Army hopes to save lives through energy conservation, including using solar power

Fort Bliss, White Sands Missile Range have installed solar panels

By Ehren Goossens, Special to the Fort Bliss Bugle from Stars and Stripes:

The 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.

"We've changed the way we fight, but have we changed the way we resupply and conduct operations?" said Brandon Bloodworth, president of a Washington-based military consultant. "That's where we need to change."

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 Bloodworth.

"The next day, a soldier said, ‘that was the first time I slept through the night,'" Bloodworth said.

Renewable energy can save the military money in the future, but preventing causalities is even more important.

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 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.

The Army cut liquid fuel use by 50 million gallons in 2011 by installing micro-grids 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.

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.

And in May, the Army's first micro-grid was finished, powering a dining facility at Fort Bliss. The array has 300 kilowatts of storage for use at night or if the grid fails.

Fort Bliss already has a 1.4-megawatt solar plant and another 13.4 megawatts of rooftop panels.

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.

"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.

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