News & Press
US military takes solar to the frontline
May 8, 2012
The US military is not where you'd expect to find America's greatest climate warriors wanting to save the planet. But it's where you will find the country's staunchest allies when it comes to support for renewable energy - because it saves lives.
US Department of Defense is the highest consumer of energy in the world with a thirst for 300,000 barrels of oil a day.
But reducing the DoD's carbon boot print from the barracks to the battlefield has become mission critical.
In 2007 in Iraq and Afghanistan, a total of more than 3,000 army personnel and contractors were wounded or killed in action from attacks on fuel and water resupply convoys.
Major General Anthony Jackson said at a Pew Charitable Trusts forum at Stanford University last year: "I know the cost of oil. I know it up close and personal. If you have never seen the mixture of blood and sand, it's a harsh purple on the desert floor.
"There is an urgent need for our nation to lead the world in renewables and conservation and getting a grip on the strategic vice that one three letter word has around our neck. For every 50 trucks we put on the road someone is killed or loses a limb."
President George Bush started this strategy for energy security that Barack Obama has accelerated. Over the past four years, DoD clean energy investments in biofuels, solar technology and advanced batteries have increased 200%, from US$400m to US$1.2bn. Last year, the DoD launched Energy for the Warfighter: Operational Energy Strategy "to ensure that the armed forces will have the energy resources they require to meet 21st century challenges".
US Marines reinforced the DoD's goal by taking renewable energy to the frontline with the deployment of solar panels at bases and solar battery charging packs for patrols.
"While we have proven lethal fighting in rugged environments for nearly a decade, our energy consumption is far from Spartan. Because of our thirst for liquid fuel, we’re not as light and agile as we once were, putting both our Marines and our expeditionary capabilities at risk," said general James F Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.
Marines in Afghanistan use about 200,000 gallons of fuel a day to power their "war fighting capabilities" and forward operating bases require a minimum of 300 gallons of diesel a day.
Solar panels are a useful alternative to noisy diesel generators at military posts in Afghanistan where US troops at a US Marine Command Operation Centre are testing the Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy Network System (GREENS) to power phones, laptops and air conditioners. But the clean conversion doesn't come cheap at US$500,000 for a 1000W system.
“Lightening the load” for those with boots on the ground is also vital as batteries account for around 20% of the weight of a soldier's pack and a typical infantry battalion uses US$150,000 worth of batteries a year.
Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy Systems charge batteries, operate communications equipment and run small electronic devices out in the field.
Jonathan Gensler, a project manager at Borrego Solar, said: "If a soldier is on patrol carrying 15 to 20 pounds of batteries for a couple of days - that's 15 to 20 pounds of food, water and ammunition they're not carrying with them.
"Solar panel backpacks using rechargeable batteries in the field reducing that carried load and allowing that soldier to be more survivable, lethal and effective while out on a mission."
Meanwhile, the US army has committed to sourcing 25% of its electricity come from renewable sources by 2025, the equivalent of 2.5 million MWh.
A report earlier this year, the Solar Energy Development on Department of Defense Installations in the Mojave and Colorado Deserts, estimated that more than 7,000GW of solar energy development is technically feasible and financially viable.
Gensler, a recent recruit to solar frontline after serving as an officer in a US army tank platoon in Iraq said that although domestic bases aren't exactly in the firing line, they are still vulnerable.
"Over the past 10 years, with increasing demands on the grid infrastructure bases are in highly vulnerable positions. If one transformer on the grid gets knocked out an entire base can lose its entire operational base capability."
In 2010, the DoD consumed nearly 5 billion gallons of petroleum in military operations, at a cost of US$13.2bn - an increase of 255% over 1997 prices.
The military has been quick to acknowledge that the costs of energy are only going to rise, said Gensler, who knows the cost of oil all too well after losing two close friends in Iraq.
"Army bases are vulnerable to disruptions and energy prices continue to go up - renewable energy helps hedge these risks and keeps the critical infrastructure operating, whether it's a transformer blowing, a tornado, hurricane, forest fire or something more malicious such as a human attack on the grid."
Gensler is now a project developer with financier and integrator Borrego Solar, which earlier this year cut the ribbon on a 3.4MW solar installation at Edwards Air Force Base in San Diego. Borrego Solar financed the project and has a 10-year power purchase agreement to sell the electricity to the base.
"They're really happy with it and expect the system to keep them out of the really high peak rates and save a significant amount of money," he said.
Gensler claims that the army has recognized that it is way off its 25% target and in recent months deployed an Army Energy Initiatives Taskforce to achieve that goal through leveraging US$7bn in private sector investment.
Investors will be buoyed at the prospect of private partnership powered by military financial might: after all DoD procurement helped create scalable cost-competitive markets for computers, the internet and GPS.
"Market pull and signal for investors is strong enough that it's going to significantly accelerate those cost reductions and they are going to allow the commercial marketplace to come in and adopt the technologies," said Gensler.
"The DoD has been the primary first adopter for virtually every major new technology that the world has seen over the last 50 years. There's nothing inherently different about energy that should make the case different here, it's just the timelines are a little bit longer and the scales necessary are a little bit larger.
"The DoD is a giant beast and it's going to consume the energy, not because it's always a cost saver but because it saves American lives and makes America and our allies more secure around the world."
But the DoD procurement has wider political implications as renewables are deployed in more conservative communities, he said.
"There's a lot of political pushback against using renewables in a lot of these communities. But once the people who live there see the military adopting renewable energy and understanding the benefits to their economy, we'll see those spill-over effects and political opposition go away once they start to realize the benefits of a clean energy economy."
This will be especially beneficial as the military's clean energy mission that started under the Bush administration now seems to be on the hit list for Republicans.
One of the neat tricks of the US government is that the US president is also the commander in chief. The US military is following executive orders to follow a lower-carbon path and there is little Congress can do.
Republicans are slowly waking up to this "command and control" by stealth, but Obama appears to have secured enough territory and support for protecting American soldiers to keep these renewable trends safe from the right-wing axe for now.
Schwartz Communications, Inc.
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