Solar energy can make American armed forces more mobile and independent from traditional sources of energy. It means that they can act in more safe conditions, which is one of the most important features for success.
Powering modern warfare is an aspect of defense funding that not many Americans think about on a daily basis. How do you keep communications equipment and tactical devices running in the field? How do you deal with transporting batteries, generators, and enough fuel to run an entire mission off base? A recent article by Brian Robinson in Defense Systems highlights a new technology that will give Marines stationed in war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq a whole new way to keep powered up on the move.
The Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (Greens) uses arrays of solar panels and rechargeable batteries to provide an average continuous output of 300 watts, enough to power most of the essential communications and targeting electronics that Marine forces would need in remote locations. It can provide as much as 1,000 watts of power.
While Marines will benefit from this new solar technology, the Navy is actually developing it. The Navy signed a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Agriculture last month to start working on renewable energy and biofuels technology. Strategically, U.S. armed forces would like to be as independent as possible, for obvious reasons; and by 2020, “at least 40 percent of the Navy’s total energy consumption should be from alternative sources”, said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.
Isn’t a kit of solar panels and batteries just as awkward logistically to move around as generators? No, says the Office of Naval Research. And not all of a GREENS kit needs to go on each mission. “The GREENS toolkit feature allows Marines to enter their expected mission profile and determine which components of the GREENS system they will need to take with them. GREENS can be rapidly deployed and is HMMWV transportable.”
No new technology is perfect. Solar cells are less efficient at high temperatures, and GREENS can only produce about 85 percent of its 300 continuous watts at temperatures higher than 116 Fahrenheit. However, over the next two years, the Navy hopes to have the system operating at 100 percent capacity under any conditions. As in many other arenas of technology–communications, most notably–military and defense R&D may actually drive advances in the field at large. Improving efficiency is one half of the solar industry’s two main goals right now; the other is driving down cost.
Transporting fuel in Afghanistan and Iraq along some of the riskier routes can raise fuel costs from a regular price of $1 per gallon to about $400, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway told a recent Navy energy forum. If an airlift is necessary, the price can reach $1,000.
Renewable energy in the military isn’t just showing up in products for deployed forces, either. Just to name a few other projects: a Marine Corps base in Georgia is working on a 2 MW power waste-to-energy power plant; the largest Marine base in the country, California’s 29 Palms, has had a 1,291 kw solar panel array providing power since 2003 (a BP Solar installation); the Miramar, CA Marine Air Station will be using solar carports by this spring; and just days ago,the Department of Defense awarded a total of $100,000,000 in PPA-funded renewable energy contracts (including solar).