Extreme weather threats prompt Navy to ensure energy independence, facility climate resilience

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Whether at seaside piers or at inland support facilities, the Navy is working to ensure energy independence so it can keep going if the power goes out. It’s also working to increase facility resilience to extreme weather and rising tides. For more, at the Sea Air Space conference, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with James Balocki, the acting principal deputy assistant Secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment.

Interview transcript:

James Balocki: Really what we’re looking at is, what we’re trying to achieve for energy security and resilience aboard those bases. And it’s focused around the mission. Whether it’s launching ships or launching aircraft and recovering them for our mission, it’s about ensuring that that energy is available in plentiful supply and abundant quantities, regardless of the type that we’re using.

Tom Temin: Alright, because that we have heard some of the services have been experimenting with local grids and alternative sources of energy for those local grids, so they’re not tied to the say, the commercial grid that might be in the area. What’s going on in the Navy?

James Balocki: The Navy is certainly taking a very aggressive look at what’s called microgrids — the idea that if the grid goes down, or for some reason you need to isolate from it, you can, in fact, throw the switch as it were, and basically operate the installation as an island — separate. We’ve got a couple of really great examples, one I’d love to tell you about is Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. We’ve for several years had a microgrid out there, and fascinatingly enough, whenever power gets above or below the voltage you expected — so you plug in and expect to get 120, and all of a sudden, it’s 100 volts. Well, for sensitive equipment like F-35 simulators, that causes problems. And so our ability to island, or bring ourselves off the commercial grid, allows us to continue to operate those simulators without losing time because they shut down or trip because of the challenges with power that’s not correctly conditioned.

Tom Temin: Got it, because the Navy and the Marine Corps are all over the country, not just on the coastal areas. But, looking at the coastal areas, your strategy then involves independence because of resiliency to weather, or just general security because anything could happen to the grid?

James Balocki: So the idea of resilience is more expansive than just climate or weather. And it takes into account things that climate causes — so fires, droughts. We would even say that COVID has created a resilience issue, right? The pandemic. But beyond that, cyber threats represent a threat to resilience of our installations. Climate, as we mentioned, and certainly energy is a big one.

Tom Temin: So how do you tie in with the cybersecurity people in doing some of these experiments, like you mentioned in Yuma?

James Balocki: Right. So cyber is integrated into our design and construction practices. And then we also monitor our cyber networks separately from our information networks. In fact, the building control systems that operate a place like this [Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center, Fort Washington, Md.] represent as much or more threat to the ability to operate it as our information networks do that you sit down at your keyboard every day. So we have to protect and defend that is exactly the same way.

Tom Temin: And given the temperatures in here today, I could say they’re trying to conserve fuel or energy in any way they can. But we talked about the grid, which of course, is the physical basis of that security and resiliency. What about the sources of what goes on to the wire? What’s happening there?

James Balocki: So, really, the power plants, largely we depend, by and large, on the commercial sector — the private sector — to generate and transmit power. Where we’ll get into, a smaller isolated situation, we’ll put into place a cogeneration plant, for example, or solar, or wind production, with the ability with batteries and a time shift, right, because sun doesn’t shine at night, you’ve got to have the ability to draw power at night. So we’re employing all of those techniques to be able to ensure that we’re resilient and able to operate 24/7 as America depends on us, whenever the call should come out.

Tom Temin: So your strategy then is not to be completely independent of all commercial sources, but just to have your own kind of backup resiliency, because commercial failures happen in winter or whatever. They get hacked.

James Balocki: Right. Precisely. I would say we are an integral part of the communities, where we’re partners with not only the power sources, but the roadway networks — the utilities generally. They become an important part of who we are and how we operate. And so we have to reach out beyond the gates when we look at resilience, we can’t just look at the resilience of the gate. If the first node outside the gate fails, that represents a failure to us as well.

Tom Temin: What about overseas installations, say Guam, where there’s really major presence of the U.S. Navy. Are you looking at those areas for this type of work?

James Balocki: We are. Guam certainly as a territory of the United States represents a certain affinity and we’re looking particularly at solar there, as one might imagine, as an ability to provide some backup and timeshifted power. And certainly the resilience of all of the capabilities that we’ve got on Guam as very far forward naval base, much like Hawaii, but even further forward, has to be protected and maintain and resilience.

Tom Temin: And then we’re in Japan and a lot of other places, other countries too.

James Balocki: Exactly. And then we begin to rely on host governments to be a partner as well.

Tom Temin: And getting to the larger question of modernization installation work, there’s a big backlog. There’s also the need, as you say, to modernize some of the installations. What are your plans for ’22, ’23? What are you looking at?

James Balocki: So our priorities generally are focused around a couple of things. I think, first and foremost, and you’ve heard this in the news, the shipyards certainly need to be modernized. Our ability to generate power by maintaining those aircraft carriers and subs and get them in and out when the combatant commanders need them is critically important. Certainly, our strategic weapons facilities…

Tom Temin: Just to get back to the shipbuilding for a moment, there’s a real capacity issue there too?

James Balocki: So I don’t deal necessarily in the capacity, but we have to maintain the capacity we have, and certainly in operational, in a way that the velocity of ship movement through the maintenance cycles, is not impeded by the facilities infrastructure.

Tom Temin: So if they increase the capacity, then you’ve got a bigger job, because you’ve got more to worry about if someone else does that.

James Balocki: Precisely.

Tom Temin: And you were talking about the nuclear piece…

James Balocki: So the strategic weapons facilities, and then we’ll be looking to our unaccompanied housing as another priority as well.

Tom Temin: Yeah, housing has been an issue for, I guess, all the armed services, and you got to get around that one. And what about commercial partners — like shipbuilding yards? Does the resiliency and the ability to keep operating the Navy’s priorities extend to them, or do you have to say, listen, just make sure you can operate no matter what?

James Balocki: So while we would certainly have some concerns about that, and we’ll encourage them to do the right thing for their own business. They run their business, and frankly, we’re going to leave that to them.

Tom Temin: All right. Anything else you want to tell us?

James Balocki: Well, we’re just delighted that the Navy League has included the installations and energy community here in SeaAirSpace this year. This is the first time that I’m aware of that the EI&E — that’s the installations community — has been a party to this. And we’re looking forward to the panel later this afternoon. And frankly, look forward to learning and meeting a bunch of leaders that are important to our Navy and Marine Corps. The the integration of the seafaring forces, as well as the Coast Guard, is critical to our nation’s security, and we appreciate being included in that.

Tom Temin: Okay.

James Balocki: Let me make one more example as well. So another great example of resilience for sea level rise is the new piers that we’re constructing. For example, in Point Loma, out in San Diego, we’ve constructed a two-level pier that can adapt to sea level rise over, really, it’s projected over the next 100 years, to be able to adapt to whatever those sea levels might be. So it’s a fascinating design adaptation to a challenging problem the Mother Nature’s thrown at us.

Tom Temin: Just need longer anchor chains.

James Balocki: Presumably, yes. Again, not my portfolio.

Tom Temin: But you’ll let them know?

James Balocki: I will let them know, yeah. A few more links.

Tom Temin: James Balocki is acting principal deputy assistant Secretary of the Navy for energy, installations and environment. We spoke at the Sea Air Space conference hosted by the Navy League.

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