The Department of Defense wants to make sure that when disaster strikes, renewable energy sources can still help keep the lights on at military bases.

Starting this fall, the Pentagon expects to join forces with a coalition of other agencies and national labs to create the first installation-level "microgrid" technology. The end result will be cyber secure, it says.

The $42 million project -- assuming Congress approves the money -- will integrate energy from existing diesel-powered generators alongside alternative and renewable energy sources. It will help power an installation's day-to-day operations when the base is hooked up to the commercial grid and will also allow it to function independently of that utility grid, should the need arise.

"You could think of this as a buffet of options that are all being synchronized through a demand-side cyber secure system," said Bill Waugaman, the national labs liaison to the U.S. Northern Command and one of the leaders on the project.

While the final microgrid is slated for Marine Corps' Camp H.M. Smith in Hawaii, the Department of Defense is completing different stages of the work at bases including Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, also in Hawaii, and Fort Carson in Colorado.

One major selling point of the microgrid is better protection for a base's power sources against cyber attack, Waugaman said. Another is improving energy efficiency and energy storage, which in turn allows the department to better meet government mandates to reduce energy use.

It also doesn't hurt to have another backup energy option.

Right now, when the power goes out on a base, a series of diesel-powered backup generators turn on. They keep critical components of a military installation essentials powered up -- just like emergency generators at a hospital. But that isn't the cheapest way to do things, and renewable energy sources are left out of the mix, said Waugaman.

This project -- the Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security, or SPIDERS, for short -- aims to change that.

A pioneering partnership
Officially, DOD is on the prowl for the latest information on technology that can take alternative, renewable and hybrid power and integrate it to "decrease the amount of energy consumed and enable the ability to operate in an islanded mode during emergency for an extended period of time," according to a request for information it posted in August.

In the broadest sense, a microgrid is just any closed-circuit grid -- like that between someone's home and generator that kicks on when snow downs electrical wires. Smart technology, however, would allow a microgrid like this to incorporate different energy sources, advanced metering capabilities and to enable energy storage, Waugaman said.

"Right now, here's the problem -- there is no energy storage and no renewable energy generation," said Waugaman. When a natural disaster or a cyber attack knocks out power, all alternative energy sources are taken offline.

Armed with the tools from this project, a base using wind turbines and solar panels could still store that power for use when the wind stopped blowing and night fell if it wanted to keep its carbon count low -- even in an emergency situation, he said. The project also aims to help local utilities lighten their load during peak times, allowing the base to "island" itself from the commercial grid for short periods until the grid has fewer demands on its resources.

SPIDERS, said Waugaman, is more about benefiting the country as a whole than about fulfilling a Defense Department-specific mission. In short, working on such technology "is not DOD's mission," he said.

"DOD is partnering with DHS [the Department of Homeland Security] and DOE [the Department of Energy] and leveraging DOD infrastructure that allows us to do basically test bed-type work," said Waugaman.

That attitude echoes what DOD officials have emphasized in the past year: In many ways, bases are like mini-cities, making for an ideal testing ground for many "green" energy technologies. DOD and DOE forged a formal partnership in July that specifically highlighted that role.

The goal of that alliance, according to the agencies' memorandum of understanding, was spurring clean energy research through the exchange of ideas and partnering on projects like microgrid work (ClimateWire, July 28).

Last week, top DOD brass again connected the dots between the Pentagon's energy considerations and national security. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headlined a daylong Pentagon event focused on the subject. He called for better energy efficiency and renewable energy efforts, terming them a "strategic imperative" for the military. Such action is needed to "reduce risk" and help "stem the tide of climate change," he said.

Making strides with the military's energy consumption "is not merely altruistic; it is essential," Mullen said. Currently, DOD burns through 300,000 barrels of oil each day, and its No. 1 import to Afghanistan is fossil fuels, he said.

Help for remote operations
Though the SPIDERS project, for example, may not be fulfilling DOD's specific mission, it may provide other fringe benefits. Offshoot projects may be able to mine its technology and approaches to eventually help remote bases in Afghanistan or other locations better function with less fuel supply, according to Waugaman. Slashing the number of fuel convoys that make for easy targets could, in turn, help save lives. "One of the most dangerous assignments today in Afghanistan is convoy duty," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said last spring (Greenwire, May 6).

In June 2008 alone, 44 trucks and 220,000 gallons of fuel were lost in attacks or accidents while delivering fuel to Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, according to numbers provided by the Pentagon to the Government Accountability Office. This month, terrorists have engaged in a series of attacks on NATO convoys waiting for Pakistan to reopen a border crossing point into Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, at today's domestic military installations, a large diesel generator may be tied directly to each individual building -- resulting in a fleet of oversized generators supplying the maximum amount of power that may be needed. That method can lead to waste, said Sandia National Laboratories' Juan Torres, assistant technical manager for the SPIDERS project.

With SPIDERS, however, the government is hoping to create a smart microgrid that would remain unfazed by energy supply disruptions or gas price spikes. Simultaneously, it is also geared toward helping shrink DOD's heavy carbon footprint.

SPIDERS will be a partnership among DOD, the Energy Department, the Department of Homeland Security, five national labs and also the local utilities around the affected bases.

DOD has been working on aspects of microgrid projects across the country in recent years, but each base has different needs and different potential energy sources -- such as wind or solar -- say security analysts familiar with the work.

Power from solar and hybrid vehicles contributes
Between when projects are planned and when they are completed, technology may also evolve and require different pieces to integrate them, said NextEnergy's William Siddall, who has developed microgrid technology for DOD in the past and plans to bid to be involved in the SPIDERS project. This project would incorporate a lot of the technology developed on other bases and prove on a larger scale that it can work, Siddall said.

The SPIDERS microgrid is expected to be up and running by 2013 at Hawaii's Camp Smith -- supporting a peak load of about 10 megawatts. The power to keep operations going at about 30 buildings -- including two large offices and 10 homes -- will come from hybrid vehicles, traditional diesel sources, photovoltaic solar power and a hydrogen fuel cell, according to Ross Roley, the SPIDERS operational manager.

Before reaching that goal, the researchers will be testing aspects of microgrid technology at Pearl Harbor-Hickam joint base in Hawaii and working on smart metering capabilities and cyber security at Fort Carson in Colorado.

At the same time, the private sector is also working on related smart grid technology -- in some cases funded by government dollars -- but the projects are distinct, according to backers of the SPIDERS project.

"Many of the smart grid projects will utilize similar technologies paving the way for additional smart grid projects and microgrids," said DOE spokeswoman Tiffany Edwards. "How the technologies are utilized, configured, and work as a system," she said, "makes each project unique."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500