Navy goes green with renewable energy at Guantanamo

GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba — Solar-powered lights serve as sentries where U.S. Marines once faced-off along the Cuban frontier. A team of Navy cops now rides bikes rather than gas-guzzling patrol cars in the searing Caribbean sunshine.

In this remote corner of Cuba that is better known as a lab for Pentagon justice and interrogation, the Navy has been quietly engaging in more low-profile offshore experimentation — seeking environmentally friendly alternatives to reduce its whopping $100,000 a day fossil fuel dependence.

It’s a Navy-wide goal to halve dependence on fossil fuels by 2020. But the greening of Gitmo, as this base is known, comes with a particular challenge. 

The base that today houses 6,000 people makes all its own electricity and desalinates its own water. It has done so ever since the 1960s when Rear Adm. John Bulkeley, then base commander, faced down Fidel Castro and cut off the naval station from Cuba’s water and power supply.

Expensive to supply

Everything from diesel fuel to spare parts arrives by ship or aircraft, more than tripling the price of power, according to base estimates.

“From my perspective certainly the greening of Gitmo is important,” says U.S. Navy Capt. Kirk Hibbert, the base commander. National security is paramount, he said, but the Navy mandate to curb consumption “has an effect on almost everything we do here.”

Hibbert’s the man who put a pair of Navy cops on bikes to patrol the base rather than sit inside air-conditioned sport utility vehicles, an $800 a year savings that sends a symbolic message. And it’s been on his watch that a contractor is building a huge solar array behind the high school.

Guantanamo can strike visitors as a small slice of Americana, with its trailer parks and tract housing, a hilltop church, McDonald’s, cinemas and schools. But it’s a base behind a Cuban minefield with the Navy controlling who may come and who may go and who gets water and electricity.

Like a ship at sea

Commanders like to compare it to a ship at sea — except this one is towing the most expensive prison on earth.

By base estimates, it costs $32,000 a day, or $11.7 million a year, to keep the lights on and water flowing to the 171 captives at the Pentagon’s prison camps and 1,850 U.S. forces and contractors who work there.

The Defense Department set up the detention center a decade ago, temporarily, at a time when the Navy was already tinkering with energy efficiencies.

In 2005, a Massachusetts firm installed four 270-foot-tall windmills on Guantanamo’s highest hill with visions of capturing up to 25 percent of the base’s power consumption from the Caribbean trade winds. But that analysis did not consider the never-ending nature of detention operations here, a venture that tripled the base population and sent construction costs soaring from the coastal prison camps to the crude war court compound built atop an abandoned airfield.

“We get a lot of attention here because we are such an expensive base in the Navy,” said Arthur Torley, a senior civilian worker at Guantanamo’s version of a small town Department of Public Works. “Gitmo, to me, is even more of a priority because of the expense. They would much rather spend money fixing planes and ships than dumping fuel into Gitmo.”

Solar vehicles

So he’s got his workers using a fleet of 24 solar-powered minis, squat little electrical vans with panels on their roofs. They arrived this summer, and can go about 35 miles before needing a charge, just about right for a week’s worth of work on the 45-square-mile outpost.

Hibbard cautions against seeing the base as a site for random experimentation, of “just taking stuff and throwing it up against the wall and seeing what sticks.” Because it’s remote, and because importing goods and services is so expensive, the Navy engages in “a lot of analysis” ahead of time to figure out what might work. 

But Guantanamo’s location — in the tropics straddling a bay — does make it fertile ground for innovations such as these:

Two Florida firms, Solar Source of Tampa and TerraSmart of Fort Myers, are the contractor and supplier of a 1,200-panel solar array behind the base high school, just below the scrubby nine-hole golf course. It’s meant to produce 430,000 kilowatt hours a year and power the base’s popular no-charge gym, which doubles as a hurricane shelter. 

Growing biofuel?

There also have been email exchanges about whether the base could grow algae, as biofuel, inside a floating field of waste-water discharged into Guantanamo Bay. “NASA scientists are exploring this technology,” says the base spokesman Terence Peck. “No decisions have been made for experimental locations as of yet.”

In 2007, a public works officer bought a bioreactor off the Internet and tried his hand at extracting fuel from used cooking oil. It was abandoned after eight months, according to environmental director Mike McCord, as too labor-intensive and potentially dangerous because of the chemicals needed for the conversion process. 

The Navy put in artificial turf at Cooper Field, the outdoor sports complex, to save on the fuel for desalinating water for the baseball diamond and soccer pitch. 

Mock utility bills

Guantanamo is also the first Navy base in the southeast region — stretching from Fort Worth, Texas, to Charleston, S.C., to Cuba — to introduce mock utility bills.

Since the military picks up the troops’ tab, the faux bills are meant to shock sailors and their families into conserving by estimating base household power costs. They come in at nearly 3.5 times the price of an average U.S. household. 

The bills have had the desired “wow!” effect. Guantanamo human resources worker Ambroshia Jefferson-Smith felt her stomach turn in October when she got her $1,021.79 mock bill for a month of power at the single-story ranch-style house she shares with her 15-year-old son, five television sets and a cat.

“It’s like coming home when you have been on holiday and getting that big credit card bill,” she said. “You don’t see anything tangible there, and you realize you have consumed a lot of electricity and water.”

By her estimate, the bill would be seven times the sum she’d pay back home in Mississippi. So now she makes sure all the TVs are turned off, including the one on the backyard patio, and lowers the AC before she heads to work.

Building awaremess

Conservation awareness is a work in progress. And the mock bills, like the Navy cops on bikes, are largely symbolic. The prison camp’s commander, the most senior officer on the base, has one of the biggest houses — and one of the biggest household bills, $2,093.67 in December, one of the coolest months in Cuba.

Another military unit here has joined the movement. 

The Marine major in charge of the unit that monitors the 17.4 miles of fence line surrounding the base agreed to let the Public Works department replace a third of the floodlights with solar-powered LED lights. They’re still on the electrical grid in case of too many gloomy or rainy days in a row. But they haven’t needed to use the grid yet.

“I don’t know what they’re doing along the Mexican border,” Torley said. “But the Marines were on board with all the energy stuff. They couldn’t tell a difference.”

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