Four new windmill towers and turbines rising from the crown of John Paul Jones Hill will begin powering the U.S. Navy base here next month, saving $1.5 million in annual oil imports, reducing pollution and showing energy-starved communist neighbors what they are missing.
The wind-generation project that will provide 25% to 30% of the base’s energy needs is a rare embrace of renewable resources for the U.S. military, which can seldom justify the high start-up costs or efficiently extend new technologies to the small, scattered communities they serve.
At Guantanamo, where the population has grown fourfold since the base began housing hundreds of suspected enemy combatants captured mostly in Afghanistan, favorable winds and Pentagon-mandated energy independence have converged to allow the base to boast the largest stand-alone hybrid wind and diesel power system in the world, according to its developers.
Two of the four windmills, each capable of generating 950 kilowatts of electricity, are operational, and the other two will be online by the end of the month, said the Naval Facilities Engineering Command’s Mark Leighton, who is overseeing the project.
Augmenting the wind power are two new diesel generators that operate more efficiently and cleanly than the Cold War-era units they are replacing, which will boost annual fuel savings to $2.3 million once all the new technology is activated in the next few weeks, Leighton said. The equipment also will cut carbon dioxide output at these pristine southern shores by 13 million pounds a year.
Though the wind project boasts economic and environmental advances, those behind it concede there is little likelihood of expansion, here or at other military bases.
Guantanamo is unique in its need to remain separate from its communist-ruled host and neighbor, and the narrow hilltop where the four stanchions are planted cannot accommodate more. The pillars standing 185 feet above the hilltop are embedded 35 feet into the ground, each tethered below the surface with 22 “soil nails.” Other high land on the windward side of the base divided by Guantanamo Bay might be suitable, but the cost would be prohibitive compared with the benefit, Leighton said.
Similar wind parks have been erected at two other military installations, said Beverly Wade, project facilitator for a Navy program that invites private contractors to invest in more efficient energy development in return for the project’s savings. She said other renewable-energy projects on military bases included solar-heated swimming pools at the Norfolk Naval Station and ground-source heat pumps at Oceania Naval Air Station, both in Virginia.
“The problem with renewables in the past has been that it’s more expensive up front and not necessarily tried-and-true technology,” said Wade. “Now it’s turning out that with the cost of [fossil-fuel] energy, renewable prices aren’t looking so bad.”
The Guantanamo contractor, Noresco of Connecticut, invested $20 million in the windmills and new diesel generators. The company is entitled to the projects’ savings for 14 years, which Leighton estimated at $41 million. The windmills have life spans of at least 20 years, meaning the Navy will enjoy the savings for several years beyond the contractor’s repayment term.
Guantanamo has been self-sustaining in utilities for 40 years, able to produce its own water and electricity to remain independent of the Cuban government, said the base public works officer, Cmdr. Jeffrey Johnston. After Cuban leader Fidel Castro threatened to cut off water to the base in 1964, a desalination plant was built, providing an independent source but boosting electricity demands that until now had been met by diesel generators.
The power is mostly needed to produce water, Johnston said, and Guantanamo’s water needs have risen with the base’s population, which went from 2,500 three years ago to nearly 10,000 as the main detention facility for terrorism suspects.
“The water needs for the base have been very complicated because we were small, then large, then small again, now large again,” Johnston said of the Guantanamo operation, which has shrunk and swollen with the times, including when it housed waves of intercepted refugees from Haiti and Cuba a decade ago.
“I don’t know enough about the future of this base to invest too much more” in energy or water production, Johnston said. “We are but a flotilla of Haitians away from being a base of 30,000 people. I could draw realistic scenarios that have this base at three times its needs now or one-third.”
While the wind turbines replace diesel power produced by plants that consume $24 in fuel a minute, their contribution to the base electrical grid can’t be efficiently increased beyond the four units. Unlike diesel-powered plants that can be operated as needed, wind is variable and unpredictable, Johnston said. The good news, he added, is that peak wind times on the base tend to coincide with peak consumption hours of late afternoon and early evening.
The windmills will also help the base overcome a chronic problem of power outages. Because the base network of diesel generators lacks the backup power supplies that a private utility company would have at its disposal, breakdowns, though usually short in duration, often put the lights out across the base until the problem can be fixed.
Johnston and the base commander, Capt. Leslie J. McCoy, noted that Cuban military officials with whom they met periodically had been keenly interested in the wind project, which is now the most visible feature of the base from any direction.
“The Cubans are very intrigued by the wind generators, but I see no potential for sharing the technology at this time,” McCoy said, alluding to the absence of diplomatic relations with Havana and a trade embargo that had been in place since shortly after Castro came to power in 1959.
Cuba has suffered widespread and protracted electricity outages in recent years as the price of oil has driven up production costs. The country has invested little in developing alternative energy resources.
Whether the Navy and its neighbor might collaborate in wind-power production if more amicable relations are achieved is “difficult to predict,” the base commander said.