Evolving Energy Industry Creates New Opportunities for Securing Power to Army Installations

In the past couple of years, energy resilience has become a watchword for the military services as they adjust their focus from adopting renewables to reducing their installations’ vulnerability to disruptions in the electrical grid. Shaping the Army’s approach to enhancing resiliency are recent trends in energy production, distribution and economics that are creating more opportunities for installations to use a distributed generation approach to help reduce supply chain vulnerability, Michael McGhee, executive director of the Army Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI), told Defense Communities 360.

Since its predecessor organization was created in 2011, OEI has pursued the development of large-scale renewable and alternative energy projects on Army installations. The service’s emphasis on resilience favors new projects which deploy resources that are behind an installation’s fence line and provide an islanding capability — the ability to power an installation’s critical assets during a grid outage.

The other key for the Army is realizing its goals of enhancing energy security and resiliency through investments from the private sector, either utilities or independent power producers. Industry has demonstrated a strong appetite for developing renewables over the past three years, a level of interest that likely will be sustained going forward, particularly for solar projects, McGhee said.

“Our office tries to capitalize on where the investment opportunities are,” he noted.

But the Army isn’t limiting itself to renewables. Lately, industry has expressed interest in developing electrical plants powered by natural gas to take advantage of the resource’s declining cost as a fuel source and design improvements that allow the use of smaller gas-fired plants. For the past year, Army officials have been discussing with the local utility in Lawton, Okla., the possibility of developing a 50-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant and a 20-megawatt solar farm on Fort Sill. The utility earlier had been considering constructing a new natural gas-fired plant to improve service delivery in Lawton, but the prospect of locating it on post only arose last year, McGhee said.

The primary benefit of the project from the Army’s standpoint is the natural gas component of the project would offer the post an islanding capability, providing power to critical infrastructure when the grid goes down. The two sides now are hammering out the details of a development agreement.

While interest from utilities and independent power producers in developing natural gas projects is rising, he said, no other such Army projects are under development at this point. In a larger sense, industry’s growing interest in generating electricity with natural gas on Army installations is just one example of how the service’s focus on resiliency and adoption of a distributed generation model is creating new opportunities for private sector investment.

“There’s a broad-scale change that is under way,” McGhee said.

Energy storage, by providing installations more flexibility in delivering power, is another component of the Army’s approach to improving reliability. Deployed in conjunction with a solar array, for example, utility-scale batteries allow a plant to provide power when the sun is not shining. With the cost of batteries declining dramatically, their use is “becoming very attractive,” he said.

“And [the deployment of batteries] marries up with distributed generation in our communities where our bases are,” McGhee said.

OEI also is looking at microgrids as a component in the Army’s approach for achieving resiliency. As the distributed generation model takes root, microgrids are receiving a lot of attention throughout the energy industry.

Another trend has seen OEI increasingly partner with utilities as state commissions embrace the Army’s preferred model for achieving resilient installations — a reliance on distributed generation assets, renewables (in most cases) and energy storage systems. “Regulators are seeing the trends,” McGhee said.

“We’re pleased by the increased partnership opportunities we are seeing from utilities,” he said, before stressing that OEI is equally open to working with independent power producers as well.

OEI isn’t the only Army office focusing on improving the service’s energy resiliency. A new directive issued in February requires all of the Army’s active and reserve component facilities to sustain operation of critical missions for a minimum of 14 days in the event of a disruption affecting energy and water supplies. While installations already have emergency backup power capabilities, the directive requires Army facilities to continue operating during a longer disruption, McGhee said. The directive calls for landholding commands to develop plans — and budget for needed projects — to close outstanding gaps in meeting the two-week requirement for providing energy and water.

The service still is developing guidance and a schedule for assessing compliance with the directive, he said.

To keep track of OEI’s latest initiatives, visit its website.

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Dan Cohen
Dan Cohen
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