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Naval Air Station Fort Worth is starting new programs to conserve energy

FORT WORTH -- The utility bills arriving in mailboxes might feel a little unfamiliar to U.S. servicemen and -women living at the Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

Energy costs, after all, have long been fixed and lumped into the cost of base housing.

But this spring, those 80 or so families will assume responsibility for their own energy consumption, paying more for higher-than-average use -- or getting a rebate check for efficiency.

The program was created after research found that residents used far less energy when utilities were not included in their rent.

"It changes the mindset," said Nelson Cowan, housing installation program manager at the base. "This gets them thinking about things like not leaving the A/C running on high all day if they aren't going to be home."

The base's utility expenses -- electric, natural gas, water and sewer -- in fiscal 2011-12 were $4 million.

This latest program is one of the many initiatives the military has enacted in an effort to become more energy-efficient and reserve money previously spent on utilities for war-fighting readiness. Conservation efforts have ranged in recent years from installation of solar panels and wind turbines to water-efficient toilets and motion-activated lights.

And more changes are coming.

Power at the base was out most of a recent Monday for installation of a new wireless gas and electric metering system. When completed, most large base buildings will have new meters transmitting detailed consumption information to a central server, said Lt. Commander Craig Shellerud, public works officer.

"We want to know when we are seeing the spikes in demand," said Nelson Wells, the installation energy manager for the base. "What time of day is the energy being used, what are they using. ... Once you know that, you get a better idea of how you can reduce your consumption."

The Fort Worth base has generally reduced its energy consumption from the mid-2000s, though spikes occur during extraordinarily hot summers or frigid winters, officials said.

"The elephant in the room is the weather," Wells said. "You can take all these steps toward energy efficiency, but you can't control an extremely hot summer."

In 2009, the base signed an energy savings performance contract with a company to provide more than $7 million in infrastructure upgrades.

Officials predicted that upgraded facilities would consume 34 percent less energy and that the project would pay for itself through $14 million in reduced energy demand and operational costs during the 15-year project term.

The conservation program in base housing was piloted three years ago in Hawaii and at Parris Island, S.C. It cut electricity usage by almost 10 percent and saved more than $1 million, which was to be reinvested to improve base homes and neighborhoods, the Navy said.

In Fort Worth, housing residents are currently receiving "mock bills" that show how their utility usage compares with average use for their type of housing. A buffer of about 10 percent is applied above and below that average. Residents whose usage is above the buffer will pay more; those under it will pay less. If their usage is within the buffer then they don't pay extra or get a rebate, Cowan said.

Electricity use already runs a little high in base housing because the units were built in the late 1940s and early 1950s and have little insulation.

But residents have taken the change in stride, Cowan said.

"I suppose once some have to start paying they may kick a little," he said. "But we'll come out and do a survey of the house to see what is sucking up electricity."

The base's efforts at green energy have produced varying results.

The Navy installed two small wind turbines to provide power for a warehouse but has no immediate plans to install more, Wells said. The location in the nearby river basin was not ideal, but the base was limited in other places to them.

"It's location, location, location," he said. "We couldn't really get the sustained wind to make them cost-effective."

Solar panels have been more successful. The Air Force, for example, uses them to power parking lot lights.

"We're moving in the right direction," Wells said. "We just have to looking for ways to save energy."

Alex Branch, 817-390-7689

Twitter: @albranch1

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