Mil­i­tary’s so­lar power push loses speed un­der Trump

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY GREG GOR­DON ggor­[email protected]­clatchydc.com

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.

AERIALPHOTOSELITE.COM / DUKE EN­ERGY

The so­lar ar­ray at Camp Lejeune has 55,000 pan­els. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has largely erased the words “re­new­able en­ergy” from his agenda.

PABLO MARTINEZ MON­SI­VAIS AP

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump is ap­plauded as he holds up the signed En­ergy In­de­pen­dence Ex­ec­u­tive Or­der in 2017.

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