Dominion Energy crews work on lighting retrofits at Virginia Union University in Richmond.
Dominion Energy crews work on lighting retrofits at Virginia Union University in Richmond. Credit: Dominion Energy / Courtesy

Homeowners eager to lower their power bills have a relatively short rooftop-to-basement-to-backyard checklist for guidance on maximizing potential savings.

But that proposition is trickier at the storied Quantico Marine Corps Base, 35 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. With hundreds of buildings sprawling across 86 square miles, military decision-makers needed outside advice to figure out how to button up their largest energy leaks.

Ultimately, they opted to save an estimated $1.6 million annually on utility payments by refurbishing systems connected to 35 buildings in three separate areas across the Virginia campus. The base, in Prince William and Stafford counties, is in Dominion Energy’s service territory.

Workers are now in the midst of replacing roughly 16,000 fixtures in a dozen buildings, across several parking lots and along streets with LED lights. In addition, they’re repairing inefficient heating and ventilating systems and upgrading other equipment. The contract doesn’t include any solar projects or other renewable energy.

Two of the buildings due for improvements include the Marine Corps Exchange, the equivalent of a department store, and the Russell Knox Building, headquarters for several military criminal investigative and counterintelligence agencies.

While some retrofits are more routine, much less mundane is the installation of an on-site microgrid that will allow 10 buildings to go into island mode during electrical outages. To do this, the base is installing 3.2 megawatts of on-site generation dual-fueled by both natural gas and liquid propane to provide redundancy in case power is cut off. Those 10 buildings, which primarily house offices, were selected because they lacked backup generation.

Matthew Stinson is a spokesperson for the Washington-based Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command, which provided technical assistance as Quantico navigated its energy future.

A microgrid is an ideal match for a military installation because it can elevate both energy security and operational sustainability, he said. That translates to resilience and reliability of the delivery of electricity.

That said, Stinson referred to the microgrid as “the most challenging” of the energy conservation measures now being integrated because it folds in what’s known in utility-speak as a peak shaving plan. The system is outfitted with a two-way energy management control system. 

“Financially, this … plays a critical role to allow [the base] to be off the electrical grid during the extreme temperatures in the summer and winter, which are peak load days,” he said last month, a few days before the region grappled with temperatures in the high 90s.

Quantico isn’t unique in its pursuit to modernize its energy infrastructure. Bases nationwide are under pressure to enhance energy security while saving money on utility bills and maintenance costs.

The Department of Defense, one of the planet’s largest emitters of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases, is aware that it won’t be exempted from the Biden administration’s efforts to mitigate climate change.

While the average taxpayer might be under the impression that the Department of Defense has a bottomless budget, Stinson said limited appropriations from Congress meant leaders had to look elsewhere for funding sources.

For Quantico, that came in the form of what’s called a utility energy service contract. Put simply, it’s an agreement between the federal agency and its utility, designed to produce measurable load reductions. All types of utilities — gas, electric and wastewater — are eligible to compete for such contracts if they have an agreement with the General Services Administration, tasked with managing and supporting the basic functions of federal agencies. 

Dominion was awarded a 22-year, $47.9 million contract in September to boost efficiency and resiliency at the base. The projects will be completed by February 2023 but Dominion and its subcontractor, Energy Systems Group, are responsible for repairs and maintenance through early 2044.

“The federal government and the Department of Defense have a huge presence in Virginia,” said Paul Matthews, who has led Dominion’s federal energy solutions team for 11 of his 35 years with the company. “They are critical customers, so we’re really committed to helping them meet their goals.”

His previous job as military branch liaison helped him master the alphabet soup of federal contract acronyms.

Utility energy service contracts, Matthews explained, require rigorous and detailed studies to show the exact payback measurement for each upgrade and that the equipment will perform as promised.

“It costs money to replace a fluorescent bulb with an LED,” he said. “Every time we replace a fixture, they start realizing savings. Those savings pay for the cost of the energy upgrades.”

Stinson couldn’t provide a figure for Quantico’s annual power bill, saying it’s complicated by tenant and privatized housing on the base.

He emphasized that a chief benefit of the third-party contract is allowing bases to bundle energy savings with short and long payback periods. 

That’s vital at Quantico because while Dominion’s average rate of 3 cents per kilowatt-hour is very low, its demand charge of $17.49 per kW is high. Demand charges are usually applied to commercial and industrial customers. Utilities apply them based on the maximum amount of power that a customer uses in any interval during the billing cycle. 

“Therefore, Quantico had to implement demand-shaving measures using peak-shaving generators to garner the savings needed to achieve cash flow requirements for the overall project,” Stinson said.

“Many of these bases aren’t up to modern standards,” Matthews said. “A microgrid can reduce outages by 85% to 100%.”

The work at Quantico isn’t new for Dominion. Under separate contracts, the utility has outfitted bases as close as Fort Belvoir in northern Virginia and as far away as Fort Hood in Texas with four microgrids and 75 emergency backup generators over the last decade-plus. 

In the Mid-Atlantic, Dominion is now in the midst of energy retrofits at military landmarks such as the Pentagon, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division, Coast Guard Base Portsmouth and the Hampton Veterans Administration Medical Center.

While solar power and other clean energy sources aren’t yet part of any of Dominion’s utility energy service contracts, Matthews anticipates that will change as prices for large-scale renewable energy and battery storage become more competitive.

“Things are going to change fairly rapidly,” he said. “We have some locations where we’ve investigated renewables. But the challenge for installations on these types of contracts is that there has to be a services payback.

“It has been difficult to meet that requirement in our territory.”

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press. Based in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia.