SEIA report: U.S. military cuts casualties and costs with solar energy


Most of us don’t know the agonizing price that military families pay for fossil fuel. In fact, one out of eight U.S. casualties during Operation Iraqi Freedom was sustained by a soldier protecting a fuel supply convoy.

Cumulatively, over the past decade, more than 3,300 U.S. troops have died during attacks on fuel convoys. The reality is that supply fleets represent large and vulnerable targets for snipers and insurgents with improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—and fully 80% of all supply trucks operating in the region are carrying fuel to remote military outposts where it is not readily available.

These statistics, alone, would provide more than enough motivation for the military to switch to renewable energy—and that’s precisely what the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is doing, according to a new, first-of-its-kind research report just released by the Washington, DC-based Solar Energy Industries Association.

The study, "Enlisting the Sun: Powering the U.S. Military with Solar Energy," finds that, in recent years, each branch has set aggressive renewable energy targets. The DOD has committed to meet 25% of its energy needs with renewable energy by 2025; and the Navy, Army and Air Force all have implemented aggressive plans that are increasing the U.S. investment in solar and encouraging innovation in the industry. "This marks a seismic shift in Pentagon thinking about energy," noted the researchers.

According to the report, as of early this year, there were more than 130 MW of solar photovoltaic capacity powering Navy, Army, and Air Force bases in at least 31 U.S. states, as well as the District of Columbia.

Leading the way is the Navy, with more than 58 MW deployed at or near bases in 12 states and DC. The Air Force is number two, with 38 MW of installed solar capacity; while the Army has installed more than 36 MW.

Domestically, the three military branches have installed more solar power than 37 U.S. states have done to date, collectively. Each branch also plans to significantly expand its solar platforms— with solar accounting for more than half (58%) of forecasted DOD renewable energy deployments from 2012 to 2017; and more than 70% of all new Air Force renewable energy capacity during that time period. According to the researchers, that equates to about 1.1 GW of proposed new PV projects.

Rhone Resch, SEIA president and CEO, remarked, "Many of the technologies being used by the military today have been adapted for use from consumer products."

Seeing the light

As the world’s largest energy consumer, the DOD spent more than $20 billion (€15.5 billion) and burned over five billion gallons of oil during the past year. Today, the military buys gas for just over $1.00 (€0.78) a gallon, but getting that gasoline to forward bases in Afghanistan costs more than $400 (€310) per gallon.

Further complicating the situation, an aging American transmission network, global fuel price market volatility, and a dependence on foreign oil continue to put America’s mission-critical energy supply at risk.

On-site solar generation allows the military to be less reliant on legacy infrastructure and remote power plants. A solar energy system—coupled with battery backup, a diesel generator, or thermal energy storage—can operate in island mode. Thus, it can continue to provide power independent from the grid, offering an extra layer of redundancy and reducing the risk posed by blackouts and potential cyber-attacks.

Increasingly, the military is developing large, centralized utility scale solar projects on its bases; and smaller, distributed-generation (DG) systems on buildings and homes. Portable solar systems not only provide crucial backup on battlefields; they are being used to run “fixed-site locations”—many of which are very isolated and inaccessible, and depend on off-grid power. Solar reduces the need for traditional generators at these discreet locations and, in turn, limits the costly and dangerous fuel resupply missions that put personnel at risk.

Solar generation as a "potential life-saver"

In addition, companies have developed solar systems that can be attached to backpacks to operate global positioning systems (GPSs) and other equipment. These solar cells are much lighter and less restrictive than the current batteries that most infantry soldiers wear in combat.

Not only are all military branches using renewable energy on their bases, to keep functioning at full strength during times of emergency; but they are experimenting with biofuels in the nation’s airplanes and ships; and are looking at promising technology—including a mobile solar unit currently being tested on the front lines and cutting-edge solar-powered security systems. "We just cannot get the equipment fast enough, because so many units want it," Major Sean Sadlier of the Marines, deployed in Afghanistan, recently said.

Sadlier and Sgt. David Doty believe that the use of solar generation on the battlefield is "a potential life-saver." After testing the mobile solar unit, Doty commented, "Our generators typically use more than 20 gallons of fuel a day. We are down to 2.5 gallons a day." The Fulton, Missouri native added, "The system works amazing[ly]. By saving fuel for generators, it has cut back on the number of convoys—meaning fewer opportunities for one of our vehicles to hit an IED."

Finally, while fossil fuel energy costs continue to rise, the average price of a completed PV system has declined by more than 40% since the beginning of 2011. In most cases, the military can sign long-term contracts for solar energy that are below local retail rates for electricity. The researchers observed, "Long-term solar contracts allow the DOD to hedge against rising and volatile energy costs. Solar will save the military millions of dollars, which, in turn, can be reinvested to ensure more ready and able armed forces."

Edited by Vera von Kreutzbruck.

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