WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 3, 2015) -- If a tsunami ever hits Oahu, Hawaii, where tens of thousands of troops are stationed, power would be knocked out across the island and military operations would be impacted because all of the electrical generators are located along the shore, Katherine Hammack said.

Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, spoke during a panel: "Energy Across America: A Policy Discussion on Microgrid Technology," at the Newseum here, Dec. 3.

The Army realizes its vulnerability, she said, and has partnered with Hawaii Electric Light Co., giving them an easement on a portion of Army land that's the highest point on the island, where a dual-fuel microgrid plant will be built.

Once built, that plant will be able to restart power at an Army airfield, a community hospital, and other critical facilities, Hammack said, adding that having that backup power would be important for enabling humanitarian relief efforts in the wake of a tsunami or other natural or man-made disaster.

DUMB VS. SMART MICROGRID

The Army has about 100 microgrids. Of those, there are two basic types, Hammack said, "dumb" ones and "smart" ones. While both types are better than having none, the smart ones are the most efficient.

Dumb microgrids are the traditional ones that use non-renewable energy to provide power to installations, should power go out on the main grid. Hospitals and universities also use these for emergency generation.

Smart microgrids use renewable energy like solar, wind and hydro. Another feature of smart microgrids is that they prioritize and manage the load, moving energy around where it's most needed, she said.

One such smart microgrid, the Army's largest, is located on Fort Drum, New York, where a coal-fired power plant was converted to biomass, she said. That plant now supplies power to the installation and the local community and it's connected to the main power grid. Excess energy can be transferred back to the utility, saving cost.

Three weeks ago, the Army wanted to test what would happen if there were a disruption to the main power grid on Fort Drum, she continued. The utility was contacted to let them know that the installation would unplug itself from the outside grid to determine if the microgrid could function on its own.

This notification was important because "dropping 20 megawatts in less than a second would have disrupted the main grid if they were not expecting it," she explained, adding that the test was a success.

Another example of a smart microgrid, Hammack said, is one that's solar-powered on Fort Hunter-Liggett, California. It serves five buildings now, but there are plans for expansion across the post.

On Fort Carson, Colorado, the Army has partnered with Sandia National Laboratories to provide a solar-powered microgrid and vehicle-to-grid storage. That program, she said, goes by the name Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security, or SPIDERS.

The vehicle-to-grid approach uses Fort Carson's government vehicles as microgrid energy storage devices, she said. When the vehicles are parked, they either receive electrical power from the microgrid, or, if they have excess power, they return it to the microgrid.

When the vehicles are being used, the vehicles themselves provide power to Soldiers who, for example, might be running electric power tools or compressors, she said. This alleviates the need for them towing petroleum-fed generators around.

Charles Hanley, senior manager, Grid Modernization and Military Systems Group at Sandia, credits Hammack's leadership and vision for getting SPIDERS operational throughout the last several years.

Hanley said Sandia and the Department of Energy sampled 20 of the Army's microgrids to see how well they were operated and protected from cyber threats and found all of them functioning very well.

He offered that the microgrids are providing "mission assurance" to the Army and will be emulated across the other services and likely in the public sector as well.

Hanley predicted that one day microgrids would enable all installations to be energy independent should the main grid go down.

PUBLIC POLICY ISSUES

The Army's challenge for increasing the number of smart microgrids is that policy for each state is different, Hammack said. Within each state, utilities' policies also have different approaches. This forces the Army to take multiple approaches, slowing down construction.

What's needed, she said, is a standardized energy policy throughout the United States that provides definitions and protocols for such things as turning on and off the microgrid, how the utility communicates to its customers, how new technologies are incorporated, net metering and so forth.

"We've got enough background knowledge, lessons learned and pilot studies," Hammack said. "It's time to move on this."

Both Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska agreed with Hammack that Congress needs to act on energy policy. They said bipartisan bills in both the House and the Senate are making their way through and action on the bills could come as soon as early next year.

Heinrich said the impetus for action will likely come from consumers who want energy control and choices.

Bill Gausman, senior vice president of strategic initiative, PEPCO Holdings, said the impetus for action already came, in the form of Superstorm Sandy, which battered the Eastern Seaboard. Lawmakers in those states still remember how hard it was to evacuate people when gas stations were shut down for lack of power.

ENERGY RESILIENCY

Murkowski described her home state of Alaska in terms similar to how Hammack described Army installations - having the need for energy independence and resiliency.

About 80 percent of Alaskan communities are not connected by road, she said. Small planes carry expensive fuel to these places. The high cost of flying this fuel out to them is driving many to move to the large cities. So, the state is taking matters into its own hand.

One of the nation's largest fishing ports and fish-processing plants is located on Kodiak Island, she said. It was a matter of economic necessity for these workers and residents to build 19 wind turbines that currently power their microgrid. While folks in the lower 48 "are still talking about it, we're actually doing it," she said.