Science and Technology News

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

DOD Facilities Drive Technology for Secure Power

By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON – As the nation’s top energy user, the Defense Department is pushing commercialization of the technology it needs to lower costs and keep its facilities secure, the deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment said here today.

Dorothy Robyn addressed an audience of military, federal and industry experts at the Military Smart Grids and Microgrids Conference in Arlington, Va.

Robyn manages and oversees permanent military installations worldwide and manages installation programs that involve energy, the environment, safety and occupational health.

In fiscal 2011, the cost of electricity spent to power 300,000 buildings on Defense Department installations -- barracks, data centers, offices and hospitals -- and to operate 160,000 vehicles was $4 billion a year.

“We also account for a disproportionate share of the department’s greenhouse gases,” Robyn said.

And such U.S. military installations depend almost entirely on a commercial electric grid that experts say is vulnerable to disruption.

“In 2008 the Defense Science Board called us out and said, ‘Your critical missions are at risk because of the potential for disruption to the grid,’” Robyn said.

Today the strategy for bolstering DOD facility energy security and innovation, she added, includes reducing demand for traditional energy, expanding the supply of renewable and other forms of on-base energy, focusing directly on base security, and leveraging advanced technology.

In the area of advanced technology, Robyn said DOD is uniquely positioned to overcome barriers to commercialization for some of the most potentially groundbreaking energy innovations. Among these are smart grids and microgrids.

A smart grid is an electrical grid whose capabilities are boosted by computer technology to monitor and regulate the energy that utilities generate and distribute to consumers.

When it becomes fully functional over the next decade in the United States, the automated grid will be able to communicate with consumers, remotely sense and fix problems on its own network, and save users money by better managing energy use, and by integrating power from wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources.

Microgrids and minigrids are smaller, less-automated versions of smart-grid technology. They interconnect small, modular electricity-generation sources to low-voltage distribution systems, and some can be powered by a combination of petroleum-fueled generators, solar, wind and other sources.

“I am something of a cheerleader for microgrids, because they solve a huge problem we have -- namely the energy security of our bases,” Robyn said.

But also, she added, “because I have spent much of my career working in the economics of network industries, primarily transportation and telecom, and I’ve seen what disruptive technology and competition have done in those sectors, and I think we’re due for that in the utility sector.”

Impediments to such emerging technologies, Robyn said, include a highly fragmented building industry, high costs for first users of new technology, and a lack of operational testing that deters potential technology adopters.

DOD is uniquely positioned to help overcome these barriers, the deputy undersecretary added.

“The key to this is using our installations as a testbed for next-generation energy technology, pre-commercial technology that we think has promise on our installations,” Robyn said.

“We think that we have a role to play here in being a first user. It’s a role that is justified by the huge infrastructure that we have -- 300,000 buildings. We look at risk differently,” she added.

“If we try 10 things out and seven of them work and three don’t, … we can deploy those so broadly as to make it profitable,” Robyn said. “So that’s what we’re doing.”

Robyn’s team is working on advanced technology in three areas -- smart and secure installation energy management, efficient integrated buildings, and onsite power generation.

The flagship project, she said, is in development at Twentynine Palms Marine Base, the nation’s largest, in California. The smart microgrid there is capable of “islanding” about a third of the base’s total load and meets DOD cyber security criteria. In islanding, a distributed generator continues to power a location even when there is no electrical grid power from the utility.

Electrochromic windows are an example of emerging technology for efficient integrated buildings. These windows can be darkened or lightened electronically, controlling the amount of daylight and solar heat gain through the windows of buildings and vehicles.

Robyn’s team is putting these windows on three sides of a building at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in Southern California and will systematically collect performance data.

“This is a great example of the role we can play in reducing risk,” Robyn said.

Historically, the Energy Department has invested in this technology, but the windows are still very expensive, she noted. “And architecture and engineering firms are understandably reluctant to incorporate them into a new building without rigorous data on their performance,” she said.

Collecting data from the test bed building at Miramar, she added, can help to jumpstart the market.

Many more demonstration projects are under way at DOD facilities around the country, and some are beginning to show results despite challenges that include collecting high-quality data on building energy consumption and performance and getting successfully test bed technologies widely deployed.

“I didn’t list any [challenges] having to do with microgrids,” Robyn said. “I feel like there is tremendous momentum there, and I don’t see the kinds of [comparable] impediments.”

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