameresco

Goals should also be looked at in perspective, says Colonnese, by “clarifying what you are looking to back up or protect.”

No one wants to be without power—and some operations cannot withstand even a momentary loss of power—but for some uses, it could be acceptable to be without power for five minutes. “There is a huge cost to having power be seamless,” says Colonnese.

There is not a single answer when it comes to designing reliable, secure and cost effective military microgrids, he says. “It is a process.” And it’s one the military and federal government have been undertaking in earnest, acting as early leaders not only in demonstrating microgrid technology, but also in readying for use by the commercial and industrial sector, as described in the next chapter.

 Over the next few weeks, the Microgrid Knowledge series on clean energy microgrids will cover the following topics:

Download the full report, “The Rise of Clean Energy Microgrids: Why microgrids make sense for hospitals, higher education, military & government and businesses,”  downloadable free of charge courtesy of Ameresco.

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