The U.S. Army is spending billions of dollars shifting toward solar energy, recycled water and better-insulated tents. The effort isn’t about saving the Earth.
Instead, commanders have found they can save lives through energy conservation. It’s especially true in Afghanistan, where protecting fuel convoys is one of the most dangerous jobs, with one casualty for every 24 missions in some years.
With renewable energy, “there is no supply chain vulnerability, there are no commodity costs and there’s a lower chance of disruption,” Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army in charge of energy security, said in an interview. “A fuel tanker can be shot at and blown up. The sun’s rays will still be there.”
While President Barack Obama called on the U.S. government to cut greenhouse-gas emissions 28 percent by 2020, the Army is embracing renewables to make the business of war safer for soldiers. In May, it announced plans to spend $7 billion buying electricity generated by solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects over the next three decades.
The transition is a sales opportunity for companies including Lockheed Martin Corp., which is installing small-scale power systems at U.S. bases, along with Alta Devices Inc. and Sundial Capital Partners, which make sun-powered systems. The moves threaten U.S. utilities, which stand to lose revenue when the Army shifts to photovoltaic panels from traditional power sources.
“We’ve changed the way we fight, but have we changed the way we resupply and conduct operations?” said Brandon Bloodworth, president of Barbaricum, a Washington-based military consultant. “That’s where we need to change.”
Renewable-energy projects in the U.S. are mainly financed by third parties and probably won’t be affected by the government shutdown that’s idled as many as 800,000 federal employees. Members of the armed forces will continue to get paid during the shutdown.
The remarks from Kidd and military colleagues illuminate the Army’s effort to become a “net zero” power user, producing as much electricity as it consumes worldwide. The Army’s target is to install 1 gigawatt of renewable capacity by 2025 in the U.S. and to reduce non-tactical fuel consumption 30 percent by 2020 from 2005 levels. A gigawatt is about the same capacity as a new nuclear reactor has.
Renewables are reaching to the last stops on the Army’s supply lines, including such far-flung bases as Command Outpost Giro in Afghanistan’s Ghazni Province. The site at one point didn’t have enough capacity and tapped Humvees for some power. The makeshift setup required soldiers to drive the vehicles around in the middle of the night to recharge the batteries.
A hybrid solar-diesel generator with capacity to store power for use after dark solved the problem, said Barbaricum’s Bloodworth.
“The next day, a soldier said, ‘That was the first time I slept through the night,’” Bloodworth said. The outpost has since closed. For security reasons, Army officials won’t say when or why.
At other Afghan bases, floodlights with solar panels use built-in batteries have replaced diesel generators. Sundial Capital sold about $10 million portable plants to Army special forces. Those cut the number of fuel convoys, often paying for the technology within a year, SunDial said.
“Why are soldiers still dying in fuel convoys when the military could significantly reduce its fuel at remote locations and at the same time save taxpayer dollars?” said Daniel Rice, who served in Iraq before co-founding SunDial in 2009 with fellow graduates from the U.S. Military Academy.
Some commanders in the field have requested renewable-energy systems faster than the Army has been delivering them.
There were 338 casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007, including one for every 24 fuel convoys, according to a report by the Army Environmental Policy Institute, the last one in which the military provided details on how soldiers were injured or killed. About half the materiel sent by convoy in 2008 was fuel and 20 percent was water.
The Army also is using diesel generators more efficiently, said John Lushetsky, executive director of the U.S. Army Energy Initiatives Task Force. Some sites now use several small units instead of a few big ones.
In some cases, “you had 10-kilowatt load need at a tent being driven by a 100-kilowatt generator,” Lushetsky said. That means “more fuel lines, and that led to more casualties.”
The Army cut liquid fuel use by 50 million gallons in 2011 by installing microgrids at 36 sites outside the U.S. The systems use smaller generators and software to manage power flow, reducing consumption 30 percent, the Army estimated.
New tent designs, with more insulation and doors that close with snaps instead of zippers, are easier to cool, further paring consumption.
In Natick, Massachusetts, the Army’s Soldier Systems Center developed showers that curb water demand 75 percent by recycling what flows down the drain. Every gallon reused is one less to be trucked in, said Colonel Diane Ryan, director of West Point’s leadership program, which schools students in the merits of conservation.
“If we can’t change their attitudes and behavior, then it won’t be effective,” Ryan said.
At bases in the U.S., the Army is focusing on self-sufficiency. In December, the institution’s largest solar farm was installed at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, a 4.5 megawatt system supplying 10 percent of the site’s power.
Fort Bliss already has a 1.4-megawatt megawatt solar plant and another 13.4 megawatts of rooftop panels. The measures when expanded may eventually cut into revenue for El Paso Electric, the local utility.
“If the cost of solar continues to drop and more people add new capacity, we may have an issue,” said Rocky Miracle, senior vice president of corporate planning at the utility based in El Paso, Texas. “It hasn’t reached a level where it’s a problem. Even the Army isn’t moving really fast.”
The Energy Initiatives Task Force, tasked with spreading renewables to more than 78 Army installations in the U.S., has at least 130 megawatts of projects under development, according to its July newsletter. The Army expects to get 25 percent of its U.S. power from renewables by 2025.
The goal is to make it easier for soldiers to accomplish their mission, said Colonel Peter Newell, former director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force who left in May to become managing partner at the Palo Alto, California-based defense consultants BMNT Partners.
“If you were to show up on the battlefield and say, ‘We’re going to buy this equipment and put it in your forward operating base and you’re going to have to change because it’s going to save us money on the cost of gas,’ they will lock the gates and ask you to go back where you came from,” Newell said in an interview at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.
“Now, if you show up and you say, ‘Listen, I know that you’re expending about 60 to 80 percent of your human capital just moving yourself from point A to point B, and you’ve only got this many people. I can make some changes that will donate some of those other guys back to you,’ then the gates come wide open,” Newell said.