President Trump’s steps so far to back away from existing policies intended to address climate change have not upended the military services’ push to increasingly rely on renewable energy sources to power their installations. But the department’s former installations and energy chief says even if the new administration revisits DOD’s policies on sustainability, it should be careful not to limit efforts that can be justified for reasons beyond their environmental benefits.
There is a clear business case for the military to develop new generation capacity on base using solar, wind or other renewable resources as they are generally financed by developers or utilities and can cut an installation’s electricity bill, John Conger, who led the Pentagon’s installations office from 2012 to 2015, told Defense Communities 360. And by enhancing an installation’s energy resilience, if a microgrid is added, these projects yield an operational benefit of providing power during an interruption of the commercial grid.
Even in the absence of new rules slowing DOD’s reliance on renewables, the White House’s stance toward environmental sustainability can affect decision-making throughout the department, said Conger, who now is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His wish is that the services continue to pursue energy projects that save money and improve military value and not second guess them because of their environmental benefits.
Last week, Trump signed an executive order reversing a requirement for federal agencies to consider climate change in their actions and craft plans to mitigate its risks. As a result, DOD efforts to mitigate the risks of climate change could slow. But even if officials choose not to take actions based on 20- or 30-year projections of impacts from flooding, they already must deal with coastal installations affected by rising sea levels, Conger said.
“If you have a base experiencing current flooding, you have a today problem,” he said.
Taking into account the risk of flooding at coastal installations makes sense, Conger noted, simply as a way to reduce risk. If you are forced to build in a floodplain, make sure your backup power is not in the basement, for example.
“When all is said and done, it strikes me that even if you just look at climate change today … you should simply take that into account as prudent planning, even if you don’t look ahead [to consider long-term impacts],” he said.
When asked whether recent comments from Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain (R-Ariz.) indicating he was open to the prospect of a new BRAC round is likely to translate into congressional approval, Conger said it still is too early to tell.
“You will need administration support and you’ll need Hill support and we’ll see where they put all their priorities as the year moves on,” he said. “Nobody can predict.”
If lawmakers move forward on additional base closures, Conger said they most likely will update the BRAC statute to address two key concerns about the 2005 round — its initial implementation cost was too high and unexpected expenses that drove up the round’s ultimate cost.
In response to a question about the military’s growing backlog of facilities maintenance, he said the first step is to allocate adequate funds to ensure the services aren’t falling further behind in sustaining their infrastructure.
“So I wouldn’t focus on the backlog, but as to whether the department has a strategy to get it right again,” Conger said. The challenge for DOD has been coping with the statutory budget caps. Unless the constraints on the department’s topline spending level are relaxed, it will be very difficult for the services to adequately fund facilities sustainment.
He concluded the interview by highlighting the professionalism of employees at both the headquarters level and the installation level supporting the department’s bases. “I have a lot of confidence in the folks in the building today,” Conger said.
And, whether or not a new BRAC round is authorized or climate change policies are altered, “they will do their best for our bases that they possibly can. They are working really hard.”