The U.S. is at a transformative moment in electricity. And the military is helping us move toward a new era of independence.
The U.S. electrical grid was ranked by the National Academy of Engineering as the greatest achievement of the 20th century, and it was this vast infrastructure that helped to power our economy, enhance our communities and light up our lives. But the centralized power grid is not perfect, and it faces an array of risks from natural disasters to human and cyber attacks.
As electricity becomes more and more critical in our lives, wide-ranging blackouts won't just be a personal annoyance -- they could cripple our economy. A diversified energy portfolio that includes renewable generation creates a more resilient grid. A recent draft of a report from the Department of Energy also concluded that wind and solar energy create a more reliable grid.
The added security provided by renewables is why everyone -- from the military to Fortune 100 companies -- is finding ways to use clean reliable distributed power systems to support their operations.
Advanced energy solutions often offer multiple benefits to users. For instance, a recent report commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts called microgrids a "triple play" because they reduce costs, incorporate renewable energy, and enhance energy security and independence. The report found the U.S. military could save hundreds of millions of dollars each year by installing more microgrids and renewable power systems.
That is why microgrids are being deployed on military bases, corporate campuses and even in places like the city of Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford was affected by Superstorm Sandy and decided it needed a secure place for the community to shelter in case of another disaster. The microgrid and fuel cell system can provide islanded power to a school, community center, local gas station, and even a grocery store, to act as a place of refuge for the community. During normal operations, the system reduces electricity costs at four local schools.
I first began to understand the importance of energy security while deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Life-changing experiences on the ground in Baghdad led me to a career focused in this area.
During the Obama administration, I served as the first ever Special Advisor on Energy to the U.S. Army, and later as the Chief Sustainability Officer of the federal government. In these roles, I worked with both public- and private-sector leaders who were addressing these issues in innovative ways. This included helping to stand up the Army’s Energy Initiatives Task Force and authoring a presidential memorandum to more than double the federal government’s renewable energy goal and implement cutting-edge energy management technologies.
For the military, energy touches every part of the mission. Domestically, commanders must ensure energy security and reliability to support mission-critical functions like communications or flying unmanned air vehicles in combat on the other side of the globe. As a result, it should come as no surprise that the military has become a driving force in pursuit of a renewable energy economy.
Just last month, the U.S. Army completed a 65-megawatt microgrid capable of hosting a solar or wind power hybrid project at Fort Hood, Texas. This system will provide about half the power needed for operations at the largest active-duty armored post in the U.S. The Army did this for security reasons in order to ensure that the base has access to power if the grid was to be attacked -- and it will save taxpayers well over $100 million in the process.
Fort Hood is just the latest example of the military’s growing interest in renewable energy. The Navy met its goal of producing 1 gigawatt of renewable energy ahead of its target. That happened in large part because it contracted to buy power from a 210-megawatt solar facility developed by the Western Area Power Administration and Sempra U.S. Gas and Power in Arizona.
Adding solar power to naval installations helps diversify the Navy's energy portfolio and provide long-term cost stability, which ultimately contributes to the nation's energy security priorities. To stress the importance of energy security, last year the Navy changed the name of its “Renewable Energy Program Office,” which is responsible for those contracts, to the Resilient Energy Program Office.
The military can also learn from other leaders like Apple, which is building its new headquarters in California with the capability to island itself from the grid and provide its own critical power.
This record-setting facility, dubbed the "Spaceship," was the vision of Steve Jobs. It will be able to power 100 percent of its operations from renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The facility will also have critical power on site using innovative technology like fuel cells and a microgrid. Like the military, Apple is not doing this just to be green, but also to have the capability to be independent of the centralized power system.
This independence would not have been possible even 10 years ago. With continued cost improvements, we are seeing impressive growth across the clean energy sectors. As a result, many companies are following the military’s clean energy example. Companies like Walmart, Google and Prologis have set significant goals, like utilizing nearly 100 percent renewable energy for their operations and eyeing critical measures for reliability.
These developments are a sign that we are headed in the right direction. But it’s just the first step. Further investment will be key.
Declaring energy independence and tackling climate change require shifting investment flows away from high-carbon fossil fuels and into low-carbon, clean energy sources.
Former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson pointed to the opportunity in “green investing” in his latest op-ed in the New York Times. The article references a United Nations report, which found the world will need to mobilize $90 trillion in public and private capital over the next 15 years in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
That $90 trillion is a large price tag. But it should be seen as a worthy investment.
It's already working for the military and the biggest corporations in the world.
Jon Powers is a co-founder of CleanCapital, Iraq veteran, and former White House Federal Chief Sustainability Officer.