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Military’s push for solar backup power 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 decades-old 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 turbines, 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 Obama’s second term. Progress, he said, “has slowed down,” even while private-sector technology is leaping ahead.

After Hurricane Florence’s tropical winds and days-long deluge hammered Camp Lejeune last month, 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 President Barack 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 government-wide 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.V., 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.

‘Technology agnostic’

Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, has bucked the president over a number of policy matters. Pentagon officials would not say whether Mattis or the military services differ with Trump over use of renewable energy for new backup power.

What senior military officials do appear to have found is a way to navigate forward: Replace the word “renewable” with “resilience.”

The Navy’s Renewable Energy Program Office even changed its name to the Resilient Energy Program Office after Trump’s election triumph.

Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb said in a statement that the Defense Department “is committed to [energy] resilience and readiness for our installations” during power outages, “regardless of the source.”

“While we cannot discuss specific measures we take to protect our energy sources,” she said in a statement to McClatchy, “we continue to explore opportunities to enhance our resilience to energy supply disruptions.”

In a phone interview, the Army’s McGhee put it more directly. “We’re not prescribing or requiring renewable energy,” he said. “We’ve taken the approach of being technology agnostic on most of our projects.”

The Army’s former energy chief seems to have bought in.

“Yes, I would say things have slowed, but the program has broadened,” said Katherine Hammack, a staunch advocate of renewable energy while serving as McGinn’s Army counterpart under Obama and, until recently, an outspoken critic of the Trump administration. “I don’t see it as a negative. I’m glad that the Trump administration Is encouraging the strategy to continue.”

One critic of the Obama administration’s approach is retired Army Co. Paul Roege, who played an early, instrumental role in the military’s energy renaissance.

He said the Pentagon seized on Obama’s green initiative and charged ahead with solar projects, as well as scattered wind turbines and trash-eating biomass plants on or near military bases, without really knowing how to make the energy of value.

By the end of Obama’s tenure, he said, everyone understood that dotting the nation’s military bases with solar projects would do nothing to boost military readiness without microgrid technology.

Hammack said it was always the plan to connect the solar farms with microgrids, and later, storage.

She said she’s been told the Pentagon has invited microgrid bids from contractors on “many” projects,” including one to build and operate a system for the Army’s Los Alamitos Joint Force Training Base in Southern California, which would be called to action in the event of a nearby earthquake.

She said private financing will be a key tool, as was used at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base, enabling SunPower Corp. to build a 28-megawatt solar array that went online last January. In return, the base buys 35 percent of its annual energy in solar-generated electricity from SunPower.

As examples of progress, Pentagon spokeswoman Babb pointed to ongoing work on small microgrids for the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, through an expanded congressionally funded program for energy “resilience and conservation,” and to Marine Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C.

But both of those projects were begun in the Obama administration.

In Connecticut, citizens and political leaders desperate to avoid a twice-threatened shutdown of the Navy submarine base at New London, didn’t wait for the Pentagon to act.

They stepped in to save the base, which provides a $5 billion annual economic boon to the state, said Bob Ross, a retired Navy commander who is now director of Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs.

The state donated $14 million, and work will begin next year on a base microgrid that would sell power to Connecticut utilities except in emergencies.

McGinn said he hears “a lot of discussion about the need to increase energy security, to increase resilience in the face of natural disasters and deliberate attacks on both transmission and distribution grids, but the actual progress in the field is not there.”

Utility ups ante

The Southern Co., with the backing of CEO Tom Fanning, has been the energy industry’s top booster of the Pentagon efforts. It has put up 14 solar projects with generating capacity exceeding 400 megawatts at bases in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi — more than any utility.

Southern appears to be upping the ante. It recently acquired SecurePower, a leading provider of “smart microgrid” technology. Fanning and other company officials are “in discussions with senior leadership of the military” about microgrid possibilities, said Rebecca Gray, the company’s liaison to the Pentagon.

As for Camp Lejeune, Duke Energy spent $28 million to build that solar array, including the cost of laying a quarter-mile underground line linking it to a base substation, said Larry Watson, the company’s director of large customer solutions and development. That’s the first big step enabling the switchover of the solar electricity flow toward the base and away from the electric grid during emergencies — dubbed “islanding” at the Pentagon.

Duke is “evaluating various alternatives,” including utility-scale batteries, to enable the base to make use of the solar array as backup power during emergencies, Watson said.

Watson said nothing has stalled progress, but “certainly, this takes time.”

Greg Gordon has spent 41 years digging up waste, fraud, abuse and malfeasance as a Washington correspondent for four news organizations, including the last 20 years with McClatchy. He now has turned his sights on the Carolinas, where he is a member of an investigative team.