Military’s solar power push loses speed under Trump
Camp Lejeune’s 55,000 shiny solar panels, like other renewable energy projects on military bases across the country, are on the front lines of a plan to provide backup power in case terrorists, cyber saboteurs or violent weather cripple the nation’s electric grid.
But President Donald Trump has all but eradicated the words “renewable energy” from the agenda and, according to two former Pentagon officials, slowed progress toward upgrading emergency electricity supplies at bases like Camp Lejeune.
Now it’s no longer clear that the Pentagon will make use of all of the solar farms installed both to combat global warming and to enhance national security at U.S. installations here and abroad.
McClatchy gathered data on more than 70 bases that have partnered with electric utilities in solar energy projects that were part of an effort toward replacing decadesold backup systems relying on costly and sometimes unreliable diesel generators.
Only a couple of dozen bases, mainly small ones, have so far incorporated their solar projects into new, computer-commanded configurations known as “microgrids,” as experts recommend. Microgrids blend and distribute energy from multiple resources to provide reliable emergency power at less cost.
A microgrid could include large-scale battery storage and any of a range of options, including solar, natural gas, diesel generators, biomass, wind tur- bines, geothermal, hydrogen-based fuel cells and even small-module nuclear reactors. If any of these sources failed or needs replenishing, the computer program would instantly switch to another.
“I am concerned, and I am frustrated,” said Dennis McGinn, a retired admiral who as an assistant Navy secretary managed both that service’s and many of the Marine Corps’ energy needs during President Barack Obama’s second term. Progress, he said, “has slowed down,” even while privatesector technology is leaping ahead.
After Hurricane Florence’s tropical winds and dayslong deluge hammered Camp Lejeune in September, knocking out power for days, the rows of solar panels installed by Duke Energy were useless. On a normal day, they feed Duke’s other customers in and around Jacksonville, N.C. Three years after its activation, the system was not yet fully wired so its electricity could be redirected to the base during an emergency.
As a precaution a few days before Florence hit, Duke turned off the solar project that converts photons in the sun’s rays to electricity, in case flooding or other conditions might make it a safety hazard, company spokesman Randy Wheeless said.
Lejeune and the nearby Marine Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C., relied on their diesel generators to ride out days of post-Florence power outages.
The rising risks to the U.S. electric grid in recent years have awakened the Pentagon to the possibility that a lengthy outage could paralyze military bases if their backup diesel generators, most of which experts say are poorly maintained, perform poorly.
The cyber threat is now so great that federal agencies must contend with tens of thousands of incidents each year. Last March, a government alert revealed the FBI and Department of Homeland Security had detected that “Russian government cyber actors” had gained “remote access” to U.S. energy sector networks.
“What the Army has recognized is that there is an increasing possibility of a longer event,” said Executive Director Michael McGhee of the Army Office of Energy Initiatives. “There is now sophistication among people who want to do harm to the power grid.”
Further, the catastrophic damage from Hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Florence and Michael on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts since 2012 could be a harbinger of worse onslaughts to come. Scientists warn that seas warming from climate change will produce ever stronger hurricanes in the years ahead.
TRUMP: END ‘WAR ON COAL’
While Obama beckoned the military services to each help fight global warming by adding carbon-free renewable energy equal to the output of a large nuclear power plant, Trump repeatedly dismissed climate change as “a hoax” during his presidential campaign. After his election, he vowed to end Obama’s “war on coal.”
Last May 17, Trump repealed a 2015 Obama executive order directing federal agencies to help fight global warming over the next decade by cutting energy consumption 25 percent and using renewable sources to meet 30 percent of each building’s energy needs.
Trump issued his own executive order that set a governmentwide objective of reaching energy “sustainability,” but scrapped Obama’s numerical goals. Only once did Trump’s order mention the words “renewable energy,” in pledging to comply with a law requiring its use.
Then in August, at a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Trump announced he would soon unveil a military strategy for reviving the coal industry. That campaign vow has drawn skepticism from McGinn and other former Pentagon officials who say Wall Street would never finance a new coal initiative.
So far, the nationwide installments of millions of solar panels on military bases has worked mainly to the advantage of Duke and other electric utilities. In many cases, they got lengthy, rent-free land leases in return for absorbing all of the hundreds of millions of dollars in aggregate installation costs, though the Navy demanded that the utilities performed on-site work equaling the land’s fair rent value. The large solar farms feed the grid, and the utilities count their output toward state requirements that they expand renewable energy production.
Growing numbers of microgrid pilot projects are underway at bases across the country. At North Carolina’s Fort Bragg, whose 55,000 troops represent 11 percent of the active duty U.S. Army, Honeywell Corp. is collaborating on a $5 million pilot microgrid project that includes a natural gas-powered turbine and what the company touts as “hack-proof” computer software, said Audrey Oxendine, the base’s chief of energy and utilities.
New technology takes time. It also costs money that has come sparingly from Congress.
But it’s an open question to what degree the Pentagon will make use of the Obama-era solar projects as part of microgrids.
The solar array at Camp Lejeune has 55,000 panels. President Donald Trump has largely erased the words “renewable energy” from his agenda.
President Donald Trump is applauded as he holds up the signed Energy Independence Executive Order in 2017.