The US military and its supporters understand the importance of resilient energy. With or without zombies.
Just last month, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee encouraged the Department of Defense (DoD) to “prioritize funding for energy-related projects, including renewable energy projects, to mitigate risk to mission-critical assets and promote energy security and efficiency at military installations” in the report accompanying the 2019 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs bill. The committee highlighted how renewable energy and smart technology investments can “shield mission-critical operations from disruptions to the power grid.”
Because, as a recent analysis from my colleagues at the Union of Concerned Scientists showed, US military bases aren’t just on the front lines of homeland defense. They’re also, in a lot of cases, on the front lines of climate impacts. Rising seas and storm surges don’t stop for checkpoints and can threaten the energy supplies that military missions depend on.
And, though climate security is a significant concern to the DoD, it turns out that there are lots of reasons why the military is a big fan of “resilient energy” based on advanced and renewable energy options like solar, wind, microgrids, and energy storage.
To understand how the pieces all fit together for our armed forces, I checked in with Wilson Rickerson and Michael Wu, cofounders of Converge Strategies, LLC, a resilience and advanced energy consulting company, about the intersection between the US military, clean energy, and resilience. And about how the Zombie Apocalypse comes into play.
John Rogers: So, Wilson, what’s the issue—why are we talking about clean/resilient energy in the context of defense and preparedness?
Wilson Rickerson: Energy is critical to every component of military operations and capability. It’s the fuel that powers our aircraft, vehicles, and ships. The natural gas that heats nearly 300,000 buildings. The electricity that keeps our forces globally networked.
In recent decades, we’ve developed numerous capabilities that rely on uninterrupted access to electricity, in particular. For example, the US Department of Defense (DoD) operates the Global Positioning System relied on by more than three billion users worldwide. A network of satellite ground stations and other controls facilities ensures that GPS is always available, and each of these has critical energy requirements.
DoD is almost completely reliant on the civilian electric grid to meet these requirements. That fact has driven investments in energy resilience projects and technologies on DoD bases.
JR: How big is the scope—the reach—of DoD energy activities, including the renewable energy pieces?
WR: The DoD is the largest institutional consumer of energy in the world. In 2016, the DoD’s energy bill was $12.4 billion, comprising 57% of the energy spending of the entire federal government.
As of 2016, the DoD has more than 1600 active renewable energy projects spread across more than 500 installations. Most of these are small-scale projects that don’t provide a resilience benefit, but DoD is increasingly focused on integrating clean energy and energy storage into resilient energy systems.
JR: Mike, how long are the gaps the military needs to prepare for?
Michael Wu: DoD can handle short term outages relatively well. There are proven systems and solutions in place that address the more common three- to five-day outages. But as the threats to infrastructure become larger—stronger storms and natural disasters, for example—it’s important to prepare for longer-term outages.
Current approaches to energy resilience rely heavily on diesel generators, which typically have limited fuel storage onsite. As we have seen in recent large storms, the diesel fuel supply chain can be severely disrupted during outages. So bases need to become more self-sufficient.
Experts on grid security believe that our electric grid faces unprecedented threats of long-term disruption. More extreme weather events, cyber and physical attacks, and other “black sky” threats imperil the critical infrastructure our military relies on to remain operationally capable, and that our society relies on to function.
DoD is investing in several efforts to strengthen its ability to maintain critical functions during disruptions. For example, the US Army issued a policy last year requiring all installations to keep adequate energy storage to maintain critical operations for 14 days. And the US Air Force has a goal that all mission-critical functions will have assured access to a reliable supply to energy at all times within the next 20 years.
JR: Can you give some examples of where renewables and microgrids have been brought into the picture?
MW: Sure. The Navy partnered with Georgia Power to build a 30 MW solar array at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, which became operational in 2016. Under the agreement, the Navy granted Georgia Power the land to construct the solar array and receives the legal and technical right to the power during a grid outage.
Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts is creating an advanced microgrid powered by renewable energy that will power critical military intelligence facilities. The project will integrate wind power, an advanced battery storage system, and microgrid controls, and is the result of a unique partnership between the DoD and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which provided substantial grant funding.
