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.”

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Local News

Ariel Garcia, 4, was last seen Wednesday morning in an apartment in the 4800 block of Vesper Dr. (Photo provided by Everett Police)
How to donate to the family of Ariel Garcia

Everett police believe the boy’s mother, Janet Garcia, stabbed him repeatedly and left his body in Pierce County.

A ribbon is cut during the Orange Line kick off event at the Lynnwood Transit Center on Saturday, March 30, 2024 in Lynnwood, Washington. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
‘A huge year for transit’: Swift Orange Line begins in Lynnwood

Elected officials, community members celebrate Snohomish County’s newest bus rapid transit line.

Bethany Teed, a certified peer counselor with Sunrise Services and experienced hairstylist, cuts the hair of Eli LeFevre during a resource fair at the Carnegie Resource Center on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in downtown Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Carnegie center is a one-stop shop for housing, work, health — and hope

The resource center in downtown Everett connects people to more than 50 social service programs.

Everett mall renderings from Brixton Capital. (Photo provided by the City of Everett)
Topgolf at the Everett Mall? Mayor’s hint still unconfirmed

After Cassie Franklin’s annual address, rumors circled about what “top” entertainment tenant could be landing at Everett Mall.

Logo for news use featuring the municipality of Stanwood in Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Stanwood man gets federal prison for selling fentanyl on dark web

In 2013, Christerfer Frick was sentenced to nine years for trafficking drugs. He began selling online upon his release in 2020.

Molbak's Garden + Home in Woodinville, Washington closed on Jan. 28 2024. (Photo courtesy of Molbak's)
Molbak’s, former Woodinville garden store, hopes for a comeback

Molbak’s wants to create a “hub” for retailers and community groups at its former Woodinville store. But first it must raise $2.5 million.

A fire at a home near Alderwood Mall sent one neighbor and one firefighter to the hospital. (Photo provided by South County Fire)
Officials: Residents returned to burning Lynnwood home to rescue dogs

Five people and six dogs were displaced in the Thursday afternoon house fire, according to South County Fire.

Featuring a pink blush over a yellow background, WA 64 combines qualities of Honeycrisp and Cripps Pink (aka Pink Lady) for a firm, crisp, sweet and tart bite. A naming contest for the new apple runs through May 5, 2024. (Photo provided by Washington State University)
Hey Honeycrisp, this new breed of apple needs a name

Enter a naming contest for WA 64, a hybrid apple with the same baby daddy as Cosmic Crisp.

Police respond to a wrong way crash Thursday night on Highway 525 in Lynnwood after a police chase. (Photo provided by Washington State Department of Transportation)
Lynnwood woman, 83, killed in wrong-way crash following police pursuit

Deputies said they were chasing a man, 37, south on Highway 525 when he swerved into northbound lanes, killing an oncoming driver.

A memorial with small gifts surrounded a utility pole with a photograph of Ariel Garcia at the corner of Alpine Drive and Vesper Drive ion Wednesday, April 10, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Death of Everett boy, 4, spurs questions over lack of Amber Alert

Local police and court authorities were reluctant to address some key questions, when asked by a Daily Herald reporter this week.

People walk along the waterfront in front of South Fork Bakery at the Port of Everett on Thursday, April 11, 2024 in Everett, Washington. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Port of Everett inks deal with longtime Bothell restaurant

The port will break ground on two new buildings this summer. Slated for completion next year, Alexa’s Cafe will open in one of them.

The new Amazon fulfillment center under construction along 172nd Street NE in Arlington, just south of Arlington Municipal Airport. (Chuck Taylor / The Herald) 20210708
Frito-Lay leases massive building at Marysville business park

The company will move next door to Tesla and occupy a 300,0000-square-foot building at the Marysville business park.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.