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JBSA to tap geothermal energy as a hedge against grid collapse

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Innovative geothermal energy generation solutions, like those the Department of the Air Force is considering for Joint Base San Antonio and Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, emit little to no carbon dioxide and can leverage an installation’s goals for clean energy production and increased resiliency.Bureau of Land Management

Looking for ways to secure its energy supply without contributing to climate change, the Pentagon is moving to develop a geothermal energy system at Joint Base San Antonio that officials say could power the installation and neighboring communities if the Texas grid fails.

Geothermal energy is drawn from natural or human-made reservoirs of hot water below the earth’s surface. Wells that range from a few feet to several miles deep can be drilled into the reservoirs to tap steam and hot water.

JBSA said the planned geothermal system, which could be operational in three to five years, would be “utility-scale” and would “hold the potential to furnish a seamless supply of clean, reliable … energy even in the event of commercial-grid outages.” It would be at the John Chapman Training Annex at Lackland Air Force Base on the Southwest Side.

Pentagon leaders say the system would reduce fossil fuel consumption, a priority as defense officials seek to shrink the Defense Department’s carbon footprint. They say it would also provide a “redundant” power supply if a foreign adversary managed to cripple traditional energy generation.

However promising its potential, the geothermal system will not happen quickly. The Air Force has signed a contract with Eavor Inc., a geothermal technology company based in Alberta, Canada, to develop a prototype system for JBSA. A similar contract was awarded to Zanskar Geothermal & Minerals of Utah to develop a prototype at Mountain Home Air Force Base. The dollar amount of the contracts was not disclosed.

Feasibility studies and subsurface testing at the two sites will begin within the next year and could take up to two years, the Air Force said.

Kirk Phillips, director of the Air Force Office of Energy Assurance in Washington, D.C., said JBSA was selected for one of the pilot projects because the Lackland site has a favorable “underground heat profile,” based on data from wells.

“There’s effectively a dome of heat on the South Side of San Antonio that brings heat closer to the surface than in other points on the earth,” Phillips said in an interview.

He said it would be at least five years before officials would decide whether to move forward with a full-scale geothermal plant.

JBSA comprises two Air Force bases — Lackland and Randolph — as well as the Army’s Fort Sam Houston and the Camp Bullis training range. Collectively, they’re San Antonio’s largest employer with more than 82,000 civilian and military employees. Lackland trains the service’s incoming airmen and conducts cyberwarfare and intelligence gathering. Randolph is a center of pilot training, both beginning and advanced.

The geothermal plant would be on a 17-acre site at the Chapman annex. Officials say the location has good connections to CPS Energy, San Antonio’s city-owned electricity provider.

Phillips said the Air Force has talked to CPS about the potential geothermal system. He said JBSA is a “significant” customer of the utility and has no intention of cutting ties with it. Rather, he said, the Air Force envisions sharing power with CPS if conditions call for it.

“We would see the grid as our primary power,” Phillips  said. “We’re not trying to find an alternate source of power that we just go to. In order to have resilient energy, you need to have layers of redundancy.”

The winter storm in February 2021 provided a stark reminder of that. It blasted the state with frigid temperatures and crippled the grid. More than two-thirds of Texans lost power during the week of Feb. 14-20, and nearly half suffered disruptions to their water service. The storm caused or contributed to more than 200 deaths, according to the state controller’s office.

This year, U.S. officials warned of a different kind of threat to power systems. In July, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said a group of Chinese-backed hackers called Volt Typhoon had inserted malware in the computer systems of water and electric utilities that serve military installations in the United States and abroad. CPS Energy officials said at the time that they were monitoring the threat but declined to comment further.

Ravi Chaudhary, assistant secretary of the Air Force for energy, installations and environment, said energy redundancy has become vital to military readiness.

“We are in an era of strategic competition with China, which means that our installations are no longer a sanctuary from the full spectrum of threats,” Chaudhary said in a statement. “We need to ruggedize our installations with redundant energy systems and make use of clean energy sources that reduce our fuel demands. Geothermal sources strengthen our energy grids and give us the ability to isolate threats before they impact our operations. This type of capability will translate into victory in a high-end fight.”

JBSA’s commander, Air Force Brig. Gen. Russell Driggers, expressed similar themes.

“We are working to generate innovative, long-term and self-sustaining energy solutions for our mission’s future,” Driggers said. “With this pilot project, JBSA has an opportunity to spearhead innovations in clean energy and resilient infrastructure.”

Texas has an abundance of geothermal energy. The hot water and pressure 8,000 to 25,000 feet below the ground could supply more than 100 times the state’s total 2008 electric consumption for well over a century, according to a report by Southern Methodist University’s Geothermal Laboratory.

A JBSA statement described the planned geothermal plant as a “closed-loop system” that would use a controlled circuit of fluid to transfer heat from the earth’s interior, “ensuring a constant and uninterrupted supply of energy.”

Phillips said geothermal plants typically have a small profile, with many key components underground. A plant at JBSA would not be unsightly, nor would it generate liquid waste or air pollutants, although it would release humidity, he said.

The U.S. Energy Department said state-of-the art geothermal plants emit no greenhouse gases and produce emissions six to 20 times lower than those of natural gas facilities. Geothermal plants also consume less water than most conventional generating technologies.

A 2019 government analysis found that if the United States maximized its use of geothermal energy, generating 60 gigawatts, the reduction in power plant emissions would be equivalent to taking 26 million cars off the road every year. A gigawatt is 1 billion watts and can power a medium-size city.

“The Air Force, and all of the DOD and Congress, are looking for carbon-free, pollution-free electricity,” said Lucinda Notestine, chief of the special projects division of the Air Force Office of Energy Assurance, which will oversee the pilot project at Lackland. “This gives this to us. The technology will be safe for the community and local water sources and is very environmentally friendly.

“If we can prove this works at JBSA, … then we can make this work anywhere,” Notestine said.