The Commander-in-Chief has written off climate change, but the US Armed Services sure haven’t. In the latest development on that score, the US Air Force is tooting its own horn for ripping the title of #1 energy consumer off the nameplate of the sprawling Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, and transforming it into a showcase for energy efficiency and water conservation.
Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?
Tinker Air Force Base dropped its energy consumption by an impressive 35% and water use by 9% through an energy efficiency upgrade that launched in 2016. With 57 buildings and 10 million square feet to cover, that adds up to a lot of energy and water.
On the energy side, the Air Force estimates a savings of 641 billion Btu (British thermal units). For the record, water clocks in at a savings of 38 million gallons including wastewater, but that’s not what’s really interesting about the project.
Tinker aims to demonstrate a savings of $20.55 million in combined utility, operating, and maintenance costs, meaning that everybody else in the Air Force — and the whole Department of Defense — would be nuts if they didn’t follow suit and upgrade their own energy-sucking facilities.
If you’re wondering who’s gonna pay for all this, that’s where things get even more interesting. The Defense Department has been one of the most enthusiastic adopters of something called ESPC for Energy Savings Performance Contracts, in which the property owner pays little or no money up front for energy efficiency upgrades. The cost comes off their monthly utility bills in increments, while they still save money compared to their previous rates.
If that sounds good to be true, maybe. Or, maybe not. A 2017 GAO analysis found deficiencies in reporting for hundreds of military energy projects since 2005, but those issues may have been fixed since then.
Last year, the House passed an amendment to the FY 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that would accelerate the ESPC trend. The bill’s sponsor, Congresswoman Elaine Luria (D-Virginia), cited an apparently more recent GAO study concluding that “most ESPCs meet or exceed cost savings projections.”
Look Out, Oil & Gas — You’re Next
If you can figure out whatever happened to the Luria amendment, drop us a note in the comment thread. Meanwhile, Tinker was an Air Force showcase for efficiency upgrades even before the ESPC launched, with an eye on improving productivity and readiness as well as saving money. CleanTechnica was among those taking note in 2016, with this observation:
“… the US Air Force is determined to make its Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma a national model for energy efficiency retrofits. Also known as the home of the recently reclaimed 56-year-old B-52H ‘Ghost Rider’ Stratofortress bomber, Tinker already has a 30% overall energy savings under its belt, and it is aiming at 44% with a new round of updates.”
The savings is especially impressive considering Tinker’s complicated web of responsibility, which includes “aircraft maintenance, modifications, overhaul and repair including battle damage repair for a wide variety of commodities for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and foreign military sales.”
To the extent that Tinker relies on petroleum fuel and natural gas, this is all really bad news for oil and gas stakeholders. Much attention has been focusing on the shift to renewables, but efficiency upgrades can be just as effective at pushing fossil fuel out of the energy market, especially when fossils lose a major customer like the Defense Department.
Speaking Of Renewable Energy…
In addition to pursuing energy efficiency upgrades, the US Department of Defense has been an early adopter of solar power (and wind power to a lesser extent), leveraging its buying power to help grow the domestic market for renewables, microgrids, and other clean tech.
Tinker is a good example. Back in 2013 when the cost of solar PV was still relatively high, Tinker installed several arrays of rooftop solar thermal panels designed for heating water.
The new solar panels were estimated to save 50-70% in fuel related to hot water, even without an energy storage feature. That makes sense considering that most of the panels were installed on Tinker’s industrial buildings, where much of the activity would take place during daytime, peak sunlight hours. For example, Tinker’s 2013 estimate for washing an aircraft was 240-400 gallons per minute of hot water.
As for saving money, that’s also an interesting point. In a 2013 article about the new solar arrays, Tinker spokesperson Britton Young was happy to emphasize the importance of cutting fossil fuel consumption regardless of any cost savings, as Tinker was was already benefiting from low utility rates in its home state.
“Tinker doesn’t have a renewable energy goal, however we’re supporting the Air Force goal, which is 7.5 percent of energy to be renewable by 2013,” Young explained, “It makes more sense to have renewable energy goals in Florida, California or Arizona where utility rates are higher than here.”
Solar Energy Up, Oil & Gas Down
As one indication of how much clean tech has matured over the past six years, back in 2013 Tinker figured it was getting a pretty good deal on its thermal solar panels, compared to investing in photovoltaic technology. At the time, the estimated cost per kilowatt hour for solar PV was 12-17 cents, way more than the low 3.2-cent rate Tinker was already enjoying on its grid-supplied electricity.
Now that the cost of solar (and wind) is competitive with fossil fuel in more markets, it stands to reason that the Department of Defense would be quite interested in any new technology that saves money, increases productivity, enhances community relations, and supports its national defense mission, to boot.
On that basis, coal has already lost its grip on the DOD, and oil and gas are next.
In one recent development that should wrack the nerves of oil and gas stakeholders, the Air Force’s AFWERX innovation hub has issued a carbon negative challenge for the entire Defense Department, which could involve a triple threat of natural carbon sequestration, efficiency upgrades, and renewables.
The challenge was an open call to improve military capability and range as well as efficiency. It covered all the bases including logistics risk mitigation, drag reduction, lightweighting, more efficient training plans and flight formations, new technology and software, fuel load optimization, and improved education and training.
The API challenge is another one of those Obama-era programs that still has legs. It launched in 2014 and achieved a projected $241.3 million in savings by 2016 through 192 ideas culled from a field of thousands of submissions by Airmen.
The savings ranged far afield from energy, including one idea that saved $200,000 in digitization costs for 1950’s-era film, and another that saved $63 million in manufacturing costs related to sustaining the B-2.
Energy-related submissions leaned heavily on LED lighting in those first two years. Considering the latest developments in clean tech since 2016, it will be interesting to see what ideas make the final cut in the latest API challenge, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo: “Two B-1B Lancer aircraft sit tail to tail at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, Sept. 25, 2020. An eight-year project to install the Integrated Battle Station on the B-1B Lancer fleet has been completed ahead of schedule. Sixty aircraft went through the modification process that began in late 2012 and was completed in September 2020″ (credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Paul Shirk).