Lessons learned from U.S. Navy microgrids in Hawaii

Pearl Harbor, Hawaii: aircraft fighter at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in 2016.

Hawaii has a deep relationship with the federal Department of Defense (DOD). The bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II by the Japanese cemented that connection in the minds of Americans.

In last year’s Military Microgrids report, Navigant Research found that military microgrids are likely to reach nearly $1 billion in annual implementation spending by 2026. If what has happened to two of Hawaii’s high profile microgrids is any indication, however, these investments may offer little in the way of actual resiliency.

At the recent VERGE conference in Honolulu, I learned that institutional, cultural, and technological challenges have plagued two microgrids deployed by the U.S. Navy on Oahu. The good news is that lessons learned from two microgrids — part of the SPIDERS program contracts awarded to Burns and McDonnell — are being applied to a new Pacific Energy Assurance and Resiliency Laboratory (PEARL) microgrid at Pearl Harbor for the Air Force.

Dan Lougen of the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Pacific offered a sobering view on the two SPIDERS microgrids on Hawaii, at a workshop I helped lead. The primary challenge, he said, was teaching 52-year-old men new tricks with the advanced technologies that make up today’s modern microgrids.

O&M costs lead to dormant microgrids

Ross Roley, a contractor with Battelle supporting US Pacific Command’s energy innovation office and operational manager of the SPIDERS program, pointed out in an interview that each of the three SPIDERS microgrids were fully functional when completed, but operations and maintenance (O&M) challenges resulted in all three microgrids lying dormant.

For SPIDERS 1 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam, a password expired and the owner/operators decided not to seek a new one, resulting "in a $4 million asset just sitting there," said Roley.

SPIDERS 2 at Fort Carson, Colorado sat idle for several years waiting for ownership policy to be sorted out, and SPIDERS 3 at Camp Smith in Hawaii has run into state environmental compliance issues and is also not currently operational. "I found out O&M is more difficult than construction. The DOD will now need to spend significant dollars to bring Camp Smith back online, but if it had been maintained from the outset, the microgrid could have generated $1 million annually for peak shaving and other grid services," he said.

Stan Osserman, director of the Hawaii Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies, observed that the SPIDERS projects taught many important lessons. "DoD’s ‘joint’ projects span all military branches, but which service is responsible to pay for ongoing operations wasn’t clear. We also found we needed to allow the prime contractor to have more control over the subcontractors, and we’re addressing both issues in PEARL," he said.

What will keep PEARL and SPIDERS up and running?

Then there were technology lessons learned. SPIDERS was touted as being a program to develop a model for wider commercial deployment of microgrids, but all loads were transferred to old school backup diesel generators in the event of an outage. The new PEARL microgrid is designed to run on 100 percent renewable energy with the help of energy storage mediums including hydrogen, flywheels, ultracapacitors and batteries.

Rather than diesel generators being the primary resource when the power goes out, the PEARL microgrid delegates backup generators as a last resort.

Perhaps the most inspirational message regarding microgrids and the military at VERGE was a presentation by Nathan Johnson, an assistant professor at Arizona State University. He described retraining programs for military veterans to find new jobs in the microgrid industry, including off-grid remote systems for energy access initiatives in the developing world. Perhaps the veterans who make it through Johnson’s microgrid boot camp could return to military service, and help keep these existing SPIDERS microgrids up and running.

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