Army And Marines Need to Go Fossil Fuel-Free

By Paul McLeary
Washington
In 2006, a Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement written by the top ground
commander in western Iraq wound its way through the bureaucracy of Multinational
Force-Iraq to Central Command and finally to the Pentagon’s Rapid Equipping
Force (REF) at Fort Belvoir, Va. There it was handed off to then-Col. Dan Nolan,
who says that when it reached his desk, the attitude of those who reviewed the
request was “this is kind of weird,” since no one had “ever seen anything like
it.”

The request wasn’t for anything that would allow troops to engage the enemy,
but for gear that would help Americans stay away from roadside bombs. Marine
Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, commander of Multinational Force-West, had had
enough of his troops being blown up while driving fuel-laden supply convoys to
small outposts. He requested a “renewable and self-sustainable energy solution
. . . to augment our use of fossil fuels with renewable energy, such as
photovoltaic solar panels and wind turbines.” He wanted troops to produce their
own energy and be freed from dangers of constant resupply.

While Zilmer’s request for 183 commercial renewable-energy systems would be
denied, his request woke the Pentagon up to the energy needs that small,
dispersed units have and the huge material and human costs of keeping them
supplied.

That initial request was modest, but the Army and Marine Corps are now
doubling down on their commitment to renewable energy on the battlefield. Both
services are shipping everything from hybrid generators for base camps to small
collapsible solar panels that recharge handheld electronics to Afghanistan this
year. There has been little hoopla over the deployment of some of these
renewable technologies, but if they prove out, 2011 may be a major turning point
in how the U.S. military meets battlefield energy needs in the future.

After taking the lead on Zilmer’s request, Nolan—who now runs a consulting
business—helped form the Power Surety Task Force, a group within REF that would
briefly take the lead in renewable-energy research for the Army. Among other
projects, the task force developed the Transportable Hybrid Electric Power
Station, which never proved out but spurred the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency to allocate $30 million to the Army to develop the Hybrid
Intelligent Power (HI-Power) generator, a microgrid system under development by
Lockheed Martin.

A microgrid consists of a series of generators ganged to operate as one
“smart” unit, producing as much energy as needed at any given time. This reduces
fuel consumption—instead of small buildings running their own generators 24 hr.
a day whether needed or not, they all work together, turning on and off as
necessary to meet demand.

The Army has been testing large-scale microgrid technology at Fort Irwin,
Calif., for some time, and will ship a smaller system to Afghanistan this
summer. Col. Paul Roege of the U.S. Army Capabilities Integration Center tells
DTI that a megawatt’s worth of generators are going to a large forward operating
base (FOB)—a source says it’s Bagram Air Base—to see how it fares in an
expeditionary environment. The Army expects to save “10‑20% of fuel” currently
burned by inefficient generators. When dealing with the numbers the U.S.
military deals with in Afghanistan—consuming 50 million gal. of fuel per month—a
10-20% reduction in fuel is significant.

There are 22 minigrids in Afghanistan, which differ from the larger
microgrids in that instead of tying together multiple 60-kw generators over a
large area, each consists of one 500-kw generator, which supplies power to
several structures. According to Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the
Army, energy and sustainability, in places where minigrids are deployed, fuel
consumption has gone down 50%, “saving thousands of gallons a week.”

But it’s not just energy grids for large FOBs that the Army is deploying to
Afghanistan—it’s also providing tactical solutions. Four Brigade Combat Teams
(BCT)—starting with the 173rd Airborne BCT in July 2010—have been supplied with
the Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System, a small, flexible, 62-watt solar
panel that has adaptors to charge military standard batteries. While there are
only 100 in theater, Kidd says 600 are “in the pipeline” for deployment. With
some Army batteries weighing more than 2 lb. each, or soldiers having to carry
hundreds of commercial batteries on long missions, being able to recharge a
single battery with a small solar panel would take a huge load off infantrymen
who already hump packs weighing in excess of 100 lb. on long missions. It also
allows a small unit to reduce the time it runs gas-guzzling generators to
recharge a growing array of electrically powered gear.

The 1st Btn., 16th Infantry Regt., 1st Infantry Div. deployed to Afghanistan
this year with alternate and renewable power sources focused principally on
their battery load. Kristopher Gardner, deputy director of technology in the
Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisitions, Logistics and
Technology, tells DTI that in training, the 1/16 evaluated everything from
300-watt fuel cells to rechargeable batteries, power managers and individual
fuel cells, and their deployment marks the first time soldier-portable fuel
cells are in theater.

When looking at how much oil the Defense Department uses, any saving, even at
the end of a long, expensive supply chain, is important. The Defense Department
spent $15 billion for oil in 2010, with 75% going to operations. The largest
consumers of fuel on the battlefield are electrical generators, and due to the
recent surge in American forces, Kidd says that from 2009-10, fuel costs in
Afghanistan increased 60%—largely due to the use of more inefficient generator
power. Given numbers like that, and with a serious budget crunch coming, it’s
easy to see why the services are scrambling to find savings in renewable energy.

Sharon Burke, assistant defense secretary for operational energy plans and
programs, a new office at the Pentagon, recently said on Capitol Hill that
despite those numbers, “we don’t have good data on power use at the source.” In
other words, the military isn’t good at keeping tabs on where and how it uses
energy.

