As the U.S. Air Force continues to bolster its resilience efforts, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) continues to grow its capabilities and expertise in this same area. NREL’s partnership with the AF has led to the smarter, stronger, and more flexible base infrastructure, strengthening the Air Force’s ability to execute its missions worldwide.
In 2018, a team from NREL worked with the Air Force to identify vulnerabilities at Florida’s coastal-located Tyndall Air Force Base and put together a risk mitigation strategy. NREL brought its 40-plus years of renewable energy expertise to the table and presented the Air Force with options, featuring a strategy that included the supplementation of traditional energy sources with renewable sources in a variety of ways. The strategy was designed to boost resiliency, but it also uncovered a critical need to consider the interdependency of the energy system and other systems, such as communications, transportation, food, and water. It effectively places greater importance on the surrounding community, where many of the base personnel have a vested interest.
“Right after we did that assessment, Tyndall was hit with a Category 5 hurricane," said Sherry Stout, NREL engineer. “We were able to validate how close we were. After a hurricane is a vulnerable time to go into any community of people. To have that level of trust in us; to be able to sit down and talk about the base and some of their homes—that collaboration taught us a lot about which stakeholders to engage and how to engage them. Tyndall was so collaborative and helped us work through the process.”
Hurricane Michael ripped through the Southeast, leaving a torn-up Tyndall Air Force Base in its path before the AF could implement any of the mitigation strategies. While Tyndall considered the mitigation strategies provided by NREL for its ongoing rebuilding effort, the Air Force continued to focus on strengthening the community. As a result, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recognized a growing need to address severe weather and its potential impact on national security.
Mark Jacobson, NREL senior project leader and liaison to the Air Force, said the relationship between NREL and the Air Force is growing. Jacobson said he sees NREL as more of a strategic partner to the Air Force in matters of increasing resiliency—microgrids being one area of specific interest across all of DoD.
“We’ve supported a number of bases in the preliminary design and/or evaluation of microgrids, and that number is increasing because of the positive feedback we’ve received from previous projects,” Jacobson said. “We can combine that engineering analysis by providing actual testing facilities where we can test hardware-in-the-loop. Microgrids are becoming ever so important as a solution to resiliency at individual bases, and we have our own microgrid at our Flatirons campus. We’re not just running a computer model. We actually have physical equipment that can be tested to replicate real work problems on the base. That’s just the kind of support the Air Force is looking for.”
NREL and the Air Force have been partnering on energy projects for many decades. In the past, these collaborations have been on more of a project-by-project basis, but certain requirements have pushed NREL into an integral position to the planning stages, as well as execution. One driver, set forth by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, is a requirement for each base to develop an installation energy plan.
“They look at the installations from a high-level perspective and understand the missions the base has and make sure the energy plans support the missions,” Jacobson said. “We are starting to provide support for some of the projects resulting from these plans and are looking to increase that level as needed.”
NREL is uniquely positioned to provide the kind of support the Air Force prefers.
“We’ve got a reputation of being an honest broker and providing independent analysis that isn’t pushing one technology or another or one brand or another,” Jacobson said. “We can combine our engineering analysis with actual testing facilities. Marry these strengths to our high-performance computing facilities and dozens of specialty energy labs that make up the Energy Systems Integration Facility, and it gives NREL a unique set of capabilities to offer not only the Air Force but all of DoD.”
NREL has nearly 900 active partnership agreements spanning industry; academia; and federal, state, and local governments. NREL can draw on those partnerships as required to pull in even more expertise and address even the most challenging specific requirements the Air Force can present.
“We have great relationships with the private sector, collaborating on near-term problem solving,” Jacobson said.” We may propose certain ideas and outline a particular spec or high-level overview of a design solution, but the final specs and design are determined by iterating with the private sector and listening to their real-world operational and maintenance concerns. We have a lot of relationships with manufacturers, and there is a host of examples where we worked with the top manufacturers and engineering firms across the country to collaborate on a final implementable design solution.”
For example, one long-time partner of NREL, Eaton Corporation, has taken the lead on a project at Tyndall and named NREL a partner. Eaton Corporation has a couple dozen employees embedded in NREL through a colocation arrangement to develop innovative energy solutions.
NREL’s commitment to partnering with the right people in the right places at the right times; its innovative technology testing facilities; and its wide swath of industry-leading experts on a variety of energy systems of past, present, and future make the national laboratory an especially attractive option for delivering data-driven solutions to meet DoD’s energy resilience needs.