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What’s Driving The US Military’s Energy Efficiency Makeover? (#CleanTechnica Interview)

As the California grid wrestles with drought and wildfires, the US military is focusing on energy efficiency and renewables for resiliency and security.

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The US military has been front and center in the renewable energy revolution. Military bases in the US have also become showpieces for microgrids and energy efficiency upgrades that foster resiliency and cut costs, too. As the wildfire situation in California demonstrates, the civilian world could also benefit from this double focus on renewables and resilience.

renewable energy efficiency

Renewable energy and energy efficiency upgrade for Parris Island, South Carolina (courtesy of Ameresco).

For some additional insights, CleanTechnica sat down last week for a talk with George Sakellaris, President and CEO of the energy services company Ameresco, and Leila Dillon, the firm’s VP of Marketing and Communication.

Contract Policy Makes a Difference

Ameresco first crossed the CleanTechnica radar back in 2010, when it engineered one of the first commercial biogas systems in the US. That project involved a civilian wastewater treatment plant in Texas, and it illustrates the common thread running through Ameresco’s approach, which is based on waste-as-an-opportunity.

At the time, the new biogas system was projected to pump $200,000 annually back into the cost of running the treatment plant, while also generating reclaimable biosolids for soil enhancement and water for irrigation.

The military connection caught our eye in 2014, when Ameresco nailed down a solar power contract for Fort Detrick as part of the US Army Corps of Engineers’ $7 billion renewable energy plan.

Like many of the military’s recent renewable energy projects, the Fort Detrick solar farm was made possible through the now-familiar power purchase agreement tool, which enables solar buyers to acquire their solar panels without up-front costs.

As Mr. Sakellaris pointed out, PPA financing is a relatively new thing for the US government. Federal contracting regulations had to be revised to accommodate the longer terms under which PPAs run, typically at 20 to 25 years.

Infrastructure Upgrades Provide The Initial Push

Sakellaris noted that the federal contract revisions also provide for government facilities to upgrade chillers, boilers, and other energy infrastructure without paying up front. The cost of the upgrade is paid back through energy efficiency savings over the long term.

Though renewable energy doesn’t necessarily have to be part of the mix, these energy efficiency upgrades dovetail with the resiliency benefit of microgrids and onsite solar (wind is still a mixed bag for military facilities, more on that later).

Ms. Dillon also pointed out another driver of the military energy transformation: military facilities tend to be more tuned in to the advantages of new technology overall, not just in the energy field.

“The military is technologically advanced and always looking for innovation,” she said, “And so we’ve been able to put in place these comprehensive projects.”

All of this comes together in Ameresco’s recent energy makeover for the US Marine Corps Parris Island recruiting depot in South Carolina.

The Parris Island package replaced a 1940s-era steam plant with upgrades that include solar power, battery energy storage, and a new microgrid system. All together, the upgrade is anticipated to cut the facility’s reliance on grid-supplied energy by 75% and reduce annual carbon emissions overall by 37,165 metric tons.

The efficiency upgrade is also expected to cut water consumption by 25%.

Solar power as a force multiplier

Even with PPA-style financing, getting the civilian sector interested in energy efficiency upgrades is a whole ‘nother can of worms.

Part of the problem is that many facilities have been making due with the same old equipment for years, and don’t see the benefit of fixing what works.

As Sakellaris and Dillon see it, though, low cost solar power is beginning to act as a motivator. Facility operators that are interested in acquiring on-site solar panels can more easily grasp the cost advantage of energy efficiency upgrades as well.

Much of Ameresco’s non-military work is currently focused on schools and other institutions that are interested in solar energy and can take advantage of the company’s long term operation and maintenance services.

The Human Factor

Another interesting item to emerge from the conversation was the interplay of human behavior and energy efficient buildings.

The problem is that you can design energy efficiency into a building and its systems, but human operators don’t always operate or use the systems as intended.

Ameresco’s focus on long term service contracts provides a solution, because the company can deploy remote sensors to ensure that the building systems are being operated up to spec.

Smaller Is Better, With Energy Storage

One interesting aspect of Ameresco’s business model is its focus on small scale solar installations, for example on landfills, highway rights-of-way, and other community property.

As California and other states look for resiliency solutions for their energy supply, small scale projects like these — aka DERS for distributed energy resources —  are already becoming the focus of military energy policy.

Energy storage has been the missing piece of the DERS puzzle, but Sakalleris and Dillon foresee that piece falling into place as the cost of batteries and other storage systems come down.

To sum up, if you want to see the future of the civilian energy landscape in the US, take a look at what the US military is doing today.

Follow me on Twitter.

Image: Solar farm at US Marines Corps Recruiting Depot Parris Island courtesy of Ameresco.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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