Last month, I undertook field research into U.S. detention policy at the detention camp operated by Joint Task Force-Guantánamo (JTF-GTMO). While out there, I had the opportunity to interview Captain John R. Nettleton, the commanding officer of Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, who only recently assumed his command. As Nettleton observed during our conversation, if you pay attention to media coverage of Gitmo, you might overlook the fact that there is a naval base at all — and that fact apparently surprises some media visitors as well. As the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman noted, “In what might come as a surprise to many, there are many recreational facilities at the naval base, from a golf course to an open-air cinema as well as a Starbucks Coffee and a McDonald’s restaurant.”
The Naval Station Guantánamo Bay is separate from JTF-GTMO (the latter being responsible for detentions). However, it faces some issues that other overseas bases simply do not. First and foremost, it is the only naval station located in a country with which the U.S. does not have diplomatic relations. As the U.S.’s oldest overseas base, the country has been making use of this territory since February 1903, when it first leased 45 square miles of land to use as a coaling station. In 1934, a treaty between the U.S. and Cuba affirmed the lease agreement, with the stipulation that the lease could not be terminated unless the U.S. and Cuba both agreed to it, or the U.S. abandoned the base. International agreements do not simply expire following revolutions, and hence the U.S. legally maintained its base at Guantánamo Bay even after the Fidel Castro-led revolution. However, in February 1964 Castro cut off water and other avenues of supply to the base, which forced it to be self-sustaining. It has been self-sustaining for more than forty years, generating its own power and — as of 2012 — desalinating about 1.2 million gallons of water per day.
Before “war on terror” detainees were moved to Gitmo, the base was almost in a caretaker status. That is, enough people were kept on the base to keep it going, but no money was put into maintaining buildings that were unlikely to be used again. So when JTF-GTMO began, the base was not fully manned: instead, the basic functions included guarding the perimeter, refueling ships coming through, and upkeep of the base. Most of the prominent base facilities — including the Starbucks and McDonald’s that Today’s Zaman specifically noted — are recent additions, specifically created to serve the needs that arose after JTF-GTMO’s establishment.”The JTF was created and suddenly you had a lot more people here, and that created the need to build up the base,” Nettleton told me. “All of a sudden you had a doubling of our base population. You had to feed them, clothe them, build new buildings.” Today there are over 5,400 personnel at the Naval Station Guantánamo Bay, including about 2,435 military and 2,965 civilians (of whom about 1,570 military and 320 civilian personnel are attached to the JTF).
Because the base has to be self-sustaining — and because food, supplies, building materials, etc. have to be brought in from elsewhere — that significantly increases costs at the naval station. One thing that I found particularly interesting is that a large percentage of the base’s electrical power comes from liquid fuels. Costs are not just related to the expense of the fuels themselves, but also the expense of bringing them to the naval station in the first place. Given the military’s push for green energy, I wondered if this might be an area where the base could save money in the long term.
To be clear, one of the very prominent features of the Guantánamo naval station is four windmills atop one of the hills (only three of which are functioning at present). However, only 2-3% of the base’s electricity on any given day is generated by the windmills.
Based on the sheer amount of sunlight it experiences, Guantánamo Bay also seems like it could be an ideal place to harness solar energy. And indeed, the base features a small solar field that is set inside an old high school running track that is no longer in use. But like the windmills, this solar field does not make a significant dent in the base’s overall electricity consumption.
Nettleton told me that they have been looking into a variety of alternative energy options because “this would be a great place” for it. “DoD has looked here for algae,” he said. “You can grow algae here all day long.” He also mentioned possible further development of solar power, in that new technology has been bringing down the cost of solar.
One barrier to expanding the base’s use of green energy is the cost of building new projects. The cost of transporting materials to Guantánamo Bay doesn’t just increase the expense of liquid fuels, but would also make new solar or wind projects more expensive as well. “Building anything here costs twice as much,” Nettleton told me. “You bring all the materials down, and you’re paying to have them shipped down. You’re paying a contractor to build it for you; you’re not only paying their end of the contract, but also they’re billing all their living and sleeping expenses, and everything else. So it’s twice as expensive here than it would be to build anything in the States.”
The other factor impeding green energy at Guantánamo Bay is uncertainty about the future of the base. “There is no end state in sight for the JTF,” Nettleton said. “It could end next year, or ten years from now. If you don’t know, you’re kind of in this nether region. You plan the best you can, but until the bosses make up their mind what they want to do, it is hard to make a case to invest a lot in infrastructure for 6,000 people when you don’t know if there will be 8,000 or 3,000 two years from now.”