The San Diego landfill helped make these Marines energy self-reliant

What got the American military active in addressing climate change was not so much concern about the environment as it was the realization that climate change posed a threat to soldiers’ health and could make it difficult or maybe even impossible to carry out their mission. And when they realized that, they brought their creativity on board.

And that creativity is quite amazing, judging by How the Marine Corps Struck Gold in a Trash Heap As Part of the Pentagon’s Fight Against Climate Change published June 30, 2021 by Inside Climate News in partnership with The War Horse. 

Military bases are increasingly finding themselves in harm’s way, as the military would say – in the path of hurricanes, on low-lying coasts, in the dry west, or in the increasingly hot southern US. Tyndall Air Force base in Florida, severely damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018, will probably cost around $5 billion to repair. A 2019 report found nearly every base it looked at faces, or will face, climate-driven threats.

But then the article spends most of its time looking at the practical solutions that bases and air stations have come up with.

It starts with Air Station Miramar, in California. For approximately 60 years, the US Navy has leased land to the city of San Diego for the West Miramar Landfill – now the city’s only active landfill. Almost 910,000 tons of trash is disposed of yearly at the 1,500-acre site. Methane, a greenhouse gas that is produced as a byproduct, is captured and used to provide 90% of the fuel to power electrical generators at the Metropolitan Biosolids Center and North City Water Reclamation Plant.

Discussion of the methane gas generation is near the end of the YouTube video.

“We knew back then that that was a resource that could be used to power the air station in an emergency,” says Mick Wasco, the air station’s utilities and energy management director.

Since 2012, when it began working with an energy partner who was providing methane gas to parts of San Diego, it has been using methane to help provide the base’s energy. Today, nearly half its power comes from the landfill methane gas. 

But then they combined the methane gas, solar energy, a diesel and natural gas plant, and battery storage to create a microgrid that gives it energy independence in case of a natural disaster or emergency that might impact the larger grid.

In June 2020, they reached a significant milestone in testing and commissioning the power plant and microgrid. “Today’s successful test of the grid highlighted our ability to operate and keep the air station running should our local power providers become unavailable,” said commanding officer Col. Charles B. Dockery.

“The Schneider Electric/Black & Veach Joint Venture project is a state-of-the-art energy system operated out of the air station’s Energy and Water Operation Center (EWOC) incorporating natural gas and diesel power generation, landfill gas power generation and solar photovoltaic power generation into a microgrid capable of powering every mission critical facility for an indefinite period of time, making MCAS Miramar one of the most energy secure facilities in the Department of Defense,” the air station said.

As well as allowing the station to operate all mission-critical equipment in case of blackouts or power failures, the air station could even serve non-military emergency personnel from San Diego or the region.

It was one of 1,390 clean energy initiatives that sprouted up between 2011 and 2015, after the Department of Defense was directed to consider the effect of climate change on military missions.The military nearly doubled renewable power generation between 2011 and 2015, to 10,534 billion BTUs – enough to power about 286,000 average U.S. homes. In 2012, the Pentagon said it would develop 3 gigawatts of renewable energy — enough to power 750,000 homes — on Army, Navy and Air Force installations by 2025 to help ensure the military’s energy security.

Another example was in New York state, where Fort Drum – home to the Army’s 10th Mountain Division – switched from coal-fired power to burn biomass – mostly chipped branches, bark and other residues from timber operations. ReEnergy Holdings acquired the formerly coal-fired power plant in 2011 and spent $34 million on the conversion. Since November 2014, the 60-megawatt biomass power plant has been providing 100% of the base’s electricity.

Back in California, Los Angeles Air Force Base became the first federal facility to completely replace its general purpose vehicle fleet with electric cars. It is the largest plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) fleet on a federal facility and the largest V2G demonstration in the world. 

“With the ability to direct power both to and from the grid, these vehicles enable the installation to earn revenues that can be used to offset its energy costs, as well as enhance grid reliability and power security,” says a project information sheet. 

“LA AFB’s PEVs can provide more than 700 kilowatts of power – enough to power 140 typical American homes on a hot summer afternoon. This demonstration was made successful with the commitment of state and local government, federal agencies, private industry and energy providers and regulators.”

Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point shoreline. Photo: MCAS

Energy has not been the only area for action. In North Carolina, Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point is working on ecosystem restoration. It has reintroduced fox squirrels and wild turkeys, and is working to improve the health of the Neuse River, which stretches 275 miles from Cherry Point to the Piedmont. The Neuse has suffered from pollution for more than 40 years, but is the livelihood for many people. 

Cherry Point removed concrete lined ditches along the river, restoring natural curves in the streamline, and put down coconut fiber matting to stabilize the banks for the planted shrubbery, grasslands and trees that will filter water from the storm drains. A 50-foot buffer on each side of the stream is left unmowed due to its positive effects to the wildlife in the area.

The base also is restoring the living shoreline along the coast of MCAS Cherry Point and plans to begin construction by the fall of 2021 to reinstate the native oyster population. The plan is to place natural resources such as granite rocks, plants and soil to stabilize the shoreline.