For the US military, reducing energy consumption and employing green technologies has little to do with saving money or the planet, and even less to do with politics. It's about a broader mission that has always defined the U.S. Armed Forces—protecting Americans at home and abroad. Increased access to clean and reliable energy means increased efficiencies and performance of all aspects of operations, including base and facility operations, transportation and portable soldier power.
“It’s not about reducing energy usage and the overall bills, but about saving lives,” says Colonel Peter Newell, director of the Army's Rapid Equipping Force (REF), an organization that measures the effectiveness of equipment in relation to soldiers on the ground. “At the tactical edge, we don’t look at energy efficiency in terms of saving gallons, we count it in lives saved. That’s really what we focus on."
Newell and REF have been working with a number of departments within the military along with the private sector and universities to find cutting-edge solutions for products to support the Energy to the Tactical Edge (2E) initiative, a subset of the Army's larger Net Zero program. REF's Net Zero solutions packages, provided to companies deploying to Afghanistan, focus on three types of solutions: soldier power, fixed site power and mobile power. As soldiers are given increasingly more energy-reliant equipment to carry, Swipes—a harness that provides central power—are being used to prevent having to carry additional batteries. The batteries are equally reliant, but weigh 33 percent less than what soldiers were required to carry before. Naturally, if a soldier has less to carry around and more reliable sources of power to rely on, he/she has a greater chance of survival.
As for mobile power, special mission equipment like robotic vehicles are being deployed, with battery charging capability provided by generators, fuel cells and solar panels. For fixed-site power, systems consisting of battery banks and solar arrays reduce the size of previous generators at remote bases, while improving efficiency. The new systems reduce the number of trips the larger bases need to make to remote operating bases for maintenance and resupplying. That is especially critical for areas like Afghanistan, where troops are drawing down, but spreading out.
“You now have more space to cover, and fewer guys,” Col. Newell explained to Forbes. “The same soldiers who have to move fuel back and forth to the remote bases are the ones who are supposed to be working with the Afghan army, securing various areas. These guys are doing the yeoman’s work of force, and we’re getting more and more requests from commanders to help make outposts and OPs [observation posts] more self-sustaining so that they’re not having to go out there and resupply all the time. Resupply is a combat operation, and it takes away combat power that’s supposed to be doing other things.”
More recently, the Navy started using a 300-watt solar battery generator, or Ground Renewable Expeditionary system (GREENS), which utilizes rechargeable batteries and solar power. That ultimately allows Marines in remote areas to have continuous supplies of power, reducing the amount of fuel needed to be transported to dangerous combat areas.
Vehicle convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq face incredible threats in fuel resupply transportation, which has accounted for thousands of deaths over the course of the war. According to a 2009 report from Deloitte called “Energy security—America's best defense; a study of increasing dependence on fossil fuels in wartime, and its contribution to even higher casualty rates,” the development and use of alternative energy can directly reduce casualties during wartime. One casualty corresponds with every 24 fuel resupply convoys, or every 55,000 barrels of oil burned in Afghanistan, according to the report. “Greater range contributes to operational mission effectiveness and logistics sustainability; fewer fuel convoys reduce vulnerability, while providing cost and fuel savings, and freeing-up military resources for other missions,” the report concludes.
As Iran reaps revenues from the global petroleum trade, the US military's reliance on those resources are essentially keeping a regime in power that is, in turn, directly targeting American soldiers. That's why Jon Gensler, a former Army officer and Iraq war vet, works on developing solar installations for various Army bases today. In an interview with Forbes, he explains his take on the importance of reducing the military's dependence on fossil fuels:
“Any reduction in the use of fossil fuels and you’re lowering the risk of casualties,” Gensler continues. “You’re saving American lives and you’re also allowing thousands of soldiers to be repurposed to something that’s not driving a fuel truck. So there are operational efficiencies there, too. All of these things come into play.”
Energy efficiency has become more of a strategic and operational necessity than anything. Perhaps environmental advocates and the US military have a lot in common after all—they both want to save the world.