Politics vs. common sense

Feb. 1, 2010
Energy Expert Peter Garforth says the U.S. Army's master planning goes beyond geographic or political constraints.

Last week I spoke at a workshop organized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The theme of the workshop was the challenge of introducing long-term energy master planning for their bases to achieve breakthrough levels of energy efficiency, energy security and greenhouse gas reductions. The Army has recognized that long-term energy master planning spanning decades ahead is essential if their sites are to approach the elusive target of net-zero energy, combined with very high levels of supply security and low operating costs.

It’s interesting to look at the Army’s challenge a little deeper, as it’s similar to that faced by large industrial complexes and communities in general. The most obvious question is, why on earth is a military force concerned about energy efficiency to this degree. The most important answers are supply security and cost. The less energy a garrison uses, the easier it is to develop redundant supply strategies to ensure security. Closely associated with efficiency is the need to adopt strategies that reduce seasonal variations and energy peaks, thereby reducing distribution and generation investments.

With its geographic reach, the U.S. Army is familiar with energy practices around the world. A long presence in Europe has brought contact with the integrated energy systems of Germany and Scandinavia. The workshop regularly reminded that prioritizing using the Loading Order, or Trias Energetica (www.triasenergetica.com) as it is called in Europe, should drive any good Energy Master Plan. These priorities are to first, maximize efficiency; second, maximize heat recovery and cogeneration; third, maximize the viable use of renewables; and fourth, optimize investments between the site and the grid.

Compared to others, large sites that have applied the loading order rigorously over many years typically use at most half the energy, generate proportionally even less greenhouse gases and are lower cost, more reliable and more flexible. This has been known for decades. So, why do we see this implemented so rarely? In all too many cases, it’s because politics trumps common sense.


The U.S. Army, hardly a bastion of wooly liberalism, clearly recognizes the value of having energy common sense serve as the driver. It’s challenging suppliers to develop long-term integrated energy solutions using best practices from around the world. It was no accident that a number of the participants at the workshop were from various European countries, including the Netherlands, Scandinavia and Germany. The picture they painted of seamless integration between very high-efficiency buildings and other efficiencies, district energy, cogeneration, renewables and peak reductions on the utility grids is one the Army is already moving towards implementing in the United States and elsewhere.

Success means not only developing multi-decade energy master plans; it also means having the discipline to follow them. Developing the plans is still more of an art than a science, with a relatively small number of practitioners worldwide. The Corps of Engineers is developing tools and frameworks to make this a more systematic, repeatable process; an exercise that will have a value well beyond their own facilities. These will be the road maps that will set the criteria for all renovations, new construction, energy supply and other procurements long into the future.

Also revealing at this workshop was the range of technologies being discussed as components of highly efficient garrisons. Passive house construction techniques result in buildings ready to be hooked into energy systems that collectively will approach a net-zero energy footprint for the site as a whole. The multiple aspects of efficient collection, distribution and use of heat in all its various forms was highlighted with advanced district energy systems, solar thermal collectors, radiant heating cooling techniques, cogeneration and integration of absorption cooling into thermal systems. Tying everything together with sophisticated smart metering and flexible control technology is increasingly required.

Far from being seen as cost-prohibitive, there’s a growing recognition that at these levels of breakthrough energy performance, there can be tipping points. At these points, costs ratchet down in steps rather than incrementally increase. So, the bottom line is technical flexibility, cost reduction and enhanced supply security. Behind all this is a dramatic decrease in greenhouse gas emissions as a clear collateral benefit to manage future risks.

The U.S. Army is to be congratulated on embracing a commonsense approach to energy management. Probably the biggest single point is the recognition that secure, reliable, low-cost, clean and flexible energy solutions makes sense for its mission and has no political color. Army engineers also are to be congratulated in recognizing that these results can’t be achieved with individual projects, but will be the results of systematic, well planned, integrated solutions implemented over many years. These are lessons all energy managers should take to heart.

Peter Garforth is principal of Garforth International LLC, Toledo, Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected].

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