Coal Loses Again As US Military Pushes Clean Power Envelope

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How much do you really support our troops? If you’re really serious about national defense, take a look at your state’s clean power policies. A new report provides evidence that cities and states can help US military facilities become more resilient and secure, simply by adopting stronger clean power policies that apply to the civilian world — in other words, by ditching coal.

Photo: Wind turbine and solar array at Toole Army Depot, Utah via USACE.

That’s assuming, of course, that civilian policy makers really want to support our troops. The coal-friendly rhetoric coming from the White House, and the anti-renewables track record of top decision makers in some states (you know who you are) seem to indicate otherwise, but let’s leave that aside for now and get to the report.

Clean Power And National Defense

For those of you new to the topic of the US military and renewable energy, well, it’s quite a topic.

Even before wind and solar started to become cost-competitive with fossil fuels, military policymakers noted advantages in cost stability, resiliency, community relations and energy security as well as public health and environmental benefits.

The advantages of renewable energy are also evident in overseas operations, where portable and scavenge-able energy provides a competitive edge. That includes helping to reduce casualties related to fuel transportation.

Beyond the role of active duty policymakers, the rise of sustainable fuels has also sparked lobbying activity by veterans’ organizations and other military stakeholders in support of clean power for US military operations.

Making The Case For Clean Power Partnerships

The new report is titled Beyond the Fence Line: Strengthening Military Capabilities Through Energy Resilience Partnerships.

Released last Friday by the Association of Defense Communities, the report was prepared with the energy innovation consulting firm Converge Strategies.

As the title of the report suggests, the key element here is partnerships. Converge’s mission statement sets the table:

We envision a future in which the military, private sector, and government work in concert to advance energy solutions for American security and prosperity.

If you’re wondering why the US military, with its enormous budget, can’t simply buy all the clean tech it needs, that’s a good question. If you have an answer, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Meanwhile, here’s the nut of the problem as described in Beyond the Fence Line (break added for readability):

DoD energy infrastructure on bases has degraded as a result of cutbacks in military construction and maintenance funding, resulting in a marked increase in significant power outages.

With budget shortfalls, DoD has attempted to leverage private sector financing to complete energy projects, with more than $2.9 billion in energy performance contract projects awarded since FY 2012.

DoD and the military services are expected to look to private sector financing as a critical tool to advance their resilient infrastructure goals going forward.

If this thing about private sector financing is starting to ring some bells, you may be thinking of the US Army and its aggressive deployment of power purchase agreements for on-site solar energy.

That’s part of the solution, but the report suggests that public-private partnerships can step things up a notch.

Next-Level Partnerships For US Energy Security

The report describes four case studies, so there’s a lot to chew on in terms of different pathways for pursuing renewable energy at military facilities.

The report also includes natural gas in the “clean” category, but let’s leave that aside for now and zero in on the bit where they talk about the role of utilities. That’s where the envelope-pushing comes in:

…As demonstrated by the cases across the Southeast and in Connecticut, utilities can play a leading and innovative role in national security investments as proponents, partners, owners and operators of military energy resilience projects.

Particularly in states without electricity market competition, utility engagement in resilience projects can support regulatory decisions that spur security and economic gains for defense communities and military installations.

Military energy resilience projects that diversify state generation portfolios can also place long- term downward pressure on electricity rates.

Did you catch that thing about forcing electricity rates down on a statewide basis?

Does that ring any bells? Yes? Good!

A similar “beyond the fence line” approach is already at work in the private sector, as major companies move ramp up the scale of their clean power buys.

One good example is GM. CleanTechnica recently sat down on the phone with the automaker for some insights into how clean power buyers can accelerate the renewable energy trend on a community-wide basis.

Here’s what GM’s global manager of renewable energy, Rob Threlkeld, had to say:

We’ve had some success with power purchase agreements but we want to integrate with utilities, and have constructive conversations with them.

