Lt. Col. Brandon Newell walks by solar panels at MCAS Miramar. Marine Corps photo

The concept of a microgrid — the ability to operate as an island separate from a commercial utility power grid — is not new. What is new, however, is the ability of a microgrid to employ greater amounts of renewable energy while also supporting the larger community in an emergency.

Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, a military installation located 12 miles north of downtown San Diego, spans 36 square miles and houses more than 15,000 service members, civilian employees, and military family members. The air station’s mission of providing support to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing is vital to our strategic security and one part of how we provide national defense for the country.

In support of this critical mission, the installation has been relentlessly pursuing energy security and sustainability through an advanced microgrid, comprised of both diesel and natural gas generators augmented with solar photovoltaics and existing landfill gas from San Diego’s Miramar Landfill, the latter also considered a renewable energy resource.

Our microgrid gives priority to the renewables as “always on” resources, meeting roughly 50% of the base’s energy needs. Though not commonly known as clean and efficient, newer fossil fuel power plants like the systems installed at MCAS Miramar meet some of the most stringent air-quality standards in the nation. For long-duration outages, clean fossil-fuel options can still play an important role during the current energy transition, especially with regard to resiliency in an emergency situation.

MCAS Miramar began its microgrid journey in 2011 with a concept focused on meeting the power requirements of all our critical missions. In 2014, the Secretary of Defense approved a $20 million military construction project to execute this vision.

A joint venture between Schneider Electric and Black & Veatch, the former a microgrid control provider and the latter an engineering firm, was contracted to develop the project. Work was completed and the new microgrid was tested and certified as completed in December.

On Feb. 19, MCAS Miramar performed an Energy Resilience Readiness Exercise — its first full-scale exercise to demonstrate the microgrid’s ability to keep its airfield operational during an imposed power outage for an entire day. This exercise was part of a broader national strategic plan for the Department of Defense to assess the energy resilience provided to military installations by a microgrid.

During the exercise, our microgrid was completely disconnected from commercial power and all necessary operations were accomplished without delay, validating the design and concept of the grid.

Following this success, MCAS Miramar is looking to the future with new projects and challenges. To further enhance resiliency, the system will integrate large lithium-ion batteries through a $5 million grant from the California Energy Commission. These batteries will help store our energy locally and level out our usage peaks, making the air station far more able to cope with the power spikes we all experience during the hot San Diego summer months.  

We have built a complex and evolving microgrid that allows MCAS Miramar to sustain its national defense mission while also providing increased capability to support civil authorities during emergencies. For example, if Southern California was to lose power as it did in 2011, MCAS Miramar would have the ability to act as an emergency hub for city, county, state and federal relief efforts. 

This, combined with an airfield that can support almost any aircraft, brings a unique and much needed capability to our emergency infrastructure. MCAS Miramar can serve as a model not only for other critical facilities throughout the state, but for military bases across the country.

The benefits of such a project are not limited to large-scale emergency situations. A well-designed microgrid like ours can also provide stability and support to the local grid in times of need.

During the hot summer of 2020, San Diego Gas & Electric reached out to MCAS Miramar on three occasions to reduce imports of electricity at times of peak demand. Through the use of its microgrid, Miramar was able to honor SDG&E’s requests and provide backup power.

MCAS Miramar’s assistance prevented rolling blackouts to nearly 3,000 homes in the area. While we cannot do this in a long-term fashion, it is one more way that we can assist our neighbors across the county should they be in need again in the future.

To sum up, this is a journey and there’s more work to be done. We will continue to evolve this microgrid with emerging and reliable technologies to meet our strategic mission while helping the larger community.

Wildfires, extreme weather, earthquakes, and other emergencies could be forthcoming in our shared future. However, our partnership with the city, county and local organizations is a defining reason why Miramar has continued to exist for more than 100 years. Projects like this microgrid are a compelling reason why it will continue for another century. 

Col. Charles Dockery is the Commanding Officer at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

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