Most Americans don’t think about the electric grid as a military asset. But the fact is that reliable access to energy is critical to fighting and winning our nation’s wars.
Increasingly, that fight begins at home. The armed forces’ 24/7, no-fail missions rely on U.S. military bases and the critical electric infrastructure that powers them. But determined adversaries like China and Russia have demonstrated their ability to threaten those systems through physical and cyber attacks. As our National Defense Strategy ominously states, the “homeland is no longer a sanctuary.” In this rapidly evolving environment, we must invest in proven, affordable technologies like distributed generation and battery energy storage to harden our power systems against emerging threats.
Climate change is intensifying the impact of extreme weather on U.S. military installations and our country’s electric grid, further necessitating this shift. A Department of Defense report released earlier this year puts it bluntly: “The effects of a changing climate are a national security issue with potential impacts to Department of Defense missions, operational plans, and installations.” That report found that two-thirds of the military’s priority installations are vulnerable to flooding and roughly half are vulnerable to wildfires and drought. If an installation like Norfolk Naval Station or Scott Air Force base goes dark, it creates vulnerability not just here at home but also for global missions that rely on the capabilities they provide.
The military has systems in place to manage short-term power outages, but the grid disruptions we now face are often longer and more widespread. For example, Hurricane Florence devastated Camp Lejeune, a Marine base in North Carolina last October, causing $3.6 billion in damage. A few weeks later, Hurricane Michael ravaged Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, with a price tag of $5 billion. Just this past March, flooding caused $420 million in damage to Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, the headquarters of U.S. Strategic Command.
Even when facilities aren’t hit directly, the military’s electricity supply is at risk because 98% of DoD installations are connected to the same civilian electric grid as our homes and businesses. In 2016, the Pentagon reported 701 military base power outages that lasted eight hours or more. The vulnerability of our electric system is no secret, and there’s evidence hostile nations are now capable of cyberattacks that could shut down large sections of the U.S. grid. Hackers working for Russia have already accessed the control rooms of U.S. utilities “to the point where they could have thrown switches,” according to an official from the Department of Homeland Security. Cyberattacks caused major blackouts in the Ukraine in 2016 and 2017 and shut down a petrochemical facility in Saudi Arabia in 2017. Experts say the same groups that honed their skills with these attacks are now probing the electric grid in the U.S.
These new security threats to our electric grid call for new solutions. The good news is we already have tools available. Battery storage, renewable energy generation, and cyber-secure control systems can combine to create the flexible, resilient and distributed electric system that our military needs. The Department of Defense has already launched projects that demonstrate how advanced energy technologies can work for military installations. Otis Air National Guard Base on Cape Cod is now fully powered by a microgrid that utilizes on-site battery storage, wind energy and a backup diesel generator. The Army’s Fort Carson in Colorado installed a battery storage system in 2018 that lowers the fort’s costs and increases its energy resilience.
Military bases around the country are developing plans and projects to ensure critical missions are powered in the face of nearly any disruption. Those plans increasingly include grid-scale battery storage, a resource well suited to mission assurance and the critical operations across the DoD footprint. Battery storage can provide immediate, flexible power to military installations while reducing the carbon footprint, fuel demands and recurring costs of existing backup generators. Storage technology has advanced to the point that large-scale installations can provide resilient power without straining defense budgets.
Our electric grid is the nerve center of our military and the backbone of our economy, and it is more vulnerable today than ever before. Advanced energy technologies like distributed generation and battery storage are the right tools to strengthen our military’s power supply, and now is the right time to deploy them.
Kevin Johnson is president of GlidePath Federal Solutions, an independent clean energy developer. Before entering the private sector, Johnson served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. He is a Board of Director for the American Resilience Project and Clean Energy Leadership Institute, and 2013 White House Champions of Change award recipient. Readers may contact him at email@example.com.
Joe Bryan is principal at energy consultancy Muswell Orange and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. He previously served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy. Prior to his time with Navy, Joe led investigations for the US Senate Armed Services Committee. Readers may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.