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Captain Peter Ryan, left, in a solar panel field at CFB Gagetown, in New Brunswick, on Nov. 29, 2022.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

A distant boom echoes through the crisp, cool air in Gagetown, N.B., a noise typical at this Canadian military base, the second-largest in the country.

Down one of the 1,500 kilometres of gravel roads that criss-cross the massive site is an unassuming rectangular building, dark against the trees that surround it. To one side, close to 1,000 solar panels drink energy from the sun.

This is the Department of National Defence’s (DND) first net-zero building. It’s connected to no utilities. It’s heated via geothermal energy. Water is collected from an underground well and cisterns on the roof, and purified on site. Waste water is treated here, too.

The 375-kilowatt solar farm easily powers the building – the Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering’s explosives and ordnance disposal facility, where much of the training for combat engineers takes place. A large battery system in the yard can squirrel away enough electricity to power the building overnight until the sun comes up again, unless it’s exceptionally cold weather with an increased demand for heat.

This building at CFB Gagetown is part of a broader move by the Canadian military to go green. The goal is to hit net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 – one of the first militaries in the world to commit to such a target.

Emissions from the DND and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) represented about 59 per cent of the federal government’s total in 2019-2020. Together, DND and CAF make up one of the country’s largest employers and maintainers of equipment and infrastructure – including 2.1 million acres of land and more than 20,000 buildings in Canada alone. So reducing the environmental footprint of military operations will play a crucial role in Ottawa’s climate change objectives.

Jon Parker is the electrical team lead at Gagetown. Boots crunching on the gravel surrounding the solar panels, he told The Globe and Mail that the farm’s set-up is somewhat unique in that it can completely disconnect from the grid.

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Jon Parker opens the door to the battery that supplies power to a solar-powered carbon-neutral building at CFB Gagetown.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

He describes the building as essentially “like a cabin in the woods,” adding with a chuckle, it’s “a very large, black, functional cabin.”

Given how efficient the building is, the solar installation generally produces far more electricity than required. The excess power travels to the Gagetown garrison along a thick, black cable, specifically installed with the knowledge that capacity on the line can be easily expanded in the future.

And there’s a good chance it will be. Officials are sifting through tenders vying for a contract to build a new, five-megawatt solar farm at Gagetown. Mr. Parker says his team wants to see how much power the base could produce “and still be able to use that energy within the garrison.”

Emissions reduction across the military is guided by the Defence Energy and Environment Strategy (DEES). The document, first tabled in 2017, provides direction on how to be a more environmentally sustainable organization that better manages its energy use.

“Military operations and environmental protection and stewardship are not mutually exclusive. Minimizing the environmental impact of defence activities is necessary for operational success, whether at home or abroad,” it says. “We have a responsibility to show leadership in environmental and energy sustainability, and an obligation to manage our assets and operations efficiently.”

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The efforts at CFB Gagetown are part of a broader move by the Canadian military to go green.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

The DEES has four key themes: energy efficiency; reduced climate change risks; sustainable property; and green procurement.

By the end of the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the Defence Department had fulfilled 82 per cent of the commitments laid out in the first DEES, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from its buildings and non-military vehicles by about 31 per cent from 2005 levels.

According to the 2022 DEES progress report, tabled in Parliament in October, the DND and CAF had reduced their overall emissions by almost 36 per cent since 2005. More than half of eligible bases have begun implementing energy performance contracts, and 74 per cent of the electricity being consumed by the department comes from renewable sources (it’s aiming to get to 100 per cent by 2025).

Like many federal government departments, a handful of overarching federal policies guide the military’s net-zero goal, including a sustainable development strategy led by Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Canada’s Greening Government Strategy.

The military has also developed a range of specific initiatives and goals to help the transition to net-zero, including buying zero-emission or hybrid commercial light-duty fleet vehicles, looking to secure sustainable aviation fuels that can power Canada’s military fleet and increasing energy efficiency at deployed camps.

On the water, it’s procuring more energy-efficient vessels and refitting others with more efficient lighting systems, using lower-emission fuels and testing new technologies to reduce humidity and energy used for air conditioning on board ships.

Most initiatives are being rolled out across Canada, though some bases and units are also undertaking region-specific activities. While Gagetown looks to build another solar farm, for example, next door in Nova Scotia, CFB Halifax is at an earlier stage of its emissions-reduction journey.

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Emissions reduction across the military is guided by the Defence Energy and Environment Strategy.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

The first task is to curtail energy usage.

In Juno Tower – which houses dining halls and accommodation, among other things – facility management co-ordinator Jeremy Shaw points to new lights in the ceiling that have swapped out old-school bulbs for LEDs. It’s not much to look at, he admits, but it’s an important part of reducing the installation’s environmental footprint when the site includes 112 buildings.

The changes will also reduce energy costs, with the contract for the work including a savings guarantee of $3-million by June, 2024.

Sourcing power from renewable sources is also an integral part of the plan for CFB Halifax, as it is for bases across Canada. At the Halifax site, they’re replacing cooling coils with more efficient heat pumps, improving insulation and metering the dockyard to get a better handle on exactly how much energy vessels are using when they’re plugged in; from there, they can be made more efficient.

But the military isn’t immune to difficulties being faced by project managers across the country, such as increasing construction costs, supply-chain chaos and inflation. In Halifax, too, the smaller population and something of a construction boom have placed extra pressure on the labour market.

Greening the military isn’t going to be cheap. But there’s also no specific emissions-reduction budget, with many initiatives incorporated into regular maintenance, repair or upgrade projects.

“This isn’t the Canadian government dumping money into something. We’re going to ensure that the economics are correct,” said Mr. Parker, at Gagetown.

The solar set-up comes with more benefits than reducing emissions, too.

“If the power goes out, this system will automatically kick in and power the building, which is pretty unique,” he said.

“The great thing is, it’s a training opportunity. So if some of the military members want to be trained on something like that, we can get them out here and show them.”

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