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Protecting GITMO’s ‘Achilles' Heel’

Meeting Water and Energy needs for 40+ Years at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station

8 November 2011 – Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, Cuba

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Station is
the United States' oldest overseas base and the only one located in a country with which the U.S. has no diplomatic relations.  This fact obviously raises logistical challenges that demand creative public works solutions to support energy self-sufficiency.  As Guantanamo Bay Naval Station Commander U.S. Navy Captain Kirk Hibbert has observed: "Energy and water -- that's kind of my Achilles' heel here."

Protecting this “Achilles’ heel” – while addressing DoD’s newly-emphasized environmental objectives -- drive GTMO’s public works strategy.


In February 1964, when the Cuban government cut off the water supply to the 45-square-mile Guantanamo Bay Naval Station during a diplomatic row over fishing territory, the water use of 10,000 Naval and civilian personnel was limited to only fresh water shipped from the U.S. mainland, Jamaica, and other sources.

To allow GTMO to remain operational, a large-scale desalination implementation would be required.  The Navy quickly entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of the Interior to relocate a steam-powered desalination unit from Point Loma, California to Guantanamo Bay.  Five months later the first fresh water was being delivered from the plant.  Seven months after that, in February 1965, the construction of three ‘steam flash evaporator’ plants producing water at a rate of 750,000 gallons per day was completed.

While the original equipment has long-since been upgraded and replaced, and while GTMO’s water demands have increased substantially, the base’s desalination facility still provides all of GTMO’s required water, some 1.3 million gallons daily. 

The steam flash evaporator units were replaced 30 years ago with energy-efficient Reverse Osmosis (RO) machines.  Salt water is pulled directly from Guantanamo Bay and converted to fresh water in a ten-to-three ratio, with the residual hyper-salinated water returned to the Bay.  

According to Art Torley, GTMO’s Production Division Director, GTMO’s plant has six RO machines, each capable of generating some 1.5 million gallons of fresh water daily. While the base can produce more fresh water than it needs, it needs a lot and it is by no means cheap.  Mr. Torley notes that his desalination operations cost $7-8 million annually.  To put these numbers in an overall context, according to the American Waterworks Association, Guantanamo Bay Naval Base residents use an average of 150 gallons of water daily – at a cost of $12.62 per thousand gallons.  This compares to a U.S. national average of 70 gallons per day at an average cost of $1.50 per thousand gallons.

Power Generation

DoD notes that the
electricity to run GTMO’s desalinization plant and to power the military operations, including the detention camps, comes primarily from a network of 19 diesel generators that run on fuel barged to the island.  These diesel generators, which consume between 25,000 and 30,000 gallons of fuel daily, are capable of delivering sufficient power to meet GTMO’s summertime peak demand of up to 22 megawatts.

Mr. Torley noted that an increasing percentage of GTMO’s power requirements will be met via new high-efficiency, 3.5 megawatt diesel generators.  Two of the new 112,000 pound generators were in operation during DSJ’s visit and two more were about to come on-line. It is estimated that the use of the first two generators will reduce GTMO’s
diesel consumption by 408,000 gallons annually.  Indeed, the base
has reported that these two generators alone reduced GTMO’s energy consumption by 5% when they came on line this July.

These state-of-the-art generators are -- and will continue to be -- supplemented by much older generator, some of which went into service at GTMO as early as 1957.  Mr. Torley notes that the efficiency of the new generators is exceeding his expectation and he hopes to add more of them to his grid in the future, eventually replacing all of the less-efficient generators.

Mr. Torley also proudly showed DSJ -- and shared news on -- a waste oils-burning system installed last year adjacent GTMO's generators.   The WOTEC system, he described, removes impurities such as water from waste oil collected throughout GTMO -- including from visiting ships -- and injects the resulting product directly into the plant's generators for burning along with the low-sulfur diesel fuel on which they run.  Mr. Merrill noted that the day prior to our visit saw GTMO's generators burn 154 gallons of the recycled oil, saving the plant over $600 and eliminating the requirement for costly hazardous waste disposal/removal from the island.

Renewable Energy

While base officials confirm that generators will continue to be the mainstay of GTMO’s power, there is an effort to diversify sources and to increase the use of renewable energy, including wind and solar, both of which are in abundance on the island.
In early 2005, leveraging a DoD/DoE energy savings performance contract (ESPC), the Department of the Navy partnered with Massachusetts contractor
Noresco to construct a $12 million wind turbine project at GTMO.  Four 950 kw wind turbines were installed in 2004 atop John Paul Jones Hill, GTMO’s highest point, and began operating in February 2005.

According to the Pentagon, the four 3-bladed turbines, standing at 262 feet high and visible from anywhere this reporter went on the Naval Station, were (in 2001) estimated to provide 3,800 kilowatts of electricity during the high-wind months of late summer and fall.  The Navy forecast that the project would not only save $1.2 million in annual energy costs, but would also save 650,000 gallons of diesel fuel and reduce air pollution by 26 tons of sulfur dioxide and 15 tons of nitrous oxide, demonstrating the Service’s commitment to energy conservation and environmental stewardship.  Until recently, the turbines were providing from 2-4 percent of GTMO’s energy.

But the turbine blades are notably idle today.  According to Mr. Torley, technical problems with the turbines caused GTMO operators to shut them down earlier this year as a precautionary measure.  Base officials hope to have the turbines up and running pending a professional evaluation – yet to be funded – and an associated fix. 

GTMO has also taken early steps in leveraging solar power to meet its needs. 

GTMO’s Deputy Public Works Officer Lee Merrill showed DSJ a 240 kw, football field-sized photovoltaic cell farm that has been funded with -- and constructed adjacent to -- GTMO’s expanded fitness center.  Mr. Torley notes that when turned on, the array is expected to produce 440,000 kw hours of electricity annually.  Additional solar arrays on GMTO are expected to follow, piggy-backing, as does this one, on new construction projects.

Two additional solar projects of note are the introduction of new electric/solar vehicles and the installation of perimeter lighting

In 2009, GTMO began receiving hybrid solar vehicles and the Naval Station currently has 16 Vantage vehicles currently on island including within the detention facilities. The Vantage solar model vehicle uses solar panels to charge its battery, which powers an electric motor. The vehicle can be driven approximately 35 miles on a full charge, which Mr. Merrill notes makes them ideal for use at GTMO.  By 2014, the Naval Station is anticipated to have a total of 109 vehicles.

Guantanamo as a Green Model

GTMO’s unique energy challenges and recent renewable energy forays haven’t escaped the notice of senior Pentagon leadership.

In April of this year, the Navy's top environment and energy official, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Jackalyne Pfannenstiel, visited Guantanamo to get a first-hand look at the base's unique energy strategy.

As has been reported, Ms. Pfannenstiel took a shine to what she saw on her tour of GTMO’s facilities and framed Guantanamo’s efforts in the scope of the challenges facing the Navy, DoD, and the country at large, observing: "The Navy recognizes that we have a national need to wean ourselves from imported oil products.  [Guantanamo] could be a model for what can be done.
  "Energy is expensive here in Guantanamo, which makes [implementing] green technology and renewable energy sources much more cost effective here."

To be more specific, Pfannensteil said her Pentagon staff is considering whether the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station's generators could switch to biofuels and is also looking at waste-to-energy technology for the base.