At one Army base, a new shade of green
By Neela Banerjee | Tribune Washington Bureau | Published: July 4, 2013
EL PASO, Texas — The endless desert that makes up Fort Bliss looks a lot like places where the United States fought its recent wars or where it might fight its next one. Tanks are manned by soldiers whose faces are wrapped against the blowing sand. Dust devils rise, stagger and fall to the desert floor.
The Army’s 1st Armored Division, based at Fort Bliss, served in Iraq and Afghanistan. For Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, the division’s past — and the scenarios for its future — have pushed him to change Fort Bliss in ways that, at first, seem unrelated to warfare.
The 1.2 million-acre base, much of it firing ranges and training grounds, straddles Texas and New Mexico. It has an annual electric bill of about $23.3 million, and at the height of summer demand uses about 70 megawatts of energy, enough to power about 42,000 homes. When Pittard arrived, little was recycled. Thousands of brass casings were left on firing ranges. Drinking water was used to sustain the two golf courses and grassy parade grounds in the desert.
“It was criminal,” Pittard said. “A lot of things here were criminal.”
As base commander, Pittard moved to cut energy use and switch to renewables, increase recycling, conserve drinking water, build bike paths and test an experimental combat outpost that consumes less fuel and water.
As a result, the base’s buildings used 27 percent less energy last year than two years ago. And while only 1 percent of its power now comes from renewable energy sources, that number is expected to jump sharply over the next several years as solar projects come online.
If a base is self-sufficient, it becomes less vulnerable to outside threats, such as power outages, Pittard believes. And if the United States and other countries husband their resources now, perhaps they could avoid future wars.
“Most of us have been deployed three, four, five times,” Pittard said. “If we do something like reduce our dependence on oil from the Middle East, maybe we’d be fighting fewer wars over there.”
The Pentagon says it has made overhauling energy use a priority. The U.S. military is one of the world’s largest consumers of fossil fuels, but by 2025, it plans to draw at least 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources. The Navy’s fighter planes have begun to burn biofuel. The Pentagon is experimenting with plug-in nontactical vehicles at several bases.
Pittard could easily be the exemplar of the Pentagon’s commitment to sustainability, given the scope of his work. Instead, he is the outlier.
“Some other bases have reached out to me to find out what we’re doing, but most aren’t as interested as we are in this,” said Pittard, who is about to retire. “You look at what the senior leadership of the Army would want you to do, and this isn’t even in the top 10.”
Richard G. Kidd IV, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy and sustainability, maintained that although “changing organizational behavior is hard work,” the Army’s sustainability efforts have broad support. “They are one of four foundational values of the Army; they are in the top 10 lists of both the chief of staff of the Army and the secretary of the Army. ... I think the real story here is how high a priority these topics have within an Army at war.”
But a recent progress report on an Army sustainability initiative that includes Fort Bliss echoed Pittard’s concerns about the uphill fight sustainability faces: “Significant change is needed in how Army leaders, soldiers, civilians and contractors think, plan and operate.”
A graduate of West Point, Pittard is unusual in the military for his embrace of issues a step removed from combat.
Born in Japan into a military family, Pittard calls himself a lifelong, if closeted, conservationist. He remembers learning to appreciate nature during his fourth-grade year in Portland, Ore. Starting in the mid-1980s, he spent about 10 years off and on in Germany, where he said he encountered greater environmental awareness than he had seen in the U.S and made friends in the Green Party. He talks of the safari trip he took with his sons to Tanzania, and his glee at his older son’s decision to study zoology.
A onetime military aide to President Bill Clinton, Pittard served in Kosovo and Iraq before assuming command of Fort Irwin. There, Southern California Edison told him the base’s power would have to be turned off for a few hours’ work, which, he said, made him wonder, “If these guys can just turn off my power like that, what could an organized, well-funded, well-planned terrorist operation do?”
Fort Bliss’ across-the-board sustainability initiatives, down to the minutiae of tree planting and the kind of plastic cups used, make it seem like Portland with missiles.
“Our mission was to prepare our soldiers and units for combat,” Pittard wrote in his valedictory letter to his division. “Additionally, our collective goal was to create the most healthy, fit and resilient community that is environmentally sound in America.”
With past and future deployments overseas in mind, Pittard has also set up a prototype outpost, similar to where soldiers live in remote parts of Afghanistan, where the link between energy use and combat is explored.
It has a sophisticated system of interconnected diesel generators, or microgrid, that uses half the fuel in a week that a conventional outpost would, reducing fuel convoys that could attract enemy attacks. It purifies shower and sink water. Each aspect of energy use is analyzed, down to how often doors to the outside are opened.
“For a forward operating base anywhere in the world, you want it to be as self-sustaining as possible,” Pittard said. “The fewer logistical convoys you have, the less vulnerable they are.”
The Pentagon provides little money for sustainability efforts, so Fort Bliss has had to figure out the financing of its many efforts.
Pittard hit the ground running, aware that he had only a couple of years to achieve results before his command changed. “Bureaucratic inertia is probably the biggest obstacle,” he said. “People slow-roll you because they know you’ll leave and they can wait you out.”
The base recently announced construction of a 20-megawatt solar array, the military’s largest renewable energy project. Already there are solar panels everywhere: on almost every roof in a townhouse development; by the new aquatics center where they heat the pool; by headquarters, barracks, dining halls; in parking lots where they also provide shade against the blazing heat.
Fort Bliss is exploring other energy sources too, such as geothermal to power a new hospital and a waste-to-energy facility that would use El Paso’s waste.
The base wants to use treated wastewater on parade grounds and golf courses. An aggressive recycling campaign has sent so much material to the recycling plant that the base has gotten money back to keep sports programs that other bases have cut because of budget reductions.
The veterans cemetery stripped hard-to-maintain grass and landscaped with decomposed granite, which reduced water use by half.
The new Fort Bliss commander, Gen. Sean MacFarland, has pledged to continue the sustainability efforts. But once Pittard retires, it remains unclear whether anyone would remain in the Army’s upper ranks who has his zeal for the environment.
In a recent speech, Pittard said of his son’s study of zoology: “He absolutely loves this planet, and so do I. … It is our responsibility as temporary guests on the planet to sustain this beautiful place called Earth.”