In the legendary competition between various branches of the Armed Services, the one being played out right now is probably a first. The Marines and the Army have each embarked on ambitious portable solar power programs that demonstrate just how far solar energy has come since the flower power era. As for getting any of this new technology into civilian hands, it stands to reason that if solar power can hold its own in a combat zone, where life literally depends on it, then it can turn the trick just about anywhere.
Marines and Portable Solar Power
A couple of years ago we noticed that the Marines were experimenting with portable solar panels that were designed to fold out of oversized metal suitcases for easy set-up in the field. That initiative was called the Ground Renewable Expeditionary ENergy System (GREENS).
The ultimate goal, according to ONR, is to ensure that the Marine Corps can use renewable resources for all of its electrical needs in the field (fuel for vehicles is another matter) by 2025.
To that end, ONR has enlisted Raytheon, Battelle (the research organization that manages several Department of Energy laboratories) and the solar company Emcore to develop easily transportable hybrid electricity systems that can switch seamlessly between solar power and other fuels.
Army and Portable Solar Power
Meanwhile, the Army has been tracking solar along similar lines. A couple of years ago we noticed that the Army was distributing portable solar power-in-a-backpack kits to Soldiers in Afghanistan.
Ramping it up to the next level, this past summer the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team was trained to use a flexible fuel, smart microgrid field energy system under the Energy to the Edge program. Supplied by the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, the system is designed to reduce dependence on energy and water transportation for remote bases.
Energy to the Edge also improves overall operational efficiency by cutting down down on noise and maintenance issues, compared to petroleum-fueled generators.
Another new Army portable solar initiative that could have a far-ranging impact on civilian energy is the Smart and Green Energy at Base Camps program (SAGE), which launched last summer.
SAGE consists of a 150-person, 10-acre model base camp that can be packed up and shipped in a single cargo aircraft, and set up in four hours.
For that, you get high-efficiency shelters, solar hot water heating, a graywater reycling system, a smart microgrid and other conservation measures. Of particular interest is the fact that all of the equipment is current, off-the-shelf technology.
Energy to the Public
Among the many overlapping angles in the Marine Corps and Army portable/transportable solar initiatives, the one factor that stands out is training and education.
GREENS, Renewable Sustainable Expeditionary Power, Energy to the Edge, and SAGE all rely on a heightened sense of energy awareness in order to get the most out of the new equipment.
One of the clearest expressions of that concept comes from Col. Peter A. Newell, director of the Rapid Equipping Force, who described the awareness of energy management on a Soldier-by-Soldier basis as a “cultural change” for the Army.
The overarching goal of all this is to cut down on the high cost of transporting fossil fuels into combat zones, not just in terms of money but also in human lives. In Newell’s world, each Soldier is highly attuned to the fact that all energy used in the field has a human face.
Military technology has a way of trickling into the civilian world, and if you translate that into civilian terms, you’ve got a culture in which households and communities have more control over the energy they use to get through the day, and more alternatives to using fossil fuels.
If a little friendly competition between the Army and Marine Corps can get us closer to that day, bring it on.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.