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Clean Power army uses solar power at base camps

Published on August 22nd, 2012 | by Tina Casey


A Solar Powered Army of Energy Managers

August 22nd, 2012 by  

A dustup over the U.S. Navy’s biofuel program hogged the media spotlight this spring, but under the radar, the Army has been pursuing an ambitious alternative energy program of its own. Aside from $7 billion in cutting-edge and utility-scale projects, the Army’s initiatives include a modest but critical experiment in energy conservation at base camps.

army uses solar power at base camps

Smart and Green Energy for Base Camps

The Army had been slowly but steadily introducing portable solar power and other new energy equipment at forward operating bases on a piecemeal basis. The new initiative, called SAGE for Smart and Green Energy at Base Camps, steps it up a notch with an integrated, camp-wide approach that relies on a heavy dose of user engagement.

SAGE got under way last summer at the Base Camp Integration Laboratory at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. The 150-person camp consists of a 10-acre compound that includes energy efficient shelters and other buildings, waste reduction systems, solar power for hot water, graywater recycling, and a power management system that includes a microgrid and energy storage.

Affordability and portability also factored into equipping the camp. The whole thing relies on off-the-shelf technologies that can be shipped in a single C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and set up in four hours.

The goal of the SAGE experiment is to test whether energy savings of up to 60 percent are possible at camps of up to 3,000 soldiers.

An Army of Energy Managers

Alternative energy and conservation are literally life and death issues for the Army, as described in a recent issue of Stand To!, the Army’s online leadership newsletter. The whole page is worth a read but here are a few key paragraphs (breaks added for readability):

“The Army is making Power and Energy an accountable consideration in everything we do, making every Soldier, civilian and family member an Energy Manager…

“Supplying power and energy to our Army around the world is an increasingly challenging, expensive and dangerous undertaking. The Army must include energy security as a prime consideration in all activities to reduce demand, increase efficiency, obtain alternative sources of energy and create a culture of energy…

“Innovative and adaptive leaders, seeking ways to increase energy efficiency and implement renewable and alternate sources of energy, are key to saving lives and increasing the Army’s flexibility by reducing costs.”

The need to transition to a “culture of energy” is something that environmental organizations have been hammering away at for,… well, forever, so the Army’s full-on engagement in this issue will go a long way toward mainstreaming more responsible stewardship of the Earth’s resources.

It would also help if the party of “support our troops” was on board with the program, too, but considering the cold shoulder Republican leaders in Congress gave to the Navy’s biofuel initiatives, don’t count on it.

Image: Portable solar canopy. Some rights reserved by US Army Africa.

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • Ross

    It’s great that a naturally conservative organisation like the US military is demonstrating that true conservatism doesn’t have to be the insane variety that currently runs the GOP and is their presidential candidate.

    • it really is. never thought i’d say it, but the US military is a somewhat refreshing force these days (of course, when not doing the things we’d rather not think about)

  • Cl1ffClav3n

    Solar is good for powering laptops and LED lights. It will not run the air-conditioners that the people and electronics require, nor fuel the vehicles upon which virtually all army military equipment is mounted. If you exclude the vehicles and their equipment from the definition of a “base camp,” there is not much left and it is probably pretty easy to achieve whatever power fraction you want from solar to make the press happy. I just crunched the numbers for the 5-yr old state-of-the-art $100M 140-acre solar farm at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Their 14MW nameplate capacity facility is running at a 22% capacity factor for a net output of 5 W/m2. Compare that real world number to the 48 W/m2 figure that NREL and the investment brochures like to throw around. Nellis claims a $1M a year utility bill savings which means the plant will pay for itself in 100 years. Of course, it was largely paid for with federal government subsidies, so the Air Force doesn’t mind.

    • Bob_Wallace

      Show me some math, Cliff.

      Prove to me why solar will not run AC units.

      Prove to me why the military could not use PHEVs, using electricity for most of their patrols around the base and why that power could not come from solar.

