Net Zero at USAG Grafenwoehr: turning trash mountains into molehills

Story by Chelsea Bissell, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr Public Affairs

GRAFENWOEHR, Germany ― Army installations are small communities. They house, employ, feed, exercise, entertain and support thousands of Soldiers and their families. These installations also fix cars, provide medical and veterinary treatment, mend and dry-clean clothes and sell computers.

To provide a convenient, livable plot of land for their communities, garrisons produce and eventually discard staggering amounts of waste. For reference, U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr, a large installation about 140 miles north of Munich, generated 15,000 metric tons of waste in 2011.

“Americans have more refuse than their German neighbors, per capita,” said Juergen Alex, chief of the USAG Grafenwoehr Directorate of Public Works’ Utilities Branch.

When it comes to energy, the output is similarly overgrown. In 2011, Grafenwoehr spent more than $36 million on heat, electricity, gas and sewage services inside its gates.

With both eyes on future resources, natural as well as economic, the Army recently reassessed the sustainability of its energy, water and waste usage and deemed them superfluous. So, instead of trimming services in a move that could negatively impact quality of life for Soldiers and their families, the Army is taking steps toward Net Zero energy, water and waste installations.

What is Net Zero?

Net Zero strives to eliminate, as much as possible, a community or organization’s environmental impact — minimizing an ecological footprint on a grand scale. According to the Army Energy Program, Net Zero is often broken down into three categories: energy, water and waste.

The goal of Net Zero is to produce only as much energy as needed. Water programs both limit consumption and return used water back into the watershed. Waste initiatives focus on reducing and repurposing waste, while also converting waste streams into alternative energy resources. The overreaching aim of Net Zero waste is to produce zero landfill over a year.

Grafenwoehr was chosen to participate in the Army’s Net Zero waste pilot initiative in 2010, and of the 15 pilot garrisons, Grafenwoehr leads the way.

Grafenwoehr waste

Since October 2010, Grafenwoehr’s Net Zero waste program has reduced the garrison’s municipal waste — household trash, packaging, food and wrappers — by 60 percent, surpassing the 2015 target by 10 percent. The numbers for the construction and demolition division are even more impressive, with 99 percent of all byproducts repurposed, recycled or recovered.

Grafenwoehr has established a system designed to efficiently siphon recyclables into the German economy and repurpose everyday trash and junk into power and electricity.

Initially, all the refuse from Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels, a direct reporting garrison 60 miles south, was divided into trash and recyclables. Once sorted, an on-post contractor sold the recyclables to the German market. According to Alex, the force behind the garrison’s Net Zero waste program is a savvy, cost avoidance strategy that benefits the Army and the host nation.

All nonrecycled refuse gets sent to a shredder plant. From there, the shredded garbage heads 70 kilometers (about 43 miles) away to the Schwandorf Waste to Energy Incineration Plant, where it’s burned, producing three separate outputs: ash, steam and electricity.

The ash becomes a potent fertilizer. The steam heats aluminum-producing materials at an aluminum parts factory where it is also used to heat the building. The electricity also heads to the aluminum parts factory, and any unused voltage is sent to the main power grid.

Grafenwoehr has also expanded its own recycling center. Alongside the large recycling dumpsters scattered throughout post and the dual “plastic” and “refuse” bins in the exchange, the garrison boasts a recycling area for electronic parts and toner cartridges, as well as an industrial-sized paper shredder used as an alternative to burning sensitive materials.

Grafenwoehr energy

The long, dark, cold Bavarian winters that necessitate considerable heating and light leave Grafenwoehr with no realistic intentions of achieving Net Zero for energy. It has, however, mobilized energy conservation policies and gradually improved energy independence. To do so, the garrison is channeling the sun, using several solar-based energy systems.

To date, four buildings — two barracks buildings, the exchange’s kitchen in Rose Barracks and the Grafenwoehr Physical Fitness Center — implement solar thermal energy to help heat the buildings’ water. Large, black panels lining the rooftops contain pipes holding a super-conductive liquid that captures large amounts of solar energy. The energy is then transferred to a boiler where it heats cold water. This energy-saving method isn’t the lone hot water source, but a supplement to more traditional resources.

The photovoltaic system, currently in use on six buildings in Grafenwoehr, is a “purely electrical solar panel,” explained Aref Arianta, energy manager for USAG Grafenwoehr. The solar panels sit on top of the buildings to maximize exposure and instantaneously convert the sun’s rays to electricity.

The solar power, however, is not used within the buildings. Instead, the electricity generated by all six systems is fed into the German electrical grid. The amount of solar power converted into electricity is charted on monitors displayed in each photovoltaic-laced building.

