By Jeff Benzak
Growing up on a Midwestern farm, Gregory Bean learned at a young age what it means to be sustainable. In the days before modern fertilizer, Bean’s family replaced nutrients in the soil by spreading manure on fields of corn and soybean. After supper, leftover food scraps were fed to the pigs.
“A farmer is the most sustainable person around, because everything is used or reused,” Bean said. “It’s a closed loop.”
These days Bean, 61, thinks about sustainability on a larger, more complex scale than the old family farm. A retired U.S. Army colonel, Bean is director of public works at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, one of the Army’s largest installations and home to the 82nd Airborne.
One of Bean’s primary duties is ensuring Fort Bragg’s energy needs are met without interruption, and at the lowest price possible. Since Fort Bragg’s mission is to train thousands of soldiers and paratroopers so they can be deployed anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, that’s no small task.
In fact, Fort Bragg’s electric bill is the largest bill on the base – some $50 million annually. Most of the electricity is generated from three offsite power plants that run on coal, nuclear, and natural gas. All the plants are operated by Duke Energy. To reduce that high cost of electricity – costs that we all pay as taxpayers – Fort Bragg is turning to energy efficiency.
Keeping energy costs in check
Bean’s office is filled with memorabilia and photos from his time as a cadet at West Point and from three ensuing decades of active-duty service in the U.S., Europe, and Saudi Arabia. Spread out over a table in one corner of the office is a stack of dog-eared, poster-sized maps outlining the footprints of Fort Bragg’s nearly 40 million square feet of buildings – about 10 times the square footage of the Pentagon, the world’s largest office building.
Sitting on Bean’s desk? His current weapon of choice: A Fluke 62 mini infrared handheld thermometer used for checking room temperatures. While the gauge looks like a bright-yellow garden hose spray gun, Bean and his staff use these devices to monitor how close buildings are to suggested thermostat settings – 68 in the winter, 78 in the summer.
In contrast to base closures across the country, Fort Bragg is growing. New office buildings and barracks are being constructed, while old ones are being updated. Keeping the lights, air conditioning and heat on in all those buildings can be a battle in itself – but one that Fort Bragg officials say they’re winning thanks to energy efficiency measures. Take a trip to the base and you’ll see these measures in action.
Fort Bragg’s building square footage and population are both growing at higher rates than the post’s energy consumption and energy costs. Thanks to various energy efficiency and renewable energy measures, energy consumption has declined by about a quarter based on a 2003 standard.
“It’s because of better buildings and much better education programs,” said Dr. Christine Gettys Hull, chief of Fort Bragg’s operations and maintenance division.
Private sector opportunities
The private sector works alongside the Army to improve energy efficiency and install renewable energy capacity. From a green rooftop that uses the naturally insulating properties of plants to lower cooling costs in a new $10 million mission-critical building, to sophisticated, post-wide meter monitoring software installed by Johnson Controls, innovative companies are growing – and profiting – from their military partnerships.
Often, these benefits cut across a national supply chain. For instance, Fort Bragg’s green roof was manufactured in Michigan, sold by a nursery based in Virginia, and installed by Baker Roofing, a Raleigh-based company that sent a crew of workers to Fort Bragg to install the green roof.
Another unique Fort Bragg project developed in partnership with the private sector is a “solar wall” installed by SEI, an Alabama-based engineering firm.
Designed to help dry parachutes, the south-facing solar wall’s black metal sheeting is mounted about three inches from the exterior of a structural wall at a silo near the 82nd Airborne’s barracks. After paratroopers conduct training jumps, their parachutes are taken to the silo, hung in rows from rafters, and heat absorbed from the solar wall is blown into the silo with fans. This heat is distributed through conventional ductwork, increasing temperatures by as much as 40 degrees and shortening the amount of time it takes to dry the parachutes.
Energy security protects mission
Energy efficiency measures and renewables at Fort Bragg are a relatively small part of a much larger DoD effort. According to “Power Surge,” a 2014 report by The Pew Charitable Trusts detailing DoD’s efforts to save money and increase energy security, facility energy is a fat budget target because of its $4 billion annual bill. However, U.S. military installations must make sure that their key energy requirements met are without interruption.
That doesn’t always happen. In spring 2011, severe weather and tornados cut off power to Fort Bragg for 24 hours.
“[Power loss] is a huge threat, because if you disrupt the energy systems at Fort Bragg, it could have an impact on our ability to deploy forces to support the nation’s interest,” said Bean.
By cutting energy use, establishing a culture on the post that respects energy and values efficiency, and increasing renewable power generation, Fort Bragg protects itself from interruption in its energy supply – a critical factor if the Army is to execute the installation’s mission of global rapid response.
People like Bean are tasked with ensuring the Army’s sustainability and energy goals are put into practice. Bean said the people he works with are inspired by the soldiers they serve.
“We have soldiers who are ready to go into the great unknown in 18 hours,” Bean said. “That’s a pretty special person that volunteers for that type of a mission. You can’t help but be around that type of soldier and not pick up some of that type of spirit, of that élan, of being special. Fort Bragg is a special place.”
Jeff Benzak is a communications associate at Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2).