The Army Goes Green, but Not to Save the Earth

Renewable energy is a way to improve troop safety
Courtesy Sundial; Data: Compiled by Bloomberg

Daniel Rice takes taxis down long desert roads in Afghanistan’s combat zones to make sales calls. He travels at night, unarmed, and when he’s dropped at the gate of a U.S. military base, soldiers often call Rice crazy before whisking him inside. The former U.S. Army officer is there to sell commanders on something he wishes the military used eight years ago when he served in Iraq and lost friends in attacks on convoys: solar panels.

Rice, co-founder of SunDial Capital Partners, tells the officers that his portable solar systems can reduce fuel consumption. “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?” he asks.

The Army has spent $10 million to equip Special Forces units with SunDial’s systems. It’s part of a $4 billion green campaign the Army launched in 2009, with plans to spend billions more over the next three decades. The mission isn’t about saving the environment. It’s about saving money and lives. “A fuel tanker can be shot at and blown up,” says Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army in charge of energy and sustainability. “The sun’s rays will still be there.”

The modern wired battlefield requires about 20 gallons of fuel per soldier per day. Protecting the convoys is one of the most dangerous jobs in war: One in 24 fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered a casualty in 2007, the last year the Army kept such statistics. It estimates that the cost to buy and deliver fuel safely to remote outposts can reach $56 per gallon.

The military has made changes at outposts in Afghanistan that it expects to use more widely in future conflicts. On some bases, floodlights are powered by solar panels instead of diesel generators. At others, the Army is using smaller, smarter generators that don’t run all the time, cutting energy use by 30 percent compared with larger systems. Previously, “you had 10-kilowatt load need at a tent being driven by a 100-kilowatt generator,” says John Lushetsky, executive director of the U.S. Army Energy Initiatives Task Force. That meant “more fuel lines, and that led to more casualties.”

Some of the adjustments are small but could have a big impact when used on a larger scale. New tents with hinged doors designed at an Army research center in Massachusetts are replacing some zipped tents, which are easily ripped when soldiers enter with their packs on. That makes it harder to keep tents cool in hot climates. Researchers are also testing showers that curb water use by recycling it for future bathing and laundry.

The Army’s long-term goal is energy neutrality—to generate as much energy as it uses worldwide. It’s made the most progress at U.S. bases. A new 4.5-megawatt solar farm at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico supplies 10 percent of the site’s power. Fort Bliss, in Texas, has a 1.4-megawatt solar plant. By 2025 officials expect the Army will draw 25 percent of its power in the U.S. from renewables, up from 5.5 percent now.

Taxpayers aren’t paying for the new electricity plants. Energy companies finance their construction and then bill the Army for the power. And the military is locking in long-term contracts with fixed prices. “If our [current] utility costs are increasing 7 to 15 percent a year, and our starting point for the [new] system is 2 percent higher than what we’re currently paying and fixed for 20 years, that’s a pretty decent crossing of the curves,” Kidd says.

With the war in Afghanistan winding down, SunDial’s Rice is thinking ahead to potential future conflicts in Africa or the Middle East. “If the U.S. Army makes this standard for every brigade,” he says, “it will not only transform the U.S. military, but all militaries around the world will follow.”


    The bottom line: The Army has spent $4 billion to get more power from solar and other green sources, and plans to spend billions more.

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