From October 2010 to the present, the total energy produced has saved the garrison $140,000.

For every kilowatt-hour Grafenwoehr feeds into the public grid, the installation receives 34-euro cents from the German government — almost triple the 12-euro cents it pays the host nation for each kilowatt-hour used. Additionally, all the installation and operational costs of the alternative energy are tax deductible in Germany.

“Of course, by putting our generated electricity into the grid, we are generating revenues,” said Arianta. “We can use the money for the community’s welfare, that the community can use for other services.”

However, all this energy production is still less than one percent of what the garrison consumes, partly because of central Europe’s gloomy weather. Frequent cloudy skies mean infrequent sunlight reaches the solar panels, which then produce a fraction of their potential energy output.

Grafenwoehr also uses more energy to heat buildings over the winter months than it could realistically produce.

“The amount of energy we’re using is immense,” said Arianta. “The photovoltaic and energy panels will not get us there. But that’s no reason to sit back and do nothing.”

Another larger factor is the distribution of resources.

“Local energy production requires capital investment,” explained Arianta. “We execute projects as IMCOM (Installation Management Command) provides funding. We have projects worth $70 million in the system for funding, but so far we have received only $7 million.”

What we can do

Another obstacle the garrison faces is the community’s reluctance to adjust to viewing trash as energy or a new bottle or a mattress.

In fact, of all the waste on Grafenwoehr, 40 percent is disposed of as refuse. Alex estimates that of this 40 percent, 75 percent could be recycled.

“It depends on the population. It all has to do with behavior,” said Alex. “Behavior change is necessary.”

For many, this means taking time to separate plastics, metals, cardboard, paper and glass from the food scraps and mixed materials, which can be tossed into the trash. Recycling has advanced in recent years and now anything from mattresses and batteries to electronics and motor oil can be recycled. Depositories on post will take used electronics and toner ink, which are then sold back to the manufacturers for a profit.

But while recycling is one of the most popular forms of conservation, it is far from the most important. Reducing, reusing and repurposing waste do more to reduce landfills and preserve the environment.

“The most important effort is on reduction and repurpose. If you reduce and reuse, you don’t have as much of an impact on the environment as recycling,” Alex explained.

The transportation, fuel and labor costs of recycling detract from some of its benefits, he added. “If you reuse you need no new resources from Mother Earth, no energy and labor to produce and transport, or to recycle.”

Instead, Alex recommends reducing waste at the source, thus diminishing the amount of garbage in the community. For consumers, this means reusing a canvas shopping tote instead of racking up a pile of plastic bags, or buying a large tub of yogurt instead of a package of individual-sized servings. Wash out jars and tubs and use them to store anything from screws and nails to makeup brushes and craft supplies.

In a large-scale application of this philosophy, Grafenwoehr used shredded asphalt and concrete from demolished roads as the base for new ones, simultaneously eradicating landfill and limiting wasteful production.

When it comes to energy, the main line of defense against deflating nonrenewable resources is conservation. “There are several common sense, no-cost actions individuals can perform to conserve energy,” said Arianta. “Doing a little saves a lot, especially if you’re making this a habit to your daily lifestyle.

“Shutting off lights, using the power-saving large electronics such as refrigerators and washing machines, and wearing another layer of clothing instead of turning on the heating are a few examples,” Arianta added.

Getting the word out

Grafenwoehr’s Directorate of Public Works has employed a full-scale outreach campaign to disseminate the tools of conservation to the garrison community.

That outreach begins when Soldiers and families first arrive in Germany. They are informed about German and garrison regulations, and given details about how they can contribute to conservation efforts.

The DPW also has an ongoing partnership with the Department of Defense Dependents Schools–Europe to enlighten students on energy usage and waste streams using engaging educational projects. The DPW brings small alternative energy models into the classrooms to demonstrate wind and solar power, and they discuss the pros and cons of fossil fuels and their sustainable alternatives.

Students go on fieldtrips to the Waste to Energy Incineration Plant in Schwandorf and the industrial-sized shredder in Grafenwoehr. They’ve also visited the garrison’s central heating plant, where students learn how the plant turns gas into heating and hot water for the garrison’s houses, schools, offices and shopping centers.

“If we get the children, they will hopefully get the parents, bring it home to the family and encourage the parents to think,” said Willi Zinnbauer, sorting program coordinator at Rose Barracks.

“If you go to the housing areas and check the bins and check the bins in the barracks, you notice a difference,” he said. “I think it has an impact.”