Microgrids Are Becoming Essential for the Military

by | Feb 22, 2022

The military will be relying on microgrids. That’s an order from the top.

Just look at the Marine Corps. Air Station near San Diego: Raytheon and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed its microgrid — one in which solar panels and landfill gas generate the electricity that is harnessed by a battery storage system. 

The goal is resiliency — to bounce back as soon as possible from a power loss. If there is an outage, the base also needs to keep the lights on for at least 14 days.

The microgrid is leveraging distributed energy resources, including 1.3 megawatts of solar photovoltaics, 3.2 MW of converted landfill methane gas, and 6.45 MW of diesel and natural gas generation. Its microgrid control system and operations center can disconnect from the electricity network and rely entirely on the distributed energy resources.

“If the utility power goes off, the military base does not want all the computers to have a glitch,” says Chuck Wells chief technology officer and founder of PXiSE Energy Solutions in San Diego, in an interview with Environmental Leader. “They want to run their microgrid and not use a backup diesel generator. We can seamlessly generate power in island mode — off the grid — and do so without the lights blinking on and off.” 

Outages can cost billions in lost economic opportunity. But in the military world, those blackouts can cost lives — if the setup is on the battlefield. There, platforms with solar panels are combined with battery storage. The two provide the fuel needed to run operations. 

Microgrids are working in unison with onsite generation and battery storage. They provide replacement power in the event the lights go out. But they can also prevent the use of diesel-fired generators whose fumes can tip off the enemy during combat. As for the Marine Corps. Air Station, it sought to be economical, reliable, and technically feasible, says Wells. That is, the military base wanted to know if relying on renewable power would be cost-effective and whether it could deliver critical loads for weeks at a time during an outage. 

The microgrid controls the load at the meter, he says. That means the military base can calculate its energy needs and the amount of available electricity before deciding which sections of the facility should get prioritized. A microgrid controller deals with the intermittency issue caused by renewables. 

During a recent heatwave that swept through southern California, the microgrid performed as advertised. Not only was it able to power on, but it also had extra electricity that it shared with the neighboring community. 

The Two-Week Test

Consider the US Army Garrison Bavaria in Germany, which is home to about 40,000 soldiers and civilians and is the largest military installation outside the United States: the goal is to improve energy security and resilience. The base also wants to reduce its dependency on the local utility and foreign energy resources while also using more green energy. 

The US Army Base Longare in Italy has similar objectives. It wants to increase its use of renewable generation and battery storage — in a cost-effective way. Moreover, those distributed assets will hook up with a microgrid that is expected to operate in “island mode” for a sustained period. 

“A properly configured microgrid offers absolutely critical resiliency to military installations,” says Adib Nasle, chief executive of San Diego-based Xendee, in a release. “Additionally, self-sufficiency in the field offers energy security to operational bases as well as the ability to maintain mission readiness even when the local power is knocked out in the entire region.” 

The US military has said it would introduce microgrids to its more than 130 bases globally by 2035. Already, the armed forces have microgrids at bases in Alabama, North Carolina, and Massachusetts. 

Both the navy and army have said that their campuses should operate off-grid for two weeks by 2025. The army and its partners are therefore investing in onsite renewable generation, large-scale battery storage, and microgrids, says the United States Army Climate Strategy report. Specifically, the analysis says that the army will pursue enough renewable energy generation and battery storage capacity “to self-sustain its critical missions on all its installations by 2040.” 

Microgrids are not necessarily new to the military. But instead of using diesel-powered backup generation, the armed forces now want to use renewables supported by battery storage. Diesel generators have a purpose. But in a world defined by carbon limits, military thinkers want cleaner power that can stay on for weeks at a time — if the primary grid goes down.

To that end, the army says that it buys $740 million of electricity each year from the grid. While it says that it has decreased its greenhouse gas emissions by 20% since 2008, the army also says that it can do more to green the grid. 

“Renewables and battery storage have the potential to last longer on fuel supplies and provide important energy diversity,” adds Brian Miller, a senior microgrid researcher at the National Renewable Energy Labs, in a release. 

Microgrids may be a perfect fit for the military — an organization that relies on a continuous flow of power at its training facilities and in the field. It’s about being prepared for battle and staying alive. If those mini-grids are good enough for the military, they may also be essential for commercial and industrial users — an order that they may also follow.

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