By Tina Casey
The Department of Defense’s push for renewable energy has taken a back seat during the Trump* Administration, but new programs are still getting under way. One development of interest to the business community is located at Fort Benning in Georgia. This summer, the post launched a new training course that qualifies graduates for entry-level positions in the wind power industry and related fields.
The program could become a model for other industries struggling to find skilled workers in a tight labor market, because it leverages training in the Army for a specific civilian employment sector.
For bottom line and energy security reasons, the US Department of Defense was a vigorous, early adopter of renewable energy during the Obama Administration. Climate change also factored in to DoD’s interest in renewables. Much of the focus was on installing solar panels at its facilities, ranging from small rooftop arrays to massive ground-mounted solar farms.
Wind energy has been much slower to make a home at DoD facilities, partly due to air traffic and other operational concerns.
The Army’s Fort Benning is a case in point. By 2016, Fort Benning had a massive 30-megawatt solar farm up and running, along with a number of rooftop arrays.
In contrast, wind energy is barely represented at the post, and their equipment doesn’t look anything like the tall, long-bladed turbines that are becoming familiar fixtures around the US. Fort Benning’s turbines are fully housed in low-rise structures and they are designed to run on the updraft from an AC system, not on ambient winds.
So, why is the US Army introducing a wind energy employment program at Fort Benning, when they have no “real” turbines?
For that matter, ambient wind speeds in the state of Georgia are far less than optimal, and the American Wind Energy Association currently lists no significant wind installations in the entire state.
The simple answer is that the US wind industry is where the jobs are, if not in Georgia than elsewhere. The US Army cites a forecast from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, indicating that job growth in the field of wind technician could climb as high as 108 percent over the next five years.
At a ceremony launching the new training program last month, US Army Garrison Fort Benning deputy garrison commander George Steuber explained:
We started out transitioning civilians to Soldiers; now we want to transition these experienced Soldiers to be civilians again with good paying jobs. We’re going to make sure that when you go on and you are done with your active-duty career that there is another career out there that is equally competitive and productive in the civilian economy.
This is all familiar territory for the wind power industry. When growth in the industry first began surging under the Obama administration, industry stakeholders quickly realized that military veterans come equipped with a skill set that matches their needs, including a familiarity with electronic and mechanical equipment, manual dexterity, physical fitness, and experience with discipline, teamwork and leadership.
The new course, called Renewable Energy and Communications Tower Technician Program, was designed in partnership with the company Airstreams Renewables, Inc.
The company already runs similar programs at four other Army bases. The idea is to set active military personnel up with specific, in-demand career skills before they leave the Army, rather than discharging them without any solid prospects.
Meanwhile, Fort Benning is still has an interest in innovative new solar technology.
Last week, Fort Benning introduced its new “Smartflower,” located at its Environmental Learning Center. The array produces enough electricity to run all of the electrical systems in Learning Center building, aside from its energy-sucking climate control.
The compact array tracks optimal sunlight during the day and folds up at night for safekeeping. The folding system also removes any dust and debris from the panels, so they’re clean and ready for the next morning.
The Learning Center is another training resource for Army personnel, with a focus on energy management and compliance issues. It also provides a learning opportunity for students in the community.
Fort Benning’s Director of Public Works Environmental Division, Kirk Ticknor, explains the reasoning behind installing the Sunflower at the Learning Center:
We’re getting these energy managers, who are getting this training inside that building, to think outside the box. They can save energy in their building by calling in work orders or by increasing the awareness of people in the building to turn off their computers, the lights, and unplug things if they don’t need them. In addition to the Smartflower providing power to our grid, it is also educational and inspirational.
As with wind energy, Georgia is not an optimal state for solar energy. Though it gets plenty of sunlight, its high heat and humidity interfere with solar cell efficiency. Nevertheless, Fort Benning is demonstrating that solar is still a worthwhile investment in Georgia.
In addition to the Learning Center and its wind and solar initiatives, Fort Benning also recently installed a centralized, data-driven energy management system that coordinates more than 200 buildings. The post is also replacing its conventional streetlights with energy-saving LEDs.
This is all part of Fort Benning’s sustainability strategy, which extends beyond the post to the surrounding civilian region. As with other branches of the Armed Forces, the Army has been quick to realize the bottom line and operational advantages of renewables, as well as the importance of sound environmental practices for the health of its Soldiers and the community at large.
Here’s the explainer from the Fort Benning website:
Sustainability is a critical enabler in the performance of the Army’s mission, as its importance and benefits cut across the entire Army enterprise…By implementing sustainability principles and practices, the Army is decreasing future mission constraints, increasing operational flexibility and resilience, safeguarding human health and the environment, and improving quality of life for Soldiers and local communities.
Hmmm…looks like the Commander-in-Chief didn’t get the memo.