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar broke ground late last year on a new microgrid project that incorporates natural gas generated by a nearby landfill, and several solar photovoltaic projects. Through this project, MCAS Miramar can power its entire flight operations, even if the local grid is disrupted, and the project will lower the installation’s electricity bills and generate revenue by providing services to the civilian electric grid.
The Hawaiian Electric Company and the US Army are currently constructing a 50 MW power plant at Schofield Barracks on the Island of Oahu. The power plant will be capable of running on biofuels or conventional fuels, and will complement the increasing levels of solar and wind power on Oahu’s electric grid. The Schofield plant will power the civilian electric grid during normal operations, but will be capable consolidating to power only nearby Army “assets” during emergency events.
JR: That’s quite a mix of states. So people shouldn’t think of these resilient power efforts as a red state or blue state thing?
WR: Definitely not. DoD and the Military Services are investing in energy resilience because it is critical to military operations, not for political purposes. DoD’s mission is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country, and its investments and priorities should be viewed in that context.
The military also spends more than $400 billion in payroll and contracts across all 50 states, with military spending accounting for more than 5% of state GDP in some states (e.g., Alabama, Alaska, Virginia).
Red and blue states both have a strong economic interest in supporting the success of in-state military installations—and today a major focus for the military is advanced energy resilience.
JR: How do civilians benefit from the military work in this area?
MW: There’s a long heritage of military-civilian technology crossover. GPS, microwaves, and the internet are just a few examples of technologies developed for military use have changed our entire society.
Energy can be a similar success story. Everyone has critical energy requirements—hospitals, fire and police stations, schools, and businesses. The technologies, planning approaches, and business models that the military is investing in can also be applied to meet those critical requirements in the commercial and civilian sectors, and vice versa.
There are also significant opportunities for civilian governments to partner with military installations on joint and mutually reinforcing resilience planning. Military base resilience depends heavily on the resilience of surrounding communities and infrastructure but there isn’t yet a standard playbook on how to align military and civilian resilience efforts.
JR: How does climate change factor into the equation? Or: How does our military see it?
WR: DoD has recognized climate change is a national security threat multiplier and an accelerant of instability around the globe. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has called climate change a “challenge that requires a broader, whole-of-government response.” He joined a long list of defense, intelligence, and national security leaders that acknowledge the unprecedented international and homeland security risks of the changing climate.
DoD faces challenges to its infrastructure from more frequent and severe storms and sea level rise, while resource scarcity and humanitarian crises will destabilize the global security environment.
However, it’s important to note that DoD’s investments in clean energy are not primarily motivated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions—they are to strengthen military and operational capability.
Why zombies matter
JR: So, bring this home for our audience, and tackle the question on everybody’s mind: Are we ready for the Zombie Apocalypse?
WR: We spend a lot of time thinking about existential threats to the power system—things like cyberattack, electromagnetic pulse weapons, massive earthquakes… although they each pose different types of risks that require different types of hardening, there are some common sense and no-regrets things that we can be doing across the energy industry which are hazard neutral.
In order to provoke “hazard-neutral” thinking—thinking that seeks to identify “no regrets” strategies that address multiple hazards—we sometimes find ourselves posing the scenario of a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. This is actually something the Pentagon has done in the past as well.
There is an interesting ranking of states’ ability to survive a zombie apocalypse by Estately.com. It takes into consideration factors such as population density, percentage of gun ownership, etc. Arrestingly, some of the states with the large concentrations of critical military infrastructure (e.g., Virginia) are also some of the most vulnerable to zombie attack.
In a number of zombie movies, survivors attempt to run to the military for safety. In reality, many installations will not currently be up and running during a large-scale outage—whether triggered by zombies or otherwise.
Our goal is to make sure that our critical national security missions can still be completed even on really bad days.
JR: Got it. So with or without zombies, resilient power is something that our military is serious about. Thanks, Wilson and Mike.
WR: Happy to help.
Thanks to my colleague Paula Garcia for help with this interview.