How Military Solar-Powered Microgrids Could Boost National Security

Vulnerabilities in the power grid are one of the most prevalent national security threats. The technical community has called for building up the resiliency of the grid using distributed energy and microgrids for stabilization. Power production from multiple sources increases the difficulty of triggering cascading blackouts, and following an attack or natural disaster, microgrids can provide localized energy security.

In a new paper published in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, an interdisciplinary team of engineering and energy policy experts from Michigan Technological University says the first step is to outfit U.S. military infrastructure with solar photovoltaic (PV)-powered microgrid systems. Their results found that the military needs 17 GW of PV to fortify domestic bases – the systems are technically feasible, within current contractors’ skill sets and economically favorable.

Additionally, the paper’s lead author, Emily Prehoda, who is finishing her PhD in energy policy at Michigan Tech, says boosting bases’ energy independence supports local communities.

“I come from a military-oriented family, so for me the military is important to bridge the technical capacities and policies to trickle down to other critical infrastructure and services,” Prehoda says. “This is such a huge issue, not only for the military but for other organizations, and it hits from all different sides, from the technical, economic and social – and it leads back to the idea of security.”

How Military Solar-Powered Microgrids Could Boost National Security

The U.S. military already has a renewable energy plan in place: 25% of energy production from renewable sources by 2025, but only 27 of the more than 400 domestic military sites either have fortified PV microgrids running now or have plans to do so, which makes the majority vulnerable to long-term power disruptions. Co-author Joshua Pearce says this is a great start but more is needed, as most military backup systems rely on generators, which are also vulnerable to fuel supply disruption.

“The U.S. military is extremely dependent on electricity now; it’s not people fighting with bayonets,” says Pearce, a dual-appointed professor of electrical and computer engineering as well as materials science and engineering. “If we put the money into PV-powered microgrids, it would be making us objectively more secure and we get a return on our investment, as after the initial investment in PV, the military would enjoy free solar electricity for the next 25 years.”

The main historical threats to the electrical grid come from natural disasters like tornados, hurricanes and winter storms, which cost between $18 billion and $33 billion every year in power outages and U.S. infrastructure damage. The threats that keep grid security experts up at night are deliberate attacks on the grid. These can either be physical attacks – like the 2013 sniper attack on a Silicon Valley substation, which cost $100 million and lasted 27 days – or computer hacking that causes cascading disruptions like in the Ukraine blackouts in 2016. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Defense reported about 200 cyber incidents across critical infrastructure systems, and nearly half targeted the electrical grid.

During any event, energy generation and distribution unhitch like a lost caboose on a runaway train. Microgrids provide flexibility and enable generation to persist even if distribution fails, maintaining performance for critical infrastructure while decreasing the chance of cascading failures. Solar, because of its decreasing costs and geographically distributed access to long-term solar “fuel,” makes the most sense for powering microgrids.

PV-Powered Microgrids

To quantify the technical impacts of distributed energy systems, the team looked at domestic military bases and their current electric loads. Then they reviewed where the military’s existing and planned PV-powered microgrids lined up with past grid failures, as well as every state’s potential for solar power.

The team found that it would take 2,140 GW to supply all critical infrastructure in the U.S. with 100% solar power and a hybrid microgrid system with storage to provide protection against grid failure. The military alone would need 17 GW. To put that in perspective, the U.S. has installed a total capacity of 22.7 GW of solar to date.

How Military Solar-Powered Microgrids Could Boost National Security

The team then looked at the technical and economic feasibility of employing the top 20 contractors already working with the U.S. Department of Defense to install more microgrids and performed a detailed case study of three companies – Lockheed Martin, Bechtel and General Electric – to gauge the extent of the technical skills and resources available.

Given the results, the challenge to meet grid resiliency with microgrid deployment is feasible because the resources to install these systems already exist domestically.

Renewable Energy Policy

How Military Solar-Powered Microgrids Could Boost National SecurityPrehoda also worked with her PhD advisor Chelsea Schelly, an associate professor of sociology at Michigan Tech, to assess policy needs. Despite the substantial national security risk, policy that addresses electrical grid failures has been minimal. Schelly explains that support for PV makes sense in terms of national security.

“There is some policy recognition that energy can be a security priority,” says Schelly, adding that while the U.S. does not have a national renewable energy policy, the military does, and it has the capacity for implementation through existing contractors. “If we recognize that this capacity already exists, then we can start thinking about PV as a security measure by integrating microgrids – and then creating local resilience based on military technologies.”

In the paper, the team examined how securing top-priority military microgrids could trickle down into different levels of critical infrastructure. Technology designed and implemented at military bases could lead to similar microgrids for other government facilities, critical infrastructure like hospitals, industry and commercial systems, as well as homes and neighborhoods.

“For me, starting with the military is important for national security and grid vulnerabilities,” says Prehoda. “But it also jump-starts technology.”

The first step is recognizing what it takes to outfit domestic military bases – and eventually military sites abroad – to combat power grid failure from natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

Allison Mills writes university research stories for Michigan Technological University. This article has been adapted and republished with permission from the author.


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