U.S. military facilities are a major presence in many communities, shaping the local culture and economy. Utilities serving areas with a strong military presence take steps to ensure that services — whether provided directly to the installation or to service members and their families — align with the mission and needs of this population.
According to Vince Guthrie, public works program manager at Fort Carson in Colorado, there are about 26,000 soldiers assigned to the Army installation. “Our population makes us the 14th largest city in Colorado. People think of us as a military site … but we are also a home. We have everything that a regular city would have,” he said.
“My job here at Fort Carson is to ensure that we do have the energy we need to accomplish our mission,” said Guthrie. “It is a large part of our budget, and our energy use does have other economic and environmental implications.”
Guthrie noted that the installation has an average utility bill of about $2 million per month, which he expected made it the largest customer for Colorado Springs Utilities. In addition to serving Fort Carson, the public power utility provides electric, gas, water, and wastewater services to a number of Department of Defense facilities within its service territory, including the U.S. Air Force Academy, Peterson Air Force Base, and the Cheyenne Mountain Complex.
Guthrie said that Springs Utilities delivers utility services up to the military installation, and then the Fort takes command of the services inside its gates. However, Fort Carson is looking at the possibility of having the utility take over some operations and maintenance of the system through an intergovernmental support agreement — a type of contract that public power utilities can use to work with military installations in their territories.
“Operating a utility system is not our core mission,” Guthrie said. But having the agreement in place allows Fort Carson to tap into the utility’s “expertise and cost-effectiveness in operating our systems.”
“They look to us to have the best trained operators and line people, equipment, maintenance, and practices,” said Aram Benyamin, CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities, adding “We have hundreds of training programs for our lineworkers, technicians, and engineers — we’re a 365-day, 24/7 utility that’s always improving. You cannot leverage that kind of expertise if it’s not your core business.”
Tapping into that type of expertise and economies of scale was also a key reason why Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska decided to sell the electrical equipment inside its parameters to the Omaha Public Power District about 15 years ago, said Steve Sauer, manager for large commercial and industrial sales & service at OPPD. The base still owns emergency generation assets, and OPPD operates the distribution network.
This arrangement does pose some challenges for OPPD, mostly in terms of access. “Generally, we can drive up to our asset, and obviously we can’t do that with Offutt,” said Sauer. He explained that crews working to fix parts of the delivery system on base might undergo security clearance or might require an escort.
Reliability, redundancy, and resiliency
When it comes to energy use, military installations tend to be focused on the idea of resiliency.
Steve Carr, key account manager for the Department of Defense accounts at Springs Utilities, said that this focus on resiliency is why the utility has explored options for the installations in its territory to add generation or battery storage.
Sauer explained that resiliency can include capacity and redundancy, but that each military installation has a broad view of what resiliency means. In the past few years, Offutt has experienced flooding and a tornado, and amid these weather events, Sauer explained, “they define the critical building to us and then we go from there.”
“A facility might not be critical in our definition, but if their airmen need to be available and if their families needed a place to go, base leadership wants them to be able to come to work without those concerns. So, a child development center would become a critical temporary quarter for an airman’s family,” said Sauer.
Sometimes, resiliency is about maintaining the connection to the grid. “Microgrids are great for adding resiliency, but being an island is not a good solution,” said Guthrie. “It’s that connection that makes us resilient.”
“Innovation helps you get to resiliency. [Springs Utilities’] vision includes innovation, which aligns with helping the DOD and Fort Carson get where they need to be,” said Guthrie.
“Our military customers see us as the go-to utility. As a public utility, we make sure there are no barriers to information sharing – passing on technology and making sure we’re in sync with what they want to do,” said Benyamin.
A supportive culture
With such a large military footprint in the city, serving the installations also means being able to serve and understand customers that might be military families or support staff for the installations. In Colorado Springs, Guthrie noted that Fort Carson only has the capacity to house about 30% of the families assigned to the installation at a given time.
Being supportive of active service members and their families is important for the Fayetteville Public Works Commission in North Carolina, said General Manager David Trego. The public power utility operates adjacent to Fort Bragg, which according to the US Army is the largest military installation in the world by population.
