MARINE CORPS CAMP H.M. SMITH, Hawaii — If you want an example of how vulnerable a military installation can be to power outages, Ross Roley has a quick and personal one.
In the spring of 2011, as the U.S. military was assisting Japan with the aftermath of the devastating tsunami, power was suddenly lost at Marine Corps Camp H.M. Smith on Oahu. The installation is small but critical as headquarters to U.S. Pacific Command, Special Operations Command Pacific and Marine Forces Pacific.
It’s also where Roley works as an energy analyst at PACOM’s Joint Innovation and Experimentation Division.
“The building across the street didn’t suffer an outage,” Roley said, pointing to a structure about 50 yards away during an interview at the outdoor courtyard adjoining PACOM headquarters. That’s because a backup generator quickly kicked in for that building, where Roley’s office is.
The backup generator for PACOM HQ failed to run.
“So in the middle of a major critical operation, there was a power outage,” Roley said. The buildings can’t share emergency power either, he said.
The base is in the process of gaining “energy-island” independence, which will make it the first Department of Defense installation with the capacity to fully maintain all critical operations in the event of a power outage — whether it arises from a natural disaster, sabotage or a cyberattack. The base will produce its own electrical supply during such crises from a mix of diesel generators and photovoltaic and solar panels.
“When we use the word ‘island’ here, it means just for emergencies,” Roley said. “We’re not going to go completely off the grid at Camp Smith, but it gives us the ability to go off the grid when power’s out. We can still maintain all the critical missions that are here.”
The demonstration project is called Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security, or SPIDERS. Roley said the acronym implies that the electric grid is a web, and SPIDERS is protecting it.
“In our case that’s cybersecurity,” he said.
“We’re taking all the steps possible to make sure it’s very, very, very hard for an adversary to [hack into] the SPIDER microgrid.”
Smith’s microgrid will be “a good, positive step” in securing American bases, said Peter W. Singer, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and co-author of the book “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.”
“But we also have to put cyberattacks in perspective,” he said. “Squirrels have taken down more power grids than the zero times hackers have. So this is good for the future threat from hackers as well as Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
It may seem baffling that America’s military bases are reliant on commercial utility companies for electricity, but it is the result of the slow creep of modernization.
“Back in the early days all the American outposts were kind of out there in the middle of nowhere,” Roley said. “When electricity came along, they had their own generation on the outposts. But then, as the surrounding communities started developing around them, it became more efficient and cost effective to use utility power.”
The Department of Defense and military planners were shaken out of electro-complacency in 2008 when the Defense Science Board Task Force on DOD Energy Strategy issued an alarming report about the military’s vulnerability to power-grid failures, noting that 99 percent of electricity at DOD installations came from the commercial grid.
The following year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the DOD possessed insufficient information to determine the full extent of the risks to its most critical assets from disruptions in electrical power — even though 31 of the 34 “most critical assets” required continuous electricity to function.
At the July 2012 Aspen Security Forum, Paul Stockton, then the assistant secretary for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security Affairs for DOD, said that the risk of a long-term, large-scale outage of the electric grid was the thing that “keeps me up at night.”
The SPIDERS project, whose sponsors include the federal departments of homeland security, defense and energy, was a response to the recommendations of the 2008 report and has been five years in the making, Roley said. Elements of an island microgrid have been tested first at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, and then at Fort Carson in Colorado.
Camp Smith was chosen as the culmination of the demonstration project because it’s small, about 200 acres, with relatively few buildings, although almost all of them are critical. It was also chosen because there is a single electric feeder line coming into the base, Roley said.
The camp will generate enough electricity for an island microgrid by adding five new diesel generators to the two already there. Those will be combined with a bank of photovoltaic cells on the base’s new fitness center and with two large solar carports. Numerous other solar projects are planned for the base.
The additional generators will have new-generation diesel engines that burn cleaner.
While environmental regulations only allow the two existing generators to be run during emergencies, the new set can be operated at any time, Roley said.
That’s important because Smith’s microgrid will be designed to not just save the day, but to also save money. The new generators can run during peak electric-use periods, for which Hawaii Electric Co. will financially reward the base. In essence, the electric company “will pay us to reduce our load here during peak times,” Roley said.
Installation of the grid system is expected to begin in August and be fully functional by the spring of 2015, Roley said. It will cost about $8 million to microgrid Camp Smith, he said.
The idea is to then bring the lessons learned from Hickam, Carson and Smith to many other DOD installations — with the caveat that one size does not fit all, Roley said.
There will not likely be an attempt to microgrid entire installations.
For example, there would be no point creating a microgrid for the entire massive Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay in Oahu.
“The right thing to do is select the important buildings in a situation like that and microgrid them,” Roley said.
Microgrids will likely be even more valuable in overseas bases.
The 2008 energy strategy report concluded that what shortcomings exist in domestic military installations “is even more relevant outside the U.S. where commercial systems are often less reliable and less well protected than domestically.” Few overseas installations “can generate enough power on their own to meet their missions,” the report said.