US military sets its sights on solar to sideline fossil fuels

By:  Cheryl Kaften

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) moved ahead this week with its plans to mete out “more fight for less fuel”. With support from the White House, the Pentagon intends to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by building next-generation combat vehicles, making energy storage safer and more effective, and increasing the deployment of renewable energy across America’s Armed Forces to three gigawatts (GW) by 2025.

US flag

The DOD is said to be making one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history.

Flickr/Jeff Kubina

“We haven’t been standing still on this,” commented Sharon E. Burke, assistant secretary of defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs. Already, Burke said, the Army’s ground troops and the Marines have reduced their energy consumption at the tactical edge in Afghanistan by using solar rechargeable batteries, solar microgrids, more efficient tents, and better fixed shelters. The Navy also is incorporating energy considerations into its acquisitions process, she said.

Less demand for energy and more conservation reduce the risk to troops who transport fuel through battle zones, explained Burke. “When you’re focused on the fight, the most important thing is that the energy be there … But people also are beginning to understand there is a cost to using and moving that much fuel.”

Last June, DOD officials released a strategy outlining the need for energy conservation in military operations. The plan calls for a Defense Operational Energy Board to oversee the department’s progress. Military services and DOD agencies are to report to the board on their energy consumption during 2011 and on their projected consumption for the next five years, the plan says. The board will work with the services and agencies on actions needed to improve their consumption baselines.

Fast-forward to renewable energy

According to a statement from the White House on April 11, the DOD is making one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history, by developing a goal to deploy three GW of renewable energy, including solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal, on Army, Navy, and Air Force installations by 2025. That would be enough power to meet the needs of 750,000 homes.

According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, “This effort furthers the commitment President Obama made during the State of the Union (Address) to develop one gigawatt of renewable energy on Navy installations by 2020. The Air Force goal of obtaining 1 gigawatt by 2016 and the Army goal of obtaining 1 gigawatt by 2025 support the broader DOD goal to meet 25 percent of its energy needs with renewable energy by 2025.”

Together with emerging microgrid and storage technologies, reliable, local sources of renewable power will be used increase the energy security of U.S. military installations. To meet these goals at no additional cost to the taxpayer, DOD will leverage private sector financing through authorities such as power purchase agreements, enhanced use leasing, utility energy savings contracts, and energy savings performance contracts.

Testing new technologies

In brief, among the other energy conservation initiatives launched by the DOD and the White House this week are the following:

  • New lab for next-generation vehicles: On April 11, the Army opened a 30,000-square-foot research facility, called the Ground Systems Power and Energy Lab (GSPEL), at Detroit Arsenal that will develop cutting-edge energy technologies for the next generation of combat vehicles.
  • Green Warrior Convoy: As part of required road tests of technologies developed at the GSPEL, the Army will launch a Green Warrior Convoy of vehicles in 2013. The convoy—which will make stops at schools, community facilities, and military bases— will test and demonstrate the Army’s advanced vehicle power and technology including fuel cells, hybrid systems, battery technologies and alternative fuels.
  • Energy storage competition: Through its Advanced Research Projects Agency– Energy (ARPA-E), the Department of Energy will fund a $30 million research competition that will engage America’s brightest scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs in improving the capability of energy storage devices, including batteries. ARPA-E’s new “Advanced Management and Protection of Energy-storage Devices” (AMPED) program will promote the development of next-generation energy storage sensing and control technologies, including enhancing the performance of hybrid energy storage modules being developed by the DOD for war-fighting equipment.
  • Biuofuel development: As part of his Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, President Obama has challenged the Departments of Navy, Energy, and Agriculture to partner with private industry to accelerate the commercialization of drop-in biofuels for military and commercial use. The three departments have developed a plan to spur private industry and financiers to construct or retrofit multiple integrated biorefineries—capable of producing millions of gallons of fuel annually from domestic feedstocks at a competitive price.

Carney emphasized that the plans outlined this week in support of fossil fuel independence are part of the administration’s broader goals for the nation. “These new steps build on President Obama’s unwavering commitment to energy security for America’s warfighters, and to a sustained, comprehensive strategy to ensure a secure energy future for all Americans.”