      • Cl1ffClav3n

        I’ll keep the math simple. The U.S. military has a 10-ton portable AC unit run by a 40 kW generator. (http://www.appliedcompanies.net/documents/GETT_AppliedCompanies.pdf ). The standard rooftop solar system is 3-4 kW before computing all the losses, including that of converting DC to AC. Ignoring all the losses and using a totally unrealistic 100% capacity factor (Nellis has 22% in ideal circumstances), this single unit would take more than 10 house roofs of solar panels to cool one large tent. You would need more roofs full of panels to light the tent, power the electronics, refrigerate any food or medical products, and run the really energy hungry radios. You would also need more to charge up the batteries or fuel cells or whatever you want to use to provide power overnight. Last time I checked, the Army and Marines considered mobility to be a virtue on the battlefield, so all this acreage of PV solar must be portable and quick to set up and take down and not consume too much cargo space that needs to be available for troops and ammunition and fuel and food. Doubling the number of panels to capture the energy needed for nighttime and doubling the number of panels for a still unrealistic 50% capacity factor means it would take 40 tents covered with PV panels to power one command-post tent full of equipment, with no redundancy. Or we can use the single generator on the same trailer as the AC unit. The enemy can only wish we would present them such a large and juicy and soft target on the battlefield. Now let’s see you do some math in public, Bob. Standing by for your numbers.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Do some math Cliff.

          Calculate the number of times one has to deliver a “rooftop of panels” and the number of times one has to deliver a tanker full of diesel.

          Be sure to calculate the deaths per year for one helicopter delivery of a solar system vs. a string of slow moving, ground based tanker trucks. You know, the sort of vehicle that can be taken out with a simple IED, rocket-power grenade, suicide bomber in an old car, ….

          Perhaps a light will go on in your head.

          (Here’s a hint. The US military has done their math. They’re moving to solar.)

          (Maybe I’ll go back and check your math. I suspect it’s flawed.)

          • RobS

            First of all air conditioning tents in the desert has got to be one of the most ridiculous schemes I’ve ever heard of, any military that can’t handle the conditions in which their enemy is fighting has no place being there.
            Puting that aside, the cost to deliver fuel to frontline units in Iraq and Afghanistan has been gargantuan, the pentagon estimated in a te hearing fuel convoys have cost $300 per gallon of gas delivered, furthermore there have been over 3000 US military casualties in fuel convoy attacks. Each gallon of gas delivered at best produces 10kwh of electricity in base generators at a cost of $30 per kwh, you can pretty quickly see why solar which only has to be delivered once then continues to produce power indefinitely is so attractive.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Covering the tents with rigid foam could cut AC power demand by over 90%.
            Leaving behind slabs of rigid foam when we move on would make the life of locals better. They could repurpose them for their houses.

            Leave behind some foam insulation and some solar systems and we might get a few more smiles and fewer hates.

            I’m wondering if it might make sense to develop rigid foam ‘Quonset huts’ of some shape or another. Foam them in place and then let the locals haul them to where they want and cover with ferrocement They could be easily cut into sections for transport and then reassembled.

            Insulated housing that would be earthquake resistant.

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            Y’all aren’t getting the whole battlefield thing. You use the threat of convoy casualties to argue that fuel can’t be trucked in, but you are going to bring in a contractor to spray foam tents and litter the battlefield with semi-permanent structures that you must stay tethered to for power–huh? A combat base camp in a hostile operating area and a fixed base in a low threat area are not the same thing. The fixed base in a low threat area could install the solar, but they don’t have the enemy threatening their fuel convoys and therefore need solar the least, and the huge
            capital expense of installing solar in somebody else’s country doesn’t make sense unless we plan to be there for 20+ years. The base camp in the hostile zone has the fuel convoy ambush threat, but cannot afford to sacrifice their mobility and small footprint to put up 40 solar tents per AC unit at every stop. In either case, solar is not going to power your air-conditioner, which was Bob’s original question. BTW, it’s the electronic equipment on the front lines that demands the AC, not the soldiers. Like all wars, the soldiers in the rear (which generally make up 90% of the force) get all the full-time goodies like AC and USO shows and Burger Kings.

          • Bob_Wallace

            “the huge capital expense of installing solar in somebody else’s country doesn’t
            make sense unless we plan to be there for 20+ years.”

            A diesel generator running at 90% full load would produce 7 to 10 kWh per gallon.

            How about we use 7.5kWh for our back of envelop calculations?

            OK, for a year of 1kWh, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year the military would have to ship in 1/7.5 gallon of fuel x 24 x 365. About 1,168 gallons of diesel.

            To get 24kWh per day, with a 0.22% capacity one would need 4.5kW of panels. (4.5kW x 5.28 hours of sunshine.) Add in another 10% for battery charging inefficiency and you’re just under 5kW.

            Cost: It costs the military as much as $300 per gallon to deliver fuel to forward bases. As much as $350,400 to fuel the generator. Plus driver deaths.

            $350,400 for fuel. $20,000 to $30,000 for a solar system with battery storage.

            Seems to me that the capex of a solar system is returned in a month or less.

            (How many times do you want to go through this Cliff? I can just paste these numbers a whole bunch of times and you can include them the next time you make this argument. It would save me a bunch of effort.)

