US National Security and the need for Advanced Energy Technology: an interview with retired admiral Lee Gunn

Lee Gunn is vice chairman of the the Central Naval Analysis or CNA Military Advisory Board - image - Brian Bahouth

Reno – Lee Gunn retired from the US Navy as a three star admiral and is now vice chairman of the the Central Naval Analysis or CNA Military Advisory Board. CNA, founded in 1942, is a science-based research organization with the broad goal of bringing science and policy together. After retiring from the navy, Mr. Gunn managed a branch of CNA that consults with federal, state and local governments on a variety of issues to include, energy, water and national security. Lee Gunn was in Reno last week to speak at a breakfast organized by the National Security Forum of Northern Nevada where he discussed the many connections between the development and deployment of advanced energy technology and US national security.  Mr. Gunn also gave a presentation to the Nevada Senate Committee on Growth and Infrastructure at the Nevada State Legislature.

Brian Bahouth spoke with Lee Gunn during his time in Reno … listen to that interview.

For some background, the CNA Military Advisory Board (MAB) is a group made up of retired three and four star flag and general officers from all four branches of the US military. In a broad sense, the group, “studies pressing issues of the day to assess their impact on America’s national security,” and energy policy is a distinct focus.

The global landscape of energy use is changing. According to the US Energy Information Administration, India, China, and African nations will see steep increases in the demand for energy as billions transition to a consumer-based economy over the next 40 years.

“We see on the Military Advisory Board, a looming increase in the demand for energy across the globe,” Lee Gunn said. “That’s not only because we’re going to add another billion and a half people by 2050 to the nine billion who are already here, but people across the world are seeking to be in the middle class, if they’re not yet there, and with the ascendance to the middle class of a greater number of people, there will be a dramatic increase in the demand for energy.

“Our concern is, this demand will be met with or almost entirely with fossil fuels, unless advanced energy is brought to the point where it gobbles up a whole lot of that additional demand.”

What is “advanced energy”?

“Advanced energy is the things we normally think of as renewables,” Gunn explained. “It’s solar and wind, tidal.  A lot of people don’t know that there are tidal installations in parts of the US property. There are other things that are emission free as well, nuclear power, both large stationary nuclear power plants of the kind that are under construction now. There are two in the United States under construction as we speak, and small modular nuclear reactors that can be placed close to consumers reducing the amount of transfer infrastructure and those kinds of things.”

Aging and Poorly Designed Electrical Distribution Infrastructure

The system of electrical power distribution in the United State is poorly designed, old, inefficient, and rife with security concerns, and this has not missed the attention of the MAB. A 2016 report examined the grid through the prism of national security, National Security and Assured U.S. Electrical Power.

“The grid is both beautiful and fragile,” Gunn said with a smile.  “The design is old and to some extent it would be more appropriate that it was not designed but that it happened. As the demand was ten miles further out, ten miles of wire and infrastructure got added all across the country, so the design has some inherent vulnerabilities.

“The age of much of the infrastructure is such that, well, there are lots of important pieces that we rely on that are more than 100 years old.”

Tower 27/222 and the Camp Fire

Last year, a Pacific Gas and Electric power line is said to have started one of the most destructive wildfires in US history, the Camp Fire in northern California.

“The tower gave up its hold on a wire,” Gunn said. “This is a complex, very large set of infrastructure supporting several lines. The tower is 99 years old. The useful life in the design of these is 75 years. The insulators broke on this particular tower, which apparently began the fire. This is the Camp Fire. This is the 85 people died and the entire town of Paradise was eliminated.”

Vast and Vulnerable

“It’s vulnerable to attack,” Gunn said of the US electrical grid. “In the four years prior to the study we did of this at CNA, which was published in 2016, the four years prior to that there were 359 physical attacks by human beings on the grid, and there were 14 major cyber attacks, not that were tried but were successful on the US grid.”

Line Loss

“High voltage lines are high voltage so that they will reduce as much as possible the line loss of electricity due to heat, but it is still, in some cases as much as half of the electricity we generate,” Gunn said.

The Solution

“So if you can shorten that. If you can produce the energy in such a place that is close to the consumer. Send it a short distance with a simple path, which is why small, modular nuclear reactors, community solar, other things like that using micro-grids are an important part of improving our security with regard to electrical energy,” Gunn said.

A smart grid is one that uses energy storage devices like grid-scale arrays of batteries to capture intermittent power generated by solar or wind or other “advanced” means and releases the power to the grid when needed, but Mr. Gunn said there is more to smart, micro-grids than just energy storage.

“It’s also communication between the sources of power at this moment on this smart grid and the consumer. It also can be used to provide predictive power, and so I know that we are going to need more power over the next four hours, so I will have started my generator, whatever that form is, to charge the batteries further in advance, so when that predicted volt demand arises, I can meet it.”

