The U.S. military’s drive to replace fossil fuels with sustainable energy could result in an interesting twist: the military could wind up being a net supplier of energy to the U.S. electricity grid, in the form of geothermal power tapped from land owned by the Department of Defense (pdf alert).
Since 2004, Fort Drum in upstate New York has been installing geothermal systems in 19 buildings in various stages of completion. Across the country in Texas, Fort Bliss is looking to geothermal for achieving net zero carbon emissions in ten years. There are many more examples in between, and a study by the the Engineer Research and Development Center of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers suggests that that the Department of Defense has enough geothermal resources to produce electricity for the national grid as well as its own bases.
Sustainable Energy and the U.S. Military
Even as the previous administration cultivated a gung-ho attitude toward the pursuit of fossil fuels, the U.S. military was busy under the radar, quietly ramping up its commitment to low-risk, sustainable energy. Now that the Obama administration has begun to pump more public resources into alternative fuels, the rhetorical gloves are off. As aptly stated by U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Howard Bromberg, the Commanding General of Fort Bliss, the goal of the base’s geothermal program is “to become champions of renewable energy in production generation, efficiency and conservation.”
Sustainable Energy at Fort Drum
Fort Drum’s foray into geothermal began with the new Wheeler-Sack Air Field Complex. Based on performance quality, geothermal quickly became the energy source of choice for new barracks projects at the base, and eventually for all new construction where possible. Geothermal is not suitable for open buildings such as hangars, so these structures incorporate solar walls (in fact, Fort Drum has the world’s largest collection of solar air heated systems). The latest geothermal project at Fort Drum is being incorporated into the new Child Development Center, which will also be the base’s first ever LEED Gold certified building. The cost of the geothermal system was about 30% greater than conventional HVAC, but the payback period is only three to seven years.
Geothermal Energy from Oil and Gas Wells
Sustainable energy from oil and gas might sound like an oxymoron, but bear with me. As part of its work in Iraq and post-Katrina coastal states, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) analyzed the geothermal potential in the region and noted that the Gulf Coast has thousands of oil and gas wells that are deep enough to reach temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, and more. The report suggested that as a short term approach, fluid from oil and gas wells could be tapped for its geothermal potential by installing portable generators at wellheads or other on-site facilities. The use of fluid and infrastructure at existing wells would help reduce costs, compared to drilling new wells exclusively for a new geothermal facility.
Geothermal Energy on Department of Defense Lands
The report, in the form of a 36-slide PowerPoint presentation, also noted that on Department of Defense lands alone there is a potential for up to 926 gigawatts of geothermal power. It identified suitable lands at bases across the country, from the east coast to the west coast, and from Florida as far north as Missouri. While observing that there are some conditions for a successful geothermal program, at the bottom of slide 33 you can find the money quote with this modestly stated point: “Sell-back excess capacity.” It could be that the U.S. public is sitting on a renewable energy gold mine in the form of Defense Department property, which could play a critical role in our new energy future.
Update: Here’s another article on the subject of oil and gas geothermal cogeneration.
Image: Volcano by Image Editor on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.