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Fort Carson pushes forward with sustainable energy despite mixed signals

July 30, 2017 Updated: August 1, 2017 at 12:19 pm
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Fort Carson officials cut the ribbon on the Army's largest solar power plant in 2008 and similar efforts have grown in the ensuring years. Now, the future of military renewable energy pursuits is in doubt as a new administration shifts priorities. (Army Photo)

Fort Carson is pushing forward to diversify the sprawling post's renewable energy portfolio despite apathy and even resistance from the White House.

It wants to add power from a hydroelectric plant that would be built downstream from Pueblo Dam, underscoring Fort Carson's commitment to renewable energy, now met primarily by solar arrays.

Yet as Fort Carson eyes hydropower, President Trump's administration is demonstrating a preference for fossil fuels, such as coal, and is emphasizing military preparedness as the top priority for defense spending.

Fort Carson was one of 11 pilot posts chosen in 2010 to pioneer an Army initiative known as Net Zero, a goal for the service to produce as much energy as it consumes every year.

Solar energy accounts for about 8 percent of electricity use at Fort Carson. The post houses a 3 megawatt solar array, enough to support 3,500 homes. An additional 7 megawatt array is being considered if pricing is competitive from Colorado Springs Utilities, said Vince Guthrie, Fort Carson's utilities program manager.

Solar energy costs are dropping, Guthrie said. In 2007, Fort Carson bought a 2 megawatt array, a unit of power equal to 1 million watts, for $13 million, about $6 per watt. In 2011, the cost was $6.50 per watt; today it's well under $2, Guthrie said.

"We need energy to accomplish our mission, and when we install these projects on Fort Carson, first, we make sure it has no impact on that mission," he said.

"Having additional renewable energy helps reduce the vulnerability and risk associated with larger power plants.

"We admire the (Net Zero) goal in that it doesn't limit us. We're going to try to do whatever we can that is fiscally prudent, that's environmentally responsible and helps us support our mission."

According to a 2015 Net Zero Progress report, the 11 pilot posts had generated about 28,700 megawatt-hours of renewable energy, says a 2015 Net Zero Progress report. The energy that wasn't used was enough to power 2,600 homes for a year, the report found.

Fort Carson aims to cut energy intensity - how much energy is used per square foot - by 25 percent by 2025 compared with 2015 levels, said Fort Carson energy coordinator Scott Clark.

The post already trimmed 4 percent off its energy intensity over the past two years, Clark said. In all, it's cut 26 percent since 2003 through June, he said.

Guthrie said Fort Carson is becoming less reliant on federal incentives because of solar's dropping cost. The post has more than 80 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified facilities, the most of any community its size, for renovating its 1950s-era buildings, he said.

Fort Carson officials cut the ribbon on the Army's largest solar power plant in 2008 and similar efforts have grown in the ensuring years. Now, the future of military renewable energy pursuits is in doubt as a new administration shifts priorities. (Army Photo) 

One reason for the Army's push for sustainable energy and renewables might be the high price of diesel in battle, wrote Michael O'Hanlon, a researcher at the Brookings Institution.

"Part of it was trying to reduce the need to ship fuel to remote places like distant outposts in Afghanistan for simple and sound tactical military reasons," O'Hanlon wrote.

Pentagon officials told Congress in 2009 that diesel fuel at remote locations in Afghanistan costs more than $400 per gallon when transportation costs are calculated.

O'Hanlon wrote that he is skeptical that the Army could literally meet net zero energy use, but the goal is a good motivation for change.

Change does not come without challenge, however.

"You know, I think anytime you go through change, there's cultural challenges," Guthrie said. "Everybody wants the cheapest energy they can get, and that's one of those things we're dealing with, too."

Going Net Zero isn't cheap, at least initially. If Fort Carson achieved 92 percent of its energy goals set by the Department of Defense, it would cost $842 million, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found in 2011.

But Rachel Zissimos, a research associate in national defense at the Heritage Foundation, said military readiness - not reduced emissions - should be the priority, especially as the country faces threats from countries such as North Korea and China.

The Department of Defense allocated $64.6 billion toward overseas contingency operations for the 2018 fiscal year, a $5.8 billion increase from 2017.

"It does restrict range and mobility being reliant on fuel," Zissimos said. "But right now, we don't have an alternative that can do that in a cost-effective way or one that has any significant impact."

Fort Carson gets help from Colorado Springs Utilities, though, in identifying rebates for reduced demand.

"They're one of our largest customers," said Steve Carr, key account manager for Utilities.

Fort Carson's population, more than 13,000 people, makes it the 14th-largest city in Colorado. The post had an economic impact of $2.12 billion in 2016.

Carr said Utilities and the Army post share the goal of increasing renewable energy use. Utilities has a policy goal to provide 20 percent of energy through renewable sources by 2020. It also sells wind, hydro and biomass energy.

"We're pursuing those things because they're the right thing to do," Carr said. "I would say that while you're seeing some shifts, the executive order is still in effect. So that hasn't changed."

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