Many modern technologies were first designed out of necessity and urgency for the US military, from GPS to instant coffee, duct tape to drones. Advanced energy technologies appear no different, and the military's need for innovation is just as great. The US armed forces, often cited as the world's top institutional oil consumer, is continuing to invest heavily in solutions to use petroleum more wisely and improve readiness -- while balancing the need for cost-effectiveness. Speaking with EI New Energy at the Pentagon, two top energy and sustainability officials for the US Army said the need for energy innovations is only increasing in the modern era, explaining that they group their strategy under two umbrellas.
One is installation energy, where the Army is actively working to improve resilience and reduce grid reliance at its 156 Army installations and more than 1,000 National Guard and Reserve Centers worldwide. The other focus area is operational energy needed to power tactical vehicles and equip soldiers in the field. Here, the Army is developing solutions to cut down on dangerous refueling convoys and make soldier battery packs lighter and more versatile.
Consuming fewer oil products -- or using them more strategically -- is viewed as crucial for reducing the risks borne by fuel convoys, a frequent target during recent US missions abroad. During operations in Afghanistan, one in every 24 fuel convoys suffered casualties, by some estimates. "In some of the recent conflicts, a lot of the deaths and injuries were actually in the resupply efforts, and the modern Army needs a lot of resupply," said Jack Surash, acting deputy assistant secretary of the Army for energy and sustainability. "If you have a tank column moving out, you need to follow with fuel trucks. Same with any motorized vehicles in the Army inventory," said Jordan Gillis, the Army's assistant secretary for installations, energy and environment. "The extent that we can help alleviate that with alternatives to petroleum is a win for us."
As the Army eyes specific alternatives, "the big deal is energy density. That's what the commanders in the field need," Surash said. Here, fuel-cell energy is particularly attractive. The Army has partnered with GM on the ZH2, a hefty off-road fuel-cell truck, as well as the Surus, a versatile fuel-cell vehicle unit that can be transformed to suit a variety of purposes (NE Aug.2'18; NE Oct.3'13). The Army is also testing a fuel cell powered by JP8 jet fuel, and has used a methanol-powered fuel cell in some smaller unmanned aerial systems. Yet steep challenges must be overcome before fuel cells can be deployed at a large scale. "The issue we have is the source of hydrogen," Gillis said. "The Army is typically very large, and very fast-moving, so the logistics of the supply chain is a big deal."
Biofuels, as well, "provide some diversity of supply," Surash said, noting that the Army is hoping to be as versatile and diverse as possible in its vehicle fuel options. Here, cost is integral: By law, the Army and other branches of the military must use fuels that are equally or less costly than conventional petroleum fuels -- a topic that surfaced as a political flash point under the Obama administration, particularly for the Navy (NE May24'12).
Even as the Army seeks alternative fuels, petroleum fuels are still the backbone energy supply. With that in mind, the Army is working on vehicle automation to reduce casualties. "A more autonomous-equipped convoy would help us with soldier vulnerability," Surash said, noting that the first applications will likely involve minimal manning but future applications could be completely unmanned, depending on how the technology develops. With similar motivations, the Army is also exploring unmanned helicopter refueling. "Autonomous, remote fueling locations could significantly reduce the manpower required to conduct our aviation refueling mission," Surash said. "Our current practice requires a lot of manpower and exposure, so this would remove the soldiers and protect them." Asked what Army technologies now under development could yield cross-over applications for the general public or the private sector, Surash pointed to automation first. "I don't think it's very far off that we'll see autonomous convoys on [US interstate highway] I-81," Surash said. The Army is also testing automated, connected controls and sensors to more accurately measure fuel supply, giving a company or battalion greater information on how much fuel it's consuming and how much it needs. This cuts down on error and enhances predictability, Surash said.
At installations, the Army is ramping up efforts to power itself independently of the grid in case of disruptions, whether natural disasters or enemy threats. The Army last year directed installations to achieve 14 days' worth of independent energy capacity in support of critical missions, if not more, if the local grid goes off line. To that end, a multi-fueled Army installation in Hawaii now provides 30 days of backup energy using diesel and biodiesel, for example. "The idea is not to light up the installation like a Christmas tree while everyone else is in the dark," Gillis explained, noting that non-essential missions may be dismissed during outages. "The 14 days focus on the critical missions. So if your job is to push out a brigade combat team to the point where they can deploy, that's the mission we want to ensure gets done." The Army is using an all-of-the-above approach depending on what's available in given regions, whether it's solar, wind, hydro, biomass or fossil fuels, often in combination, Gillis explained.
Asked to highlight a success story, Gillis pointed to falling battery costs, which have reinforced the resiliency of the Army's solar installations. "Without the battery storage, if the sun isn't shining, solar plants don't do a whole lot to enable resilience," Gillis said. For example, a large installation in Oklahoma is planning to pair a 50 megawatt gas peaking plant with a 20 MW solar farm plus battery storage, providing multiple layers of resiliency, Gillis said.
Looking fifteen years out, the Army views small modular nuclear reactors of less than 300 MW as a promising technology -- especially very small modular reactors of less than 10 MW (VSMRs). "We have some isolated bases that have either high energy costs or high energy loads that wouldn't be well served by wind or solar," Gillis said. Indeed, the latest Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress directs the Departments of Energy and Defense to produce a report within a year exploring the viability of VSMRs for Defense installations, Gillis noted. Of course, the benefits of small reactors would depend on what the local alternatives are, with renewables creating intermittency hurdles and coal and gas seen as more prone to price swings. "Nuclear provides that base load, reliable capability to critical missions where energy disruptions are just not an option," Gillis said.
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