I recently sat on the Defense Science Board Task Force on DoD Energy Strategy, which took testimony and wrote a report, More Fight — Less Fuel, on how energy efficiency and renewables makes sense — and can save lives — for the military. The findings are here.
Efficiency and renewables finally start getting the attention of even the most conservative Pentagon planner
- when one of your most dangerous targets in a war zone is the convoy trucking in fuel at an equivalent cost of tens of dollars a gallon;
- when the single biggest contributor to the weight of the backpack for your special forces is the battery; and
- when your domestic (and international) military bases still rely on an antiquated and highly vulnerable electric grid for primary power.
Climate Wire (subs. req’d) has an excellent story on this issue:
At the height of the violence in Iraq, the most dangerous thing for an American soldier to do in the lawless province of Anbar was drive in a fuel convoy. There were urgent requests for vehicles with better armor to withstand improvised explosive devices, but what if soldiers from supply units never had to travel on an IED-laden road in the first place?
Dan Nolan realized that if the military could reduce its fuel consumption, fewer convoys would be exposed to possible ambush in Iraq, and lives would be saved. As an adviser to Army Gen. Tommy Franks at the U.S. Central Command and chief of the power task force at the Fort Belvoir, Va.-based Rapid Equipping Force — a think tank for military innovation — the 26-year Army veteran knew what he had to do. He set out to make American bases in Iraq more energy efficient.
The idea grew into a program to markedly cut the amount of fuel the military burns in diesel generators powering air conditioners in Iraq’s smoldering heat by spraying insulating foam on tents and barracks in forward operating bases. Eventually, all U.S. military bases at home and abroad will become energy independent through the use of renewable energy and highly efficient insulated tents and buildings, Nolan hopes. A program that was started to minimize battlefield casualties may end up boosting the role of renewables in society as a whole, changing the country’s energy model and helping to shrink the military’s vast carbon footprint.
“In Iraq, the military has spent $95 million on insulating foam and has saved $105 million per year in return,” said Nolan — who is now retired from the Army and runs a consultancy called Sabot 6 — in an interview. “The National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., is spending $25 million for spray foam at training forward operating bases, saving more than $20 million per year in fuel and equipment costs. Another $29 million is spent in Afghanistan. The military is embracing energy conservation and actively seeking the savings.”
The U.S. military views the country’s dependence on oil, a resource beyond its control, as a national security threat, Nolan said. So the Department of Defense envisions the future of energy security in the military as dependent on reducing demand, transforming waste into energy, making bases operate independently of a centralized power grid and using renewables much more than it does now. But budget constraints stand in the way of big investments.
“We need to stop focusing on cost and look at return on investment,” Nolan added.
Air-conditioning tents is less expensive using insulating foam
So far, the cost-benefit analysis has made insulating foam a hit. Turning the Army’s huge, heat-absorbing tents into rigid shells of 2-inch insulation costs $30,000 to $70,000 per tent, depending on size. But insulation pays for itself in 35 days in Iraq, where a gallon of diesel costs $20. Insulation can cut the temperature inside the tent in a hot environment by 20 degrees Fahrenheit before an air-conditioning unit is even turned on, reducing fuel needs by 40 percent.
The military wants to reduce the commanders’ reliance on fossil fuel without diminishing their war-fighting capability. So while the Army and Marines will not banish their fuel-guzzling 70-ton Abrams tanks to a desert parking lot anytime soon, they are saving fuel at bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti by spraying foam over their tents.
“Forward operating bases are left to local commanders to run,” Nolan said. “They’re not mayors of towns, they’re tank commanders or artillery men. The military housing has no meters, and occupants have no idea how much energy they use.”
Contingency Operating Base King in California’s Mojave Desert, where soldiers train before deploying to Iraq, started with four 300-kilowatt generators to produce power to cool off 10 non-insulated tents. That was not enough, so two more generators were brought in, for an average of 180 kW per tent. After the tents were insulated with foam, demand dropped to only 30 kW, a 75 percent reduction per tent.
“The short war attitude is ‘more power’, but the long war attitude should be truly expeditionary power, which can only be achieved with renewables,” Nolan said.
Taking command centers off the grid can make them more secure
Spraying can be useful in existing structures back home, too. A pilot program at Fort Belvoir in Virginia proved that retrofitting the attics of barracks and office buildings on the base with spraying foam would cost $2,000 per unit up front, which would be recouped in five years through 30 percent energy efficiency gains. Spraying the walls in addition to the attics would cost $5,500 per unit, which would be recouped over eight years through 50 percent efficiency gains.
Another program is testing solar power in military housing at Fort Belvoir and the Marine Corps base in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. The biggest solar power array in the United States is located at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, Nevada, operated in a public-private partnership. It produces 25 percent of the power needs of the base.
The Army Rapid Equipping Force combined energy-efficient buildings with renewable energy production at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin earlier this year to show that a 2,300-square-foot dome could function as a completely energy-independent brigade tactical operations center. Two other domes and two spray-foam insulated tents were built to operate on 75 percent less energy than traditional structures.
“The goal is to take that installation completely off the grid,” Nolan said. “Bases are vulnerable to attacks. If we can island them [from the grid], we demonstrate the technology and also increase the security of that location.”
Bonus: GIs may bring budget-saving green habits home
The military has other programs more ambitious than foam spray. It would like to fuel power plants with garbage produced on its bases. The Navy is conducting an initial feasibility study at a cost of $100,000 and may decide to build one to three pilot plants, depending on results.
Since combat outposts require substantial power generation and storage, the military needs better batteries. It wants a solar-powered light system for night security that integrates photovoltaic panels and battery storage to provide 10 to 12 hours of illumination. The first two systems will be delivered in January and will be deployed at Fort Irwin in March for 60 days of testing. In another experiment, small wind turbines were combined with solar technology in Kuwait to demonstrate that renewable energy is reliable and can be used together with conventional power.
Nolan would like to see the U.S. government require all military installations to become energy independent.
“It would create jobs and increase national security,” Nolan said. “Nothing needs to be invented; the technology to do it exists today. But it hasn’t been embraced quite as widely as the foam spray.”
The Department of Defense is the nation’s biggest energy consumer and has set a goal to produce 25 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. Nolan thinks this would not only boost the viability of the fledgling renewable technology but also increase its acceptance in civilian households.
“The U.S. Army has always been an agent for social change,” Nolan said. “In the 1950s, President Truman integrated the military. It turned out it worked out just fine. In the 1960s, women were given more responsibility in the military, and now we recently had the first female four-star general. If we promoted renewables, our soldiers would bring home these values with them.”