The problem in deployed environments is that the military doesn’t have a
process to collect fuel data in theater. It is trying to rectify that by sending
a bar code technology called Tactical Fuel Manager Defense to Afghanistan to
collect such data. Kidd says that the system is about 50% fielded, with full
deployment to be completed by year’s end. He says the system provides an
“automated, tactical, operational-level picture of what the fuel is being used
for” across the battlefield.

The fuel manager system is an example of how the military is only now—after a
decade of conflict—paying close attention to how much fuel it burns in theater,
and to the fact that it doesn’t have a handle on how that fuel is being used.
Roege adds that the Army is starting to study how its contractors keep fuel logs
so “we can tap into that kind of capability, collect the data and figure out how
you report it, who needs to see it, what analysis needs to be done, how you tie
that into your decision processes.”

Of 50 million gal. of fuel per month that U.S. forces consume in Afghanistan,
200,000 gal. a day are used by the Marines. For a force that wants to be more
expeditionary and act like less of a second land army, this tether is
unacceptable.

Enter India Co. of the 3/5 Marines. Having returned this spring from a
seven-month tour in Helmand Province, the unit managed to demonstrate the
feasibility of a suite of renewable-energy systems that in some cases reduced
the fuel use of generators to 2 gal. a day from 20.

Called exFOB, the system uses a variety of devices to convert solar energy to
power to charge everything from battery packs to cooling, heating and electrical
systems in living quarters and operation centers. The system proved so
successful that two small patrol bases in Afghanistan are operating entirely on
renewable energy, with a 90% reduction in fuel at a third base. One platoon was
even able to conduct a three-week foot patrol without battery resupply, reducing
the load on those Marines by 700 lb.

But this was only the beginning. Spurred on by high fuel costs and a desire
to become reacquainted with its expeditionary roots, the Marines’ Expeditionary
Energy Office, led by Col. Bob Charette, is taking the success of exFOB and
running with it.

Charette tells DTI that India Co. was a small but significant part of the
Marines’ plans. Due to their success, “we wrote requirements” and have “LED
lights, shelter liners and Spaces (Solar Portable Alternative Communication
Energy System—a portable solar panel that recharges batteries) on their way to
Afghanistan. We’re also looking at accelerating the Ground Renewable
Expeditionary Energy Network (a larger solar display that can power a platoon’s
command center) as a result of what we learned with India Co.”

The Marines have more than 400 Spaces systems in Afghanistan, and are
acquiring more as quickly as possible. The service is also sending hybrid
10-30-kw generators to Afghanistan this summer to act as a microgrid for
battalion-level operations. The hybrid generators grew out of testing the Corps
did last summer at Twentynine Palms, Calif., to make a battalion’s “command and
control system as renewable and energy-efficient as possible,” Charette
says.

During the tests, “a few of the vendors were able to save 70-90% of fuel
against program-of-record generators,” Charette adds, although he doesn’t know
if they’re going to get the same results in the field. Still, he is confident
that “we’ll have a battalion-level capability in less than a year,” while
stressing that for the Corps, this isn’t a one-time thing. This is how Marines
are going to deploy, Charette says.

“As we learn, we’re writing requirement documents, making acquisition
decisions and rearranging our funding decisions based on all of this,” Charette
says. Systems like Spaces “give us a lot of flexibility at the tactical edge,”
and while “we’re building the airplane in flight a little bit,” he notes that
“we moved around a lot of money to get all these battalions the same gear that
3/5 has.” The cost, moreover, is relatively small given the potential for fuel
savings. The cost of testing and supplying this gear to theater has been about
$3.5 million, while the hardware sent to Afghanistan with India Co. costs less
than $500,000.

At small outposts, Marines often use idling vehicles as power-generation
sources, using up as much fuel as a generator. To reduce that, the Corps
recently issued a request for information for “any other automotive technologies
such as cold and hot weather idle-free solutions for vehicle climate control,
reduction of parasitic loads, or any other automotive solutions designed to
improve vehicle fuel efficiency.” Charette says that in August the Corps is
conducting exFOB 2011 tests to look at concentrated solar energy and other
solutions for exportable power of vehicles at idle.

Budgetary pressure, lessons learned from the field and simple logistical
common sense have led the ground services to embrace renewable energy where and
when they can. But “the big gaping hole is that the Defense Department has no
energy strategy,” warns Christine Parthemore, a fellow at the Center for a New
American Security. “There’s no overarching, long-term strategy” for energy
efficiency at the Pentagon. Contributing to the problem with fuel use in Iraq
and Afghanistan, she points out, are the expensive, all-inclusive, long-term
fuel and supply contracts in the theaters that often impose “distinct
disincentives for conserving fuel or using it efficiently.” The Army
particularly “felt like their hands were tied” when it came to trying new things
when so much was invested in logistics contracts.

The budget environment, however, “is adding a whole new interest in solving
the energy question in a more serious way and much more broadly within the
department than 3-5 years ago,” she adds. Kidd says that if the microgrid
experiment is successful, “we envision a day when microgrids are standard
practice in what we do.” These technologies, along with the Marine Corps’ plan
to rely on liquid fuel for vehicles only by 2025, point the way to further
innovation.

But to tie these programs together, as well as those in the Navy and Air
Force, as Burke and her office are tasked to do, the Defense Department still
needs an overall strategy for energy use—one that is overdue.

Photo: USMC

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