The Pentagon is a couple weeks away from announcing the winners of tens of millions of dollars in grants that aim to use military bases as a test bed for new energy technologies.
The Defense Department first released the presolicitation notice for the installation energy test bed effort in February. DoD leaders at the time planned to make grants to companies and other federal agencies of $20 million to test new energy concepts on military bases, including smart microgrids and energy storage technology, renewable energy generation and advanced technologies to improve building energy efficiency.
But Dorothy Robyn, the department’s deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, said DoD is ready to make awards worth $30 million within the coming weeks. She said the department was “overwhelmed” by 600 high-quality proposals.
“This test bed program is my highest priority,” she said. “I think it’s so fundamental to what we should be doing and what DoD uniquely can do. We’ve done this on the environmental technology side by changing the face of environmental cleanup in just this way. I think we’ll do the same in the energy area.”
DoD already is testing several technologies at U.S. bases, including everything from new implementations of wind and solar power generation to generating electricity from landfill gas.
Robyn spoke Tuesday at a Pentagon forum set up to mark National Energy Awareness Month, as did Gen. Martin Dempsey, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He threw his considerable clout behind the department’s renewable energy and efficiency efforts. Not just on bases, but on battlefields.
“Without improving our energy security, we are not merely standing still on energy security, we’re falling behind,” he said. “The department’s energy culture has changed dramatically since I was a young Army armor officer, and that’s a very good thing. But we can and must do better, particularly in pushing progress out to the field, to the flight line and into the fleet.”
Changing the culture
Even if the department’s energy culture has changed over the decades, its demand for energy has skyrocketed. In World War II, DoD used fuel at the rate of one gallon per soldier per day. Today that number is 22 gallons per soldier per day.
“We’re also more expeditionary than ever,” he said. “These energy needs require a vast, yet vulnerable supply chain that our enemies target.”
In forward-operating locations, the department is pursuing at least two broad efforts to cut down the long logistical tail of fuel convoys.
One is simply using energy more efficiently. Another is producing electricity at the site where it’s consumed. That would help eliminate a problem that Dempsey said troops face in Afghanistan: forces are constrained in where and how quickly they can move by the need to be tethered to energy sources.
“For a 72-hour mission, today’s infantry platoon carries 400 pounds of batteries to power their equipment,” he said. “Night vision devices, communication gear, GPS, and flashlights add up to 400 pounds of batteries for 30 people for a 72 hour mission. If you want to find a U.S. Army patrol in Afghanistan, simply follow the trail of batteries and you’ll eventually come upon them.”
But both the Army and Marine Corps have had some success with the battery problem. Both services are deploying roll-up solar energy collecting blankets that can recharge a half-a-dozen small electronic devices in as little as four hours.
And to cut down on the amount of liquid fuel that needs to be trucked in across dangerous supply lines, they’re working to eliminate fuel that gets wasted through inefficient use of electric generators.
Col. Peter Newell, director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, which is in charge of quickly getting new technology into the hands of soldiers, said that on a recent trip to a forward operating base in Afghanistan, his team found five separate generators inefficiently humming away.
Newell said the Army was wasting gas by running full-time to supply electricity to appliances, lights and air conditioning units that needed only a fraction of the juice the units were churning out. In one case, a 60,000-watt generator was burning fuel so that it could operate a 750-watt water pump to supply water to showers and latrines. Newell said practices that require the delivery of fuel that’s ultimately used inefficiently isn’t just a waste of energy, it’s a waste of combat power.
“The tactical edge of the battlefield is where the challenges of delivering water and fuel are the hardest,” he said. “At the tactical edge, the burden of that delivery falls on the soldiers themselves. It takes combat power to deliver sustainment to those units. That combat power is taken out of the hide of missions that are designed to do other things. In many cases, delivering those resources to the units comes at a detriment to force protection and operations that are really designed to stop insurgents. At the tactical edge, we will likely measure the savings we get in energy in terms of lives, not gallons.”
Army starting to make progress
But with generators and fuel, too, the military is making progress.
The Army has begun linking up the generators on its forward-operating bases into smart microgrid systems. This approach automatically turns on or off generators as they’re needed, and the electrical load is balanced between them. And, Newell said, they’re also coming up with ways to keep leaders from bringing along more fuel and generators than they actually need.
“We have even gone to the point of developing smartphone apps that allow a commander to look at what he’s got to power — say, four computers, two flat screens and a coffee pot — and it’ll spit out a solution that says you need 1.2 kilowatts,” he said. “He can then look at his logistics guys and tell them not to bring along that five kilowatt generator. I just need this little one, and a small can of gas. I think culturally, it’s been a huge change for us.”
The Pentagon has taken on several new efforts to tackle its energy use lately, driven in part by the $15 billion fuel bill it paid last year. DoD’s fuel bill was even higher in 2008 — $20 billion — when global energy prices spiked.
DoD published its first operational energy plan this year. It also signed a memorandum of understanding last year with the Energy Department to share resources and research toward energy security.
And the individual military services are taking on their own efforts. The Navy, for example, released a request for information to industry this summer that contemplates spending $500 million on research and development for a new generation of biofuels to replace jet fuel and diesel.
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.