WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army, focused on meeting ambitious climate-related goals, is going to fall short of some of its objectives, including failing to field an all-electric, non-tactical vehicle fleet in the near term. However, the service is making progress in other areas, including rapidly expanding the use of microgrids at installations.
The service in February 2022 released a climate strategy detailing a wide range of goals, from installing microgrids on all installations by 2035 to fielding fully electric tactical vehicles by 2050.
“More and more Americans and people all around the world, of course, are experiencing the effects of climate change,” Rachel Jacobson, the assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and the environment, told Defense News. “Our military installations are not immune from that in terms of the damage caused by the effects of climate change. But it goes beyond that — it interferes with our training.”
Over the past year, the world has seen a multitude of climate disasters. A fire, for instance, devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui, while Canadian wildfires raged for months over the summer, polluting the air over large swaths of the U.S. and confining many indoors for days at a time.
“We have to pay attention to this,” Jacobson said. “If we ignore it, we compromise our readiness.”
The service’s climate strategy seeks to address not only how forces would operate in a climate-altered world, but how the Army can mitigate its own greenhouse gases to reduce the effects of climate change.
Today, more than a year after the strategy’s release, the Army says it’s seeing advances in many areas. Nearly half of the Army’s installation electricity, for instance, is coming from renewable sources like wind and solar, and the service is readying to implement a new policy that will guide it in affordably constructing energy-efficient and sustainable buildings. But there have been holdups in other areas, such as electric vehicles.
The strategy’s implementation plan is intended to be a “dynamic document,” Jacobson noted. “It’s supposed to be updated every five years, and then we’re also going to do midcourse reviews to see if anything has to be tweaked or changed there. We’re constantly going to be adapting based on conditions.”
The Army has started establishing installation climate resilience plans tailored to specific vulnerabilities based on climate assessments for the region, Jacobson said. “That way, threats of climate change can be incorporated holistically because you’re not going to have the same situation in Alaska as you have in Florida or Georgia,” she explained.
So far, the service has completed six plans across the U.S., including for Fort Carson, Colorado; Anniston Army Depot, Alabama; U.S. Army Garrison Alaska, which includes Fort Wainwright; and Fort Bliss and Fort Cavazos in Texas; as well as Fort Stewart, Georgia. The Army is currently working on a plan for Fort Liberty, North Carolina.
The service is close to publishing a new resilient building policy, Jacobson said, which is focused on assessing building projects to decide what sustainable materials and technology for energy efficiency should be used. It would allow for assessing how the higher costs of these materials might be balanced against efficiencies realized.
“These installations are going to be the smart cities of the future. They need to be resilient and sustainable,” Jacobson said.
Already underway, in the planning stage, are three sustainable building projects: two at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to begin over the next two years using either low-carbon concrete or mass timber, and a decarbonized barracks project at Fort Liberty.
The Army also wants to install microgrids on all installations by 2035. For Jacobson, that effort has been “enormously successful.”
There are already 28 operational microgrids at installations, with another nine under construction and 26 in the design phase, she said.
These are typically done in partnership with a third party such as an energy or utility company. The Army, for example, last year executed a 30-year lease with Bright Canyon Energy for the company to use about 100 acres to establish a 26-megawatt microgrid at Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos in California that will sustain the base for 14 days in the event of a grid outage. The company that privately funds and owns the microgrid will be able to take power off the grid and sell it to San Diego Gas and Electric, Jacobson said.
It’s a “win-win situation for the partners that we’ve engaged with so far at some of these projects,” she added.
At Fort Liberty, the Army set up a floating solar array with accompanying battery storage capacity.
Establishing the microgrids has become relatively easy, Jacobson said, because the Army has a lot of secure land to use for sites and there are many willing partners in the energy sector.
In fiscal 2023, 45% of the Army’s installation electricity was carbon-free, meaning the energy came from renewable sources like wind and solar that produce no carbon emissions. About 40% was purchased from a utility and about 5% from outside sources, Jacobson said.
The plan remains to have all Army installations reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity use by 2030.
The service is also on a path to find an appropriate site for a “small modular reactor” — essentially a small nuclear fission reactor — on an Army base, according to Jacobson.
“We’re looking at what the best combination would be, whether it’s Army-owned, Army-operated, whether it’s contractor-owned and contractor-operated, all of those different things, looking at what installations would be the best candidates, what companies are out there for when we are ready for a [request for proposals],” she added.
Jacobson said her goal is to release an RFP within the next year to begin the process.
Struggling to go electric
The Army had aimed to field an all-electric, light-duty, non-tactical vehicle fleet on all installations by 2027 as well as an all-electric, non-tactical vehicle fleet by 2035.
“The one place where, as you’ll see everywhere, not just our Army, where we might not meet aggressive targets is with electric vehicles,” Jacobson said. “No. 1, the auto manufacturers aren’t keeping up because they’ve got such demand for these cars. For our purposes, they haven’t been able to keep up with the amounts that we’ve wished to procure.”
Additionally, the Army is struggling to build the charging infrastructure needed for the cars.
“We’ve got to tackle that problem in advance of going too much further in expanding our fleet because there’s no use having a parking lot full of [electric vehicles] without charging capacity,” she said.
The Army had planned to invest in more than 470 charging stations in 2022, according to the strategy.
The service is working toward meeting its longer-term goal of bringing hybrid and electric tactical wheeled vehicles into the force along with a charging infrastructure. It is also partnering with companies as well as the Department of Energy and the Army Corps of Engineers to create a hydrogen-running rescue vehicle that creates its own power.
One of the earliest efforts to develop an all-electric tactical vehicle — the Electric Light Reconnaissance Vehicle — will begin prototyping in FY24. Four companies will supply eight commercial off-the-shelf prototypes. A second phase will require 12 prototypes for soldiers to evaluate and modify in the field.
Additionally, the Army is weighing procuring three electric versions of the GM Defense-made Infantry Squad Vehicle along with charging stations that will be tested at Fort Irwin, California, in FY26 at the National Training Center.
A climate-resilient force
The Army has focused a great deal on preparing soldiers coming into the force to be resilient and to understand the effects of climate change.
Jacobson pointed to a new consortium at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York. Cadets have already come up with a project transforming food waste into energy use, which the Army will deploy at the school, as well as a computer model to address the carbon-free energy needs of each installation, she said.
The Army wants to grow by 2035 the number of soldiers and civilians serving in strategic headquarters that have advanced credentials on climate change issues, the strategy said. By 2028, all Army operational and strategic exercises and simulations will incorporate climate change risks and threat considerations.
The Army faces a more immediate challenge keeping up with training needs as climate change gets more extreme. With more hot or polluted days in 2023, efforts to avoid canceling training due to hazardous climate conditions continue; Jacobson said commanders are working on solutions.
Additionally, because of climate-triggered disasters like wildfires, National Guard training days are diverted to responding to fight wildfires. In FY18, Guardsmen lost the equivalent of roughly 18,000 personnel days firefighting; by 2021, the most recent data available, they spent approximately 172,000 personnel days.
“You multiply that all over the place; hurricanes and floods and other sort of disasters, the National Guard is just being stretched thin,” Jacobson said. The Army “should be vigilant in collecting data on statistics so that we can remind Congress of the toll it’s taking.”
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.