Utilities really are the natural aggregator. Renewables are lowest cost solution but the challenge is how to make them accessible to all, not just the large companies but also the supply chain.

The Business Renewables Center of the Rocky Mountain Institute made a similar argument in a recent CleanTechnica interview:

As companies start meeting their direct renewable energy operational goals they start looking at their supply chains, which can account for 80% of their emissions.

On site renewable energy is a great way for companies to experience procurement in a relatively low risk way, but on site does not address at scale their overall energy needs and their emissions needs. So, they are turning to offsite development.

Lessons Learned From The DOD

As for recommendations, Beyond the Fence Line advocates for host communities and military facilities to include military facilities when they set renewable energy goals.

The report also calls for establishing joint resilience planning, in recognition that “military installations are only as secure as the communities that neighbor them.”

Repurposing the existing network of state military advisory bodies would be a good start. According to the report, these bodies are active in at least 35 US states and Guam, but currently their main focus is on encroachment issues.

Another mechanism for joint action is a relatively new platform, called an Intergovernmental Support Agreeement. ISGAs help streamline the process for local governments to provide military facilities with foundational civic services like waste disposal, grounds maintenance, and animal control.

According to the report, to date the use of IGSAs in fostering energy resilience has been limited, but the the Navy’s experience with its MCAS Miramar facility in San Diego indicates a path forward.

The report also identifies new pathways that are written into the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. The 2019 NDA provides for a new Defense Community Infrastructure Pilot Program, which would commit DOD to provide up to 70% of the cost of civic infrastructure that supports military installations.

The 2019 NDA also contains provisions that would make it easier for military installations to accept direct state financing. Some states already foster renewable energy development at military bases by including military facilities in enterprise zones, among other policies.

Sorry, Coal

As for coal, the US military has a long history of transitioning from one form of energy to another as new, more nimble and sustainable alternatives come on the scene.

Coal is no exception. Just last year, for example, the US Navy retired its last remaining on-site coal power plant in favor of natural gas.

And, this is where it gets interesting.

Beyond the Fence Line argues that host communities can apply DOD’s renewable energy experiences to promote clean power (aka anti-coal) policies that, in turn, support military resiliency:

State and local governments, for example, could explore civilian analogues to DOD energy resilience policies, or whether the coordinating functions provided by the military services’ energy program offices could be replicated at the state level.

Great idea! For additional reading check out the Florida Defense Alliance report on DOD community energy partnerships.

Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is reaching out to Converge for some additional insights into how the US military can help states and local communities kick the coal habit, so stay tuned for more on that score.

Update: Beyond the Fence Line co-author Wilson Rickerson of Converge got back to CleanTechnica to help tease out some of the lessons that cities are learning — and can learn — from military resiliency. Here are his comments (edited for clarity and flow):

The military, states and cities are all on the frontier of what resilience looks like.

Military installations are like cities in their own right, and the military takes long term power access very seriously.

Cities doing interesting things with long term climate resilience and extreme weather resilience, so they are also taking power access seriously.

The military has policies that create targets and objectives for resiliency. As yet, however, cities haven’t developed those types of targets — for example, being able to to stay up and running for seven days [in case of a grid outage].

Another element is that the military is paying attention to local energy resources. Look at what types of energy are most resilient. The Department of Defense’s answer is: the ones that are most proximal.

Using creative financing and procurement to reach your target is also important. Cities and states have done a great job of using non-public funding and the military is starting to do that to achieve resilience purposes.

Another thing we can learn from the military is partnership. As the report points out there are ways for cities and states to actively partner with the military to accurately identify what the resilient programs are that you should be working on.

So far a lot of the civilian funding on power has been for pilot plants and demonstrations, which are advancing the science and the art of the possible. Now that we know this stuff works, the question is how do we re-prioritize and plan. In other words, now that we’ve demonstrated and piloted, what are the more standardized targets for what resiliency will look like.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

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