The Air Force has remained behind the curve when it comes to meeting its federally mandated 1 gigawatt renewable energy procurement target, relative to the progress of the Navy and Army. The delays to date are in part related to reluctance by base commanders to pursue renewable energy technologies as a path to mission assurance and due to a significant lack of internal staffing and other resources on the executive level necessary to conduct project due diligence. Yet, signs of progress have started to emerge in recent months as the Air Force has determined a near-term need to begin addressing significant power quality issues at a number of its installations. With electrical distribution infrastructure dating back to the 1940s in many cases, frequent power outages and unreliable diesel generators have compelled the top tiers of leadership to hone a new vision of energy assurance that will better prepare the service for the challenges of the 21st Century.
In March of this year, Assistant Secretary Miranda Ballentine stood up the Office of Energy Assurance (OEA). OEA has received long-term funding and has been strategically co-located with the Army’s Office of Energy Initiatives (OEI) in order to help the first full-time program officials get up to speed quickly and implement best practices in project development. In addition to standing up OEA, the Air Force has also further honed its renewable energy procurement vision around three core principles: resilient, cost-competitive, and clean. Project concepts in which these principles can come together have been defined as a “sweet spot” in the procurement of renewable and resilient energy going forward.
This summer, the Air Force rolled out its Renewable Energy Demonstration Initiative (REDI) centered around Beale Air Force Base (AFB) in California. REDI has been framed as the Air Force’s "pathfinder" approach to developing a process that is replicable for procuring new energy systems that are resilient, cost-competitive, and clean. In July, the Air Force took responses to its Request for Information (RFI) for energy resiliency at Beale AFB, where industry was specifically asked to propose project structures and potential solutions that could address the base’s significant power quality issues. The RFI stated the REDI team’s goal to develop a comprehensive energy assurance plan for Beale by the end of 2016.
In its Strategic Master Plan, the Air Force set forth its most ambitious goal for energy resiliency and assurance, committing to at least 10 projects under development for 10 MW or more of on-base power by July 2017. With just under 1 year to go and no projects yet contracted, the Air Force is already at risk of missing another target that it has set for itself; indeed, even the efforts surrounding Beale AFB are unlikely to be contracted by the end of 2016.
Nevertheless, the pressure from executive orders to procure renewable energy remain in place, and the issues of power quality impacting mission assurance are only likely to increase with time. The progress made this year with standing up OEA and taking the first steps surrounding REDI still represent a break with the past in terms of being more material. For now, industry must continue to wait and see if 2016 marks a positive change in direction for the Air Force or a continuation of past commitments that did not materialize into real project opportunities. It may be that the Navy and Army represent a better renewable energy market in the near-term.