Grant to U.Va. Engineering Center Helps Army Bases Plan for Energy Security

March 8, 2010 — U.S. Army planners are deciding now how to provide backup power at America's military bases for the next 10 to 20 years.

It's not as simple a decision as one might think. The choices are increasingly complex, thanks to the Army's various, often competing energy goals and a multiplying array of energy source options, combined with the uncertainties of the future, when stricter regulations, fuel supply disruptions or technological advances could drastically impact the attractiveness of one technology versus another.

To help identify the Army's best options, a small team, led by University of Virginia engineering professor James Lambert, will develop an energy security assessment tool with a new $660,000 grant from the Engineer Research and Development Center of the Army Corps of Engineers. The 18-month grant, awarded by the ERDC's Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Champaign, Ill. is funded in part by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Deferred maintenance, combined with increased demands on the nation's electrical grid, have led to electricity shortages, power quality problems, rolling blackouts and electricity price spikes, pushing Army planners to increase energy security for bases – especially for facilities that perform critical functions, such as central communications arteries, said Lambert, associate director of U.Va.'s Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems and a professor of systems and information engineering.

Back-up power options generally involve small-scale, on-base sources combined with emerging "microgrid" technology that allows an on-base control center to dynamically prioritize what sections of the base (particular buildings, floors or even individual offices) receive backup power during a grid outage.

There are many promising energy-generating technologies entering the market or on the horizon, Lambert said, from higher-efficiency solar cells and wind power, to more affordable fuel cells or miniature nuclear power plants based on long-proven submarine nuclear technology, to microturbines – essentially flex-fuel-powered stationary jet engines that are more efficient than traditional generators.

Army bases will likely utilize a mix of those options, and some that aren't yet on the radar. In the past, both the Army at large and individual installations have adopted an array of technologies, Lambert said, measuring success primarily by cost savings.

But in recent years the Army has moved beyond the focus on cost, adopting a multitude of big-picture energy goals – including cleaner energy, reducing foreign energy dependence, increased innovation in and use of renewable energy technologies, elimination of carbon emissions, better reliability and energy security. Those goals sometimes compete with each other.

Each major technology option rates differently on each of those goals, and future developments will change the calculus for each technology.

To examine all those variables, the U.Va. team will use "emergent conditions analysis," a sophisticated type of analysis developed at the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems. The analysis will help the Army consider how various future scenarios could impact their energy priorities, to determine the most robust energy technologies, or basket of energy solutions.

For instance, stricter noise regulations or a fuel supply shortage (perhaps caused by a terrorist strike or a regional conflict) could make some technologies less economically viable. On the other hand, rising electricity costs could make it attractive for the Army to sell power back to the grid, at least during peak demand times or in certain areas. "We look for both threats and opportunities across emergent conditions," Lambert said.

The analysis can be refined as the Army more closely studies how certain scenarios, deemed most realistic or most troublesome, would play out. For example, the Army is already hard at work trying to predict and plan for the probable ramifications of climate change.

Lambert's team will work in concert with Army staff to refine the analysis methodology, which will be distilled into a software tool for energy security assessment by base managers. The software will be piloted in a detailed case study of a compound of roughly 12 to 20 buildings within a major Northern Virginia installation.

Later, the team will test the tool on other sections of the same base, with an eye toward making the software versatile enough to be used at Army bases across the nation.

"Our role is to provide the sponsor a tool for installations all around the nation to self-audit as they pick and assemble innovative technologies to increase their energy security," Lambert said. "We want to help them avoid surprises related to regulation, demand, technologies on the horizon, changes in missions, demographic changes, and so on, even an emergent condition like climate change."

The grant's co-principal investigators are Renae Ditmer, president of STRATCON, a consulting firm based in Northern Virginia, and Jeffrey Keisler, a professor of management science and information systems at the University of Massachusetts.

Chris Karvetski, a Ph.D. student at the Center for Risk Management of Engineering Systems, will take part in the research, along with other graduate and undergraduate students of the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

— By Brevy Cannon