Army focuses energy investments on soldier power

Friday - 8/1/2014, 5:02am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD Reporter, Federal News Radio

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The Army says it's extremely eager to adopt new technologies that are emerging through commercial industry to cut its energy use and save money. But with only a few exceptions, the alternative energy industry should not look to the military as a cash cow to initiate new innovations in the energy space.

The Army has pointed billions of dollars of its budget toward a wide array of initiatives to lower its energy use and switch to renewable fuels and energy- saving technologies. But officials say that for the most part, the current set of programs will end up being money-savers in the long run, and will make use of innovations the private sector already has developed.

In other words, the Army is pointing a relative few number of dollars toward technology that will make DoD a game-changer in the energy business.

But there are some exceptions to that rule, said Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy and sustainability, and there are a handful of areas in which the Army sees itself as a potential leader in new technologies: Higher-capacity batteries and better technologies to rapidly charge them are one example that's captured the Army's interest. This is because soldiers' backpacks are too heavy. That load has grown in almost direct proportion to the various communications equipment soldiers now carry, from 40 pounds at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan to somewhere between 120-and-140 pounds now — of that 70-to-90 pounds is made up of water and batteries.

"Ideally, we'd like to increase the power density of the batteries on our soldiers and go to wireless induction power transfer so that a soldier just walks into a tent, a vehicle or a space and their battery just gets charged up and then they're able to power their peripherals without wires or connections," Kidd said. "So there's some science and technology spending there, and also some in the engine space."

Not a venture capitalist

For engines, the Army also is funding work that's aimed at more energy-efficient propulsion within helicopters via its Improved Turbine Engine Program.

"It will improve fuel efficiency by 25 percent, but candidly, that's not even why we're investing in that engine. It also extends the range of our helicopters and doubles the lift," Kidd said.

Beyond a handful of examples like those, the military is not going to be a massive investment engine in the energy space, Kidd told an energy forum on Capitol Hill Thursday, just in case the private alternative energy industry was still pinning its hopes on a huge infusion of DoD spending. Likewise, he sought to dispel the notion — expressed at several points during Congressional hearings over the past few months — that the military is diverting large amounts of operational funds into "green" initiatives.

"There's a proposition around energy that's often heard in this town that the military is going to drive a huge technological change and wind up with new products like Kevlar. We are not going to drive technology change in the renewable energy space or the energy management space unless it furthers our mission," Kidd said. "We have all sorts of firms that come to us and say, ‘Please just give us $30 million just so we can start our first factory.' But the Army is not a venture capital site for new technology, unless it contributes to our mission."

The Army is, however, perfectly happy to buy and utilize energy-saving technologies that already have been developed and are proved by private industry, as it did when it decided to install microgrid technology at every installation and forward operating base in Afghanistan.

"Seventy-to-80 percent of the weight of our resupply convoys used to be taken up by either fuel or water, and of the fuel, half of it went to generators, and half of that fuel was unnecessary. It was either lost through inefficiencies or poor power management," Kidd said. "So in the last two years we've deployed tactical power management systems in every single one of our combat outposts. We made the case for that not so much because of the fuel saved or the dollar amount of the fuel. The case we made was the number of soldiers we were able to return to the fight. Since we had fewer soldiers and aircraft involved in the resupply mission, we were able to turn that into combat power instead."

Capacity and cost are most important

On its domestic bases, the Army's also enthusiastic about alternative energy technologies, but Kidd said the service only is embarking on those renewable projects in cases where they can both deliver a supply of electricity that the Army views as more secure than the civilian power grid, and also doesn't cost the service any more money than it's already paying for electricity from local electric providers.

Most of those arrangements have come via power purchase agreements that involve either the local power utility, outside investors, or both. The ultimate arrangement in most cases is that the Army turns over unused real estate to let private companies build solar or other renewable facilities at their own expense, and the government agrees to buy the power those facilities generate.

"Some members of Congress have put forward the notion that the Army is paying billions of dollars for renewables at the expense of spending on training and readiness for our combat forces. That's a false proposition," Kidd said. "We have a utility bill of $35 billion over the next 25 years. The way we're paying for our renewable projects is to take a portion of that bill, bringing some of that bill forward today to pay for some capital investments and paying it back over time. All of our renewable projects are at or below what we're buying from the electric grid. It's going to save the Army hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of these projects, so the notion that we're sacrificing readiness for renewable is absolutely wrong. We're using renewable power to build readiness."

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