By Ron Houle
Because the Defense Department is the nation’s single largest consumer of energy, it is taking aggressive measures to improve energy efficiency. That effort cuts across every application of energy consumption, including installations, ships, aircraft, combat vehicles and support equipment.
The work even reaches down to the level of the individual soldier. New technologies are being fielded for recharging batteries and operating radios and other communications gear. It's clear that DOD is committed to reducing fuel consumption by inserting technologies in every branch of service, and the department will be a leader in technologies that other federal departments and commercial markets will adopt.
The evidence of that commitment is visible with the establishment of the department’s newly created office for operational energy plans and programs. The office's first director, Sharon Burke, began work recently. Burke describes operational energy as the energy used to move, train and sustain weapons, forces and equipment for military operations. As much as 70 percent of all the energy consumed by the department fits into this definition.
Although delivering fuel has always been a problem, our war in Afghanistan is a stark reminder that this period of sustained conflict will often have us operating in austere environments. Harsh terrain, troops and equipment widely dispersed, underdeveloped road networks and lack of nearby ports amplify the problems for reliable distribution.
Let’s look at one mission area that is already seeing the benefits of increased efficiencies.
Power generation in the tactical environment has always been a huge consumer of fuel. Forward operating bases, command posts of all sizes, isolated life support areas, communications nodes and other facilities all need reliable power when commercial grids aren't available. Here, we are seeing all of the services examining ways to distribute power to the battlefield consumer while simultaneously reducing fuel consumption. DOD has determined that the single greatest consumer of fuel on the battlefield is for power generation — far exceeding the requirements for vehicles and aircraft. As such, it is imperative to focus on this area to make significant progress.
In the Army, the Communication-Electronics Research and Development Command has sponsored projects to investigate near-term applications for mobile, networked power grids for command posts and forward operating bases. The Marine Corps’ Energy Office has sponsored similar projects under its test bed named the Experimental Forward Operating Base. That work has been especially promising. With a networked grid, the supply of power more evenly matches the demand, so generators are being turned off and on as power requirements change. That approach to power management for a mobile grid can occur automatically, with remote monitoring and controls, and can even have a Web-enabled capability to monitor loads and predict maintenance cycles.
More improvements in the delivery of battlefield power are possible when other technologies join a grid that is usually limited to diesel-powered generators. Renewable energy sources can contribute to the grid. Deployable solar panels can be arrayed, sheets of photovoltaic can be used for tactical shelters and better insulation can be added to shelters. These are all parts of a total solution which, when combined with a networked grid of generators, can reduce fuel consumption by 50 percent or more.
From biofuel for our jet fighters to man-portable solar arrays, DOD is aggressively seeking solutions for better energy security. Many of those solutions apply technologies available today or in the near term and only require the support, resources and integration into existing equipment. Exciting times are ahead, and we will soon be seeing a wide application of innovative alternatives to how the military consumes energy.