As the Navy looks to the future of its operations in the Pacific, it’s increasingly exploring renewable energy and other new technologies to get the job done. That gives it something in common with Hawaii.

For years the military has opened up space on island bases to local utility companies to develop energy generation projects, including solar and wind farms, that provide power to both civilian customers and the bases themselves. 

In October, Naval Facilities Engineering Command Hawaii began soliciting renewable and fossil fuel-based proposals from developers to plan, finance, construct, own, operate and maintain an energy generation system and storage system on about 160 acres of land at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.

Hawaiian Electric’s 20-megawatt West Loch solar project on U.S. Navy land near Pearl Harbor went into service in 2019 and is one of the state’s largest. Courtesy Hawaiian Electric

The military has long clashed with activists and state officials over the environmental impact of decades of live-fire training, construction projects, threats to marine wildlife and other issues. But all agree on the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

“It’s a very tangible example of where the state’s goals and the military’s goals overlap,” said Amanda Ellis, a former New Zealand diplomat and the Hawaii and Asia-Pacific Director for Arizona State University’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

In 2015, Hawaii, which has the most expensive energy bills in the country, became the first state to pledge to work toward powering the state with 100% renewable energy by 2045. It has been the most petroleum-dependent state, depending heavily on oil and coal brought in by sea to power its electrical grid. 

For the Navy, which conducts near-constant operations across countless islands and waterways, power sources that can be replenished naturally offer game-changing possibilities for military operations. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the vulnerability of global supply chains, says Erith Evans, the energy program manager at Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Pacific. The spread of the virus has caused massive disruptions to maritime shipping and is likely to have long-lasting impacts on the delivery of goods.

“(With) the next generation of renewables, we don’t have to bring in so much fuel to the island, and we know that that fuel supply chain is, I’ll call it fragile,” Evans said in a recent telephone interview. 

“That allows us to stay viable and allows us to perform our mission, even if possibly our supply chains are cut, because we’re able to generate power from a renewable source,” Evans added.

In May 2019, the Navy and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative launched a partnership to expand renewable energy at the Pacific Missile Range Facility. Their plan calls for the development of a 19.3 megawatt solar facility in conjunction with a 70 megawatt-hour battery energy storage system to reduce the installation’s reliance on diesel generators.

In November 2019, Hawaiian Electric Co. dedicated an 80,760 panel solar project built on 102 acres of the Navy’s West Loch Annex at Pearl Harbor. That project was projected to save Hawaiian Electric customers as much as $109 million over its expected 25-year lifespan and reduce the utility’s use of imported oil by as much as 3 million gallons annually.

In exchange for the land to host solar panels, the electric company agreed to provide infrastructure upgrades to the Navy’s facilities.

Projects like West Loch Solar are a win-win for the community and the Navy, helping to advance the state’s renewable energy goals,” Hawaiian Electric spokeswoman Shannon Tangonan said in an e-mail.

“It’s a very tangible example of where the state’s goals and the military’s goals overlap.” — Amanda Ellis of the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability.

While Navy officials said that most of the power generation on military land is done by utilities without taxpayer expense, the Navy is also paying for several solar power and energy efficiency projects of its own.

“These partnerships, whether they are with our island’s utilities or with our industry partners, they definitely strengthen our ability to provide reliable and resilient and more efficient energy through our installations,” Evans said.

In September NAVFAC Hawaii awarded Ameresco Inc. a $14 million contract to install a solar power and a solar thermal system along with several energy efficiency upgrades at its Wahiawa Annex. The contract calls for panels to be installed on a canopy over a portion of an existing base parking lot and is expected to be completed by October 2022.

‘A Warfighting Advantage’

Navy leaders have long worried about the effects of climate change. In 2013, Adm. Samuel Locklear told The Boston Globe that climate change is the greatest threat to the Pacific region and that resulting conflicts and disasters “will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about.”

Competition over fossil fuels also has been a driver for both military confrontation and environmental degradation. The Hawaii-based Pacific Fleet has stepped up operations in the South China Sea amid a standoff with China over access to critical trade routes and potentially rich undersea oil and gas reserves

While it’s looking to renewable power for its facilities, the Navy’s aircraft and warships remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels and that continues to take an environmental toll. A 2019 report from Brown University found that the U.S. military produces more carbon emissions than many entire industrialized nations.

In Hawaii, the military’s largest fuel reserve is the Navy’s Red Hill underground facility in Halawa. The aging tanks have leaked into Oahu’s drinking water several times over the years.

Last month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Hawaii Department of Health rejected a Navy proposal to upgrade the tanks, saying the plan was “deficient” and didn’t demonstrate how it would “minimize risk and impact to the drinking water.” They asked the Navy and Defense Logistics Agency to resubmit a revised plan.

Pearl Harbor Aerial Joint Base Hickam Pearl Harbor aerial1.
The Navy has pursued renewable energy projects in Hawaii in the midst of a divisive political debate over environmental and energy policy. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Navy has pursued renewable energy projects despite vocal skepticism from President Donald Trump, a fierce opponent of environmental research and green energy whose 2016 campaign succeeded in part by promising to protect jobs in the coal, oil and gas industries. 

Former Pentagon officials accused the Trump administration of purposely slowing military renewable energy projects. Following the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, a renewable energy advocate, the Navy disbanded its climate change task force that started under the Obama administration.

The Trump administration pushed officials not to use the term “climate change” and withdrew the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged that he would work toward making the United States carbon neutral by 2050, but debate over environmental and energy policy will likely remain divisive.

“I think the debate should be focused on a science-based approach,” said Scott Swift, a retired admiral who commanded the Pacific Fleet from 2015 to 2018. 

Swift said the military should use renewable energy in as many ways as possible, especially on rooftops around military bases that could easily be used for solar panels. 

Swift argued that the private sector has sometimes been slow to adopt renewable energy due to high up-front costs but that the military — which doesn’t have to worry about quarterly profits — can potentially undertake seemingly costly projects that save money in the long run.

“There’s a warfighting advantage to it, an environmental advantage to it, an economic advantage to it,” he said.

Rising sea levels and melting ice caps already have had a tangible impact on military operations as ecosystems change shape and some coastal bases face storms and flooding. A 2019 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office found the military wasn’t acting fast enough to protect bases from changing conditions.

Evans said green and renewable energy systems are becoming increasingly affordable.

“The technology is becoming more readily available. There was a point when we couldn’t get battery storage, it wasn’t cost-effective. And now it is cost-effective,” she said.

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