West Point Marches Forward on Clean Energy Goals

For more than two centuries, the iconic U.S. Military Academy at West Point has educated and trained the U.S. Army’s leaders from its fortress location in the historic Hudson River Valley.  This is also the home of the modern environmental movement and an important part of NRDC’s “backyard,” with our headquarters based just an hour south in New York City. Now, not only we will we have shared geography, but also shared clean energy goals, as West Point adds to its legacy by making history on energy security and clean energy. 

Just last week, West Point issued a draft plan laying out options to improve energy efficiency and generate more renewable energy on site. 

While the plan is still in formation, West Point is considering a range of options, such as:

  • installing up to three megawatts of clean solar power on rooftops, parking areas and a landfill;
  • using solar hot water collectors to provide hot water; using ground source (e.g. geothermal) heat pumps to provide heating and cooling;
  • and using combined heat and power technologies to provide electricity, heating and cooling much more efficiently.

 West Point is seeking public comment on the plan, which includes a discussion of its environmental impacts (which is always important), and we hope that New Yorkers will rally around to support its goals.  The draft plan is subject to the availability of funding  and some elements may require further environmental review.

The military -- the nation’s largest energy purchaser and a potential market driver for renewable energy -- plays a huge role in the clean energy sector.  Development of clean domestic energy resources strengthens national security by increasing U.S. energy security while at the same time mitigating the threat posed by climate change.  As I wrote last week, NRDC is partnering with the Department of Defense on its clean energy efforts.

 Just last Friday, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed the threat of climate change at the Halifax International Security Forum, describing DOD’s new Arctic strategy to address climate change and stressing that “[c]limate change does not directly cause conflict, but it can add to the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict. Food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, more severe natural disasters – all place additional burdens on economies, societies, and institutions around the world.”  Secretary Hagel added that “[p]lanning for climate change and smarter energy investments not only make us a stronger military, they have many added benefits – saving us money, reducing demand, and helping protect the environment.”

 The U.S. Army also understands the very real connections between our over-reliance on fossil fuel energy and the global instability that causes conflict and puts U.S. soldiers at risk in the theater of war, where soldiers in convoys bringing fuels to installations are at high risk of casualties and injury. As West Point officials write in the draft net zero energy plan, the U.S. Army has recognized that “[a]dressing energy security and sustainability is operationally necessary, financially prudent and essential to mission accomplishment.”

As a result, the Army has developed a “net zero energy” pilot program, selecting a few Army bases and installations (including West Point).  The goal for these Army “net zero” facilities is to produce as much energy on site as it uses, over the course of a year. To achieve this goal, Army installations must first implement aggressive conservation and efficiency initiatives; better utilize waste energy through combined heat and power or co-generation efforts; and meet the balance of energy needs through renewable energy.  In its draft plan, West Point explains that “[t]he current state of dependence on fossil fuels and  vulnerable electric power and transmission grid supplies jeopardizes the security of the [West Point] Installation and its critical education, training and operational missions.”  

Since joining the Army’s Net Zero pilot program, West Point has already kicked into gear by undertaking energy efficiency projects to improve the quality and efficiency of lighting in buildings. Newly built projects have improved building performance and usefulness, and reduced energy use, providing operational cost savings for years to come. A new barracks at West Point is the most efficient in the Army. A new science building, as well as the new hospital outpatient facility will be also be energy efficiency top performers.

West Point has also taken some early steps toward bringing clean energy to the West Point installation. West Point now has two small solar photovoltaic installations, totaling 100 kW, and a small (10 kW) wind turbine. It also recently announced that an expansion of the medical center building would also include rooftop solar panels. But the new draft plan released last week marks a stepping up of this effort, outlining potential plans for significant new investment in solar power, solar hot water, and ground source heat pumps, as well as combined heat and power technologies that will promote energy efficiency by producing both heat and electricity from a single energy source.  West Point seeks to meet its net zero energy goals by 2020.

Of course, West Point faces some challenges in moving forward with its net zero energy plan, given the size of the West Point complex and variety of uses, the number of cadets, civilians, soldiers and faculty who live and work there.  The 16,000-acre West Point installation includes the U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Army Garrison, training grounds, a preparatory academy and other facilities.  Over 4,000 cadets are enrolled at the Academy and there some 12,500 military and civilian personnel work there.  Many of West Point’s buildings are also national historic landmarks, and any changes to them must be carefully reviewed.  

Clean energy goals must also be consistent with preserving Hudson Valley ecosystems and with West Point’s unique culture.  For instance, the draft plan points out that a possible roof-top solar project for West Point’s Gillis Field House must be carefully located to avoid covering the prominent slogans on the roof that read “SINK NAVY” and “BEAT AIR FORCE”! But all of these challenges also make West Point an excellent living laboratory for clean energy and provide an extraordinary opportunity to engage and inform the future leaders of the Army.

Already, the U.S. Military Academy has developed an ambitious clean energy training curriculum for its cadets, including an Energy & Environment Chain of Command, which designates cadets who serve as staff advisors to cadet commanders and a resource for their peers in each company. And the second annual Cadet Barracks Energy Efficiency Competition is underway, with the energy team tracking barracks’ usage through advanced smart meters and announcing the weekly winners.)  Indeed, one of the strengths of the draft plan is the goal of “[r]educing electrical and fossil fuel consumption through institutional culture change, fostering efficient use.”

Over the past two years, NRDC has had the privilege to offer advice and assistance to West Point academic faculty and energy facility personnel on West Point's  energy needs and clean energy plans. We salute West Point for taking this important step toward meeting its net zero energy goals.  Thanks also go to the U.S. Army Environmental Command, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, New York State energy agencies and others who are working with West Point on its clean energy and energy security needs.  NRDC’s next step will be to review and comment on the draft plan in detail so that we can offer our recommendations on how best to move forward.