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California is seriously limiting the renewable energy its military bases can produce

California is seriously limiting the renewable energy its military bases can produce
A soldier walks past solar panels at Fort Irwin in the Mojave desert in 2009. (Los Angeles Times)

As most Californians know, our state has been America’s leader on climate change policy for more than 15 years.

We adopted what was the most ambitious standard in the country in 2002, requiring utilities to increase the share of power they get from renewable sources to 20% by 2017. State lawmakers have since upped that mandate several times, most recently to 50% by 2030. If the state Assembly passes SB 100 this month, we will set our boldest target yet, requiring utilities to get 100% of their power from renewable or zero-carbon sources by 2045.

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But for all our standard-setting, California has also kneecapped a formidable ally in the march toward green energy: the United States military.

Yes, you read that correctly. The armed forces have become strong proponents of renewable energy over the past decade. Military installations in Southern California have been some of the quickest adopters.

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If the state’s military bases were allowed to develop their full potential to produce green energy, they would be significantly more secure.


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And yet, California placed a curious restriction on the amount of renewable energy that military bases in the state can generate. The cap wasn’t included in any of the state’s energy bills. Instead, it was tucked into SB 83, a voluminous budget “trailer bill” passed in 2015. Toward the end of the omnibus bill, after provisions on everything from soccer fields to the Tijuana River, it states that the sum total of renewable energy produced by a single military base in California cannot exceed 12 megawatts. It also denies the military any remuneration for the renewable energy it exports to the grid.

Now California has moved to lift the cap, once again by slipping important energy law into a trailer bill. SB 854, passed in June of this year, directs the state’s Public Utilities Commission to work on removing the cap, but through a bureaucratic process that could take years to complete. It also restricts each base’s power generation to that which it can use directly.

That’s not good enough. These caps profoundly limit the degree to which the military can participate in California’s green-energy revolution.

To appreciate how much, consider this. According to the Department of Defense, just seven military bases in Southern California could collectively generate 7,000 megawatts of solar power. That’s more power than is currently produced by all the residential solar panels in California put together.

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Limiting or slowing the military’s output of renewable energy in California makes no sense. It clearly works against Gov. Jerry Brown’s clean-energy goals.

It also works against the goals of the Defense Department. Although it may sound incongruous, the military has been pushing to develop and deploy renewable energy for the better part of a decade. The reason is simple: It understands that national security and energy security are entwined.

The connection between security and energy was laid bare during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where fuel supply lines consistently proved a significant vulnerability. Weeks before the invasion of Baghdad, General James Mattis called on the Department of Defense to “unleash us from the tether of fuel.”

In 2007, President George W. Bush signed a federal law that committed the Defense Department to “procure or produce” no less than 25% of the energy needed to run domestic military bases from renewable sources by 2025.

In 2012, the Pentagon made one of the largest commitments to green energy in history, pledging to develop the capacity to generate three gigawatts of renewable energy by 2025. Between 2011 and 2015, the armed forces nearly doubled their renewable power generation.

Military bases in Southern California have been particularly aggressive about developing renewable energy, especially after the blackout of 2011, which demonstrated the hazards of being dependent on a vulnerable power grid.

I was reporting on the environmental stewardship of Southern California’s bases when I discovered that their efforts were being hobbled. On base after base, generals and other military leaders would refer to the mysterious restriction. “It’s a California thing,” one of them told me.

California’s 32 military bases are poised to give the state a massive push toward energy independence. All restrictions on their efforts need to be removed. And the state Legislature needs to stop using trailer bills to enact complex energy policy that should be debated openly.

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If the state’s military bases were allowed to develop their full potential to produce green energy, they would be significantly more secure. Half of the 3,500 U.S. military installations around the world are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and this includes bases in California.

California’s military bases would also be better able to help the state respond to emergencies of all kinds. And to a degree that the utilities may find threatening, they could rapidly accelerate California’s ability to achieve the ambitious targets proposed in SB 100.

Al Gore and the Climate Reality Project will be in Los Angeles next week to hold the largest-ever training conference for climate activists. A couple weeks after that, Gov. Brown will host the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

I would like to propose an agenda item for these gatherings. The Department of Defense recently said it wants to double down on renewable energy. Why is California holding it back?

Marilyn Berlin Snell is the author of “Unlikely Ally: How the Military Fights Climate Change and Protects the Environment.”

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