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From Blue Skies to Black Starts

New America held an event today looking at energy security and the Department of Defense, with a focus on the United States Air Force. 

The Air Force mission is to fly, fight and win – in air, space and cyberspace. Energy strategy may not seem inherent in that mission, but at today’s event Secretary Deborah Lee James of the U.S. Air Force asserted that mission assurance can be achieved through energy assurance.

Take cyberspace, for example. “Cyber is our newest domain, in many ways it's the most complex domain,” commented Secretary James. This new focus area is so important that the Air Force spends upwards of $4 billion a year and has tens of thousands of personnel in the cyber area, alone. With that much capital and personnel in cyber, it is vital that the Air Force take proper precautions to safeguard against an attack. “If someone were to stop electricity to a certain base it could very much affect our cyber activities, and activities beyond cyber,” emphasized Secretary James. So, without electricity resilience, the Air Force mission in cyberspace could be threatened.

Mission assurance through energy assurance is not only about safeguarding against threats. “It’s really recognition of the new world order,” she asserted. “It’s a recognition that several of our key, core missions are really dependent on access to energy.” And the Air Force is doing a great deal towards that end, as Secretary James maintained, such as saving money through energy efficiencies, focusing on cleaner forms of energy, and creating a culture of energy awareness among their airmen.  

Secretary James ended her conversation by talking about the future of the Air Force, noting the force will be larger, more modern, and more efficient in 10 years. “I always talk about making every dollar count, and looking for efficiencies wherever possible, and energy is just one of those elements where we hope to be better and better.”

The second half of our event featured four panelists as they discussed ways for clean energy businesses to work with the different military branches – which some businesses find a daunting task. Honorable Miranda Ballentine, Assistant Secretary of the US Air Force for Installations, Environment, and Energy, started the panel by diving further into the Air Force’s goal of energy assurance. “We have always worked on energy resiliency on our bases. We have just taken what I call a 19th century approach to it. Which is basically buy a bunch of diesel generators with tax payer dollars and slap them onto buildings,” Ballentine assessed. This approach is not good enough anymore, and Ballentine argued that the best approach incorporates cost-effective, clean, and resilient energy.

Michael McGhee, Executive Director of the US Army Office of Energy Initiatives, continued the conversation by driving home the point that the military is not a business. “There is no profit and loss consideration. There is a bottom line, but our bottom line is mission,” McGhee pressed. “That’s why we have terms like energy security and energy resilience.” And energy resilience is one thing the Army looks for when working with energy businesses. McGhee explained this idea by giving an example about location of an energy source. “If you can get that energy generating asset closer to my base, that’s of interest to me as an Army person,” he continued, “A lot can happen between me and 60 miles.” John Kliem, Deputy Director of the US Navy Renewable Energy Program Office, expanded on Mr. McGhee’s point on energy resiliency by providing examples of energy projects where clean energy businesses worked with the Navy, such as on a Joint Base Harbor-Hickham in Hawaii. “That project will save us money over the term of the lease, but more importantly it provides us with energy assurance,” Kliem said about a project that provides 17 megawatts to the Navy, Marine Corps, and the Air Force. 

Our last panelist, Larry Richardson, rounded out the conversation by concluding that it is possible for businesses to work with the military. Mr. Richardson is the CEO of ReEnergy – a renewable energy company that won a 20 year contract to provide 60 megawatts of biomass energy to the Army at Fort Drum. “We are a great example of the Army’s initiatives to provide not only renewable energy to support the mission, but also secure and resilient energy,” Richardson confirmed. He described ReEnergy’s efforts to provide a micro-grid for the base with black start capabilities, in addition to 4-6 weeks of excess fuel on site in case the transmission grid goes down or the roadway network is damaged.

Honorable Ballentine ended the conversation by discussing two “enemies at the gate” that require the military to put energy assurance as a priority. “One, the threat against our utility power grid has increased dramatically in the last 5 years,” Ballentine stated, “And second, the changing climate is another enemy at the gate and we have a short period of time to solve that. So we have to have a sense of urgency in solving these problems.”  

To watch the live event, please click here