Trego said that while the public power utility does not provide electric service to Fort Bragg, the installation is an important part of the fabric of the area.
Although PWC serves power right up to the installation’s limit, Trego said that PWC’s involvement goes “way beyond” delivering power to that point. The PWC provides water to the installation, both areas are served by the same transmission lines, and both could be affected by a cyber attack or another threat in the area. He is a member of the area’s military affairs council, which provides a means for two-way communication with the installation’s garrison command. Staff make sure to communicate closely with liaison officers, so that they are aware of any policy changes or other key information that they can relay to servicemembers as they are assigned to or leave the installation.
Trego noted that having the strong military presence and being sensitive to the needs of customers who might be deployed or reassigned without much notice have helped the utility improve its overall customer service. For example, he explained that while many utilities might have 5% customer turnover in a given year, the PWC’s turnover rate is about 20% a year. Trego stressed that “Our ability to make sure we have that flexibility in place also impacts our overall customer service and has a benefit for the nonmilitary customers.”
“We offer as many payment options as we can to our customers. We have multiple ways that customers can pay bills, even if they are deployed or out of the area for a while,” said Trego.
Close, complex relationships
Military installations are also complex key account partnerships. The utilities interviewed mentioned the need for multiple layers of collaboration — including with local servicemembers and government leaders in Washington.
“Sometimes, when you are working with a base, you are not really dealing with the base — you’re dealing with another entity representing the government,” said Sauer. “We always try to make sure that the local leaders know what we discussed … we don’t want to leave local leadership out of the loop when talking to the federal arm.”
Both OPPD and Springs Utilities mentioned that supporting military customers involves coordinating with staff from numerous departments and with different specialties, including government affairs and cybersecurity.
“[The relationship] is multifaceted, broad, and very deep,” said Carr. Guthrie noted being in contact with Carr about every other day.
In Omaha, Sauer said the partnership began long before the utility took over ownership of the base’s electrical assets. This strong partnership has been foundational to discussions about potential future directions and opportunities for the utility and the base.
“For any utility that has a military installation, it is critical to develop these relationships,” said Sauer. “It helps to have an understanding of what their mission is, and listen to them.” He said that the key account executive meets with the base minimally every week, which he said is closer coordination than the utility has with any other type of customer.
“We have a special relationship with them because of how much they bring to the community,” said Seth Voyles, OPPD’s manager of government relations. Beyond the key accounts representative, the relationship between the utility and the base extends into several parts of the community, including OPPD’s and Offutt’s senior leadership interacting in advisory committees.
Springs Utilities’ Benyamin noted the importance of aligning long-term planning between the utility and its military customers so that each can achieve its mission.
The community advantage
Being a public power utility means leaders and staff have more opportunities to interact with the community as well.
“Being a municipal, community-owned utility, what we’ve found is the focus is the community they serve. They don’t have a conflict with stockholder interest versus serving the community’s needs. [The Springs Utilities board] has always been supportive of our DOD presence here,” said Guthrie. Carr noted that about five members of Springs Utilities’ board of directors previously served in the military.
“An advantage we have is that we are not focused on profits — so we can focus on what is best for the installation and the community, period,” said Carr.
For Colorado Springs, that has meant a focus on boosting efficiency.
“There is good alignment in our priorities,” added Benyamin. “From conservation to efficiency to demand side-management – [we both want] to make sure that resources are used properly.”
Guthrie noted that the DOD has specific goals for reducing energy use, which has driven Fort Carson to take a number of steps to boost its efficiency.
“The least expensive and most resilient resources are the resources we don’t use,” said Guthrie.
Since 2007, Guthrie noted that the installation has reduced its energy intensity per square foot by 27%. He attributed this success in part to strong support from the utility in the form of energy audits and rebates and in getting certifications. Guthrie believes that Fort Carson has one of the highest concentrations of LEED-certified buildings in the U.S., with 80 buildings on the installation.
Guthrie pointed out that another benefit for utilities to work with DOD facilities is that both share a long-term financial outlook, and the DOD is considered a low-risk financial customer, which helps with utility bond ratings.