Nevada is rich in mineral deposits but produces very little energy, and according to the US Energy Information Administration Nevada ranks sixth-lowest in the nation in energy production, and nearly 90 percent of the energy consumed in Nevada comes from outside the state, though per capita energy consumption in Nevada is among the lowest 25 percent of states.

Hydraulic fracturing or fracking and horizontal drilling techniques have enabled the United States to become the world’s leading producer of natural gas since 2009 and the world’s leading producer of petroleum hydrocarbons overall in 2013. According to data from the US Energy Information Administration, most of Nevada’s energy comes from fossil fuels.

Image – Nevada Capital News

Even though the US enjoys the wealth and independent security of the world’s leading fossil fuel producer, hydrocarbons are a finite resource with negative effects on the atmosphere when burned. Lee Gunn said, for CNA and the MAB, development and deployment of advanced energy technology is critical for US security and future prosperity.

According to federal data, renewables currently make up somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of Nevada’s energy mix. If the state is to achieve 50 percent renewables by 2030, our current renewable portfolio would have to become nearly five times larger than it is today. Potential for profit drives investment, so we asked Mr. Gunn about attracting the money needed to grow advanced energy resources in Nevada.

“Across the country we see the subsidies that used to accompany the implementation of solar power, for example, going away. The reason for that is not only are people tired of paying subsidies on the one hand, but also the reason for that is because solar panels are now price competitive with coal. Coal remains generally cheaper than natural gas, even with this very cheap natural gas price.”

Gunn added that advances in energy technology will make a 50 percent renewable portfolio goal more attainable. He referred to the Solar One concentrated solar power plant in southern Nevada.

“It’s a fantastic machine. I think we are still learning from it, how it works, but that’s an example of much less real estate being occupied in order to generate electricity. What’s more, that will allow, as I’m told, energy to be generated the next day, the next evening and the next day when the sun isn’t shining adequately because of the concentrated heat that’s captured in molten salts, and so we’re beginning to nudge up to the notion of reducing the problem of intermittentcy with solar.”

Image – Nevada Capital News

Every branch of the United States military is actively seeking ways to gain total energy independence on bases or when deployed, and Lee Gunn said the military is an object lesson for would-be investors, but according to Gunn, what motivates the military to pursue the use of advanced forms energy as they do, is not a commitment to combat climate change but operational pragmatism.

“I think climate change is a very apparent phenomenon that the military is increasingly dealing with, at the unit level and all the way down to the individual level, so I think the awareness is there. The military does not, in my view, invest in climate change either because it’s a science project or because they want to reduce emissions, and although reducing emissions is desirable, it is not sufficient reason to invest scarce defense funds in advanced energy.

“What does make sense is when you can implement advanced energy in ways that allow the military to perform its mission better.

“For example, the navy is in the process of considering putting a hydrogen fuel cell, a grid level hydrogen fuel cell at the naval submarine base at Groton, Connecticut. Now there is no place in the navy that demands more reliable electric power than the place where you bring in nuclear submarines and allow then to be shut down and maintenance can be done but still the reactors have to be cooled. There is one example of the navy preparing itself for the loss of access to the grid electricity.”

Gunn said combat troops rely on portable solar panels to charge and operate communications equipment, which obviates the need to tote up 30 pounds of batteries per soldier.

“All military aircraft in the United States inventory have been qualified to run on a mix of biofuels and avgas,” Gunn added. “The reason we do that is not to prove that it can be done, but to demonstrate that there are no changes needed to the aircraft, and if one day that’s the fuel that’s available, we can use it, so it’s the idea of introducing flexibility.”

What is the role of government at every level, federal, state and local?

“I don’t think anybody is better equipped than the United States government to cast an eye around the world and look at the developments that are underway and the demand that is going to be increasing in the future, and to help decide what America’s role should be in leading the transition to advanced energy.

“With the increase in demand and the potential for more fossil fuels to be used to meet that demand, I think it’s essential that we move into the world of advanced energy.

“And even more than that, there will be nations that lead this transition and those that follow. We have done a report at CNA for the Military Advisory Board that indicates the economic advantages of being in a leadership role, rather than having to take whatever someone else wants to provide for you, and have that strategic dependence on their willingness to continue to take care of your needs, so I think the federal government plays an important role.”

Are governments doing enough to add more forms of advanced energy sources to the mix?

“At the moment, in my view, the federal government is not doing enough. States like Nevada are leading the way. I am terrifically excited with the ingenuity and initiative and human energy that is being applied in Nevada to these tough public policy questions, but Nevada is going to come out in the right place, and I think with the abundance of renewable energy sources, geothermal, sun, wind, other things and battery storage that are being done by leaders in Nevada, I think Nevada will set an example for the other states in the United States.”

For more from Lee Gunn, listen to the audio interview embedded above.