            “you are going to bring in a contractor to spray foam tents”

            If you could cut the size of your solar system by 90% or reduce the fuel needed to run the generator don’t you think it would make sense to train the guys on the base to spray foam? Wouldn’t it make sense to bring in a foam spraying technician rather than all that extra gear/fuel?

          • RobS

            Fuel convoys have to pass through hostile territory even to reach fixed bases. Modern combat equipment has increasingly large power requirements, batteries now account for over 20% of the weight a soldier carries in a combat operation, the average soldier begins an operation with between 20 and 35 pounds of batteries in their pack, the military is very interested in mobile solar charging to cut that load. It is the batteries that are sacrificing their mobility. In the end the military is actively exploring both troop based micro charging and base mounted larger systems, so this isn’t just our opinion it’s a reality, unless you think you know more then the military about the benefits of mobile charging solutions in combat situations.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Looking for some data on AC for tents, I found this interesting tidbit…

          Keeping American soldiers cool in the 125-degree heat of Afghanistan and Iraq costs $20.2 billion a year, according to a report from National Public Radio (NPR). NPR says that is more than the budget for NASA. And as Mother Jones points out, it is more than double the budget for the National School Lunch Program. The cost comes not only from operating the air-conditioning units — which in many cases are attached to individual tents — but also from transporting fuel for the gas-powered machines to remote locations like Kandahar. As retired Brig. Gen. Steven Anderson said on the NPR program “All Things Considered,” “When you consider the cost to deliver the fuel to some of the most isolated places in the world — escorting, command and control, medevac support — when you throw all that infrastructure in, we’re talking over $20 billion.”
          Anderson recently served as chief logistician in Iraq for Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

          The need for fuel also slows down military operations. One commander in Afghanistan told Anderson that “He literally has to stop his combat operations for two days every two weeks so he can go back and get his fuel. And when he’s gone, the enemy knows he’s gone, and they go right back to where they were before. He has to start his counter-insurgency operations right back at square one.””


          • Cl1ffClav3n

            That’s an excellent excerpt on battlefield fuel you posted. Remember, mobility is king in combat. Moving fuel and moving everything on the battlefield is a huge challenge. Let’s remember where we started–we are trying to air-condition one tent and it is going to take one 40 kW generator mounted on the same trailer as my AC unit, or 40 tents worth of solar panels. How much more vehicle fuel am I going to need to move 40 tents-worth of solar panels around the battlefield (not to mention more manpower to set up the tents and more food to feed the additional troops and more combat load of weapons and body armor and ammo, and more vehicles to transport them . . . ) all to power my one tent? Is it more than the fuel required to power my one generator? I can guaran-damn-tee it is, by a factor of 10 or more. When I move, how long do I have to wait to have the 41 tents set up before I can use my command post? If the fuel convoy doesn’t get through, can I power my vehicles off of solar power–No. Can I power the AC unit generator from fuel siphoned out of my vehicles–yes. Can I afford to travel with 40 extra tents for rendundancy and to replace combat losses–no. Can I afford to travel with an extra AC unit and generator on a single trailer-yes. Still waiting for your math and real-world example to show how far we’ve come since Nellis.

          • Bob_Wallace

            What math are you waiting for Cliff? Do I need to subtract present cost of solar from 2007 cost and calculate what a “Nellis” would cost today? Can’t you do 7-3 and multiply it out?

            Do you want me to calculate the volume of a 40kW generator and all its fuel and compare that to the volume of a solar system?

            (Don’t give me any bull about siphoning fuel to run the genny. That fuel has to be replaced.)

            BTW, might you be willing to acknowledge the vast savings in solar over battlefield fuel? Or do you want to play a game of moving goalposts?

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            I gave you a real-word scenario with Nellis. You wave your hands and theorize. I’m asking for the numbers from a solar farm superior to Nellis that you claim exists so we can all see how much progress has been made.
            BTW, siphoning fuel is a battlefield expedient while you wait for the next convoy. The battlefield expedient for solar is to pack up the command post tent and leave the other 40 behind as casualties of war, or make the fool who put them on the battlefield stay behind to watch over them. He can keep the 5 or 10 trucks it takes to haul them around, and all that fuel not being consumed will pay many times over for the single generator it takes to cool the command post tent. Could you please sell solar to the Taliban or Al Qaeda. It would make it a lot easier for us Americans.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Hardee County Florida – “a cost of $700 million dollars, a 200-MW solar farm costs $3.50 per watt, including construction”.


            LCOE $0.16/kWh. Twenty year payback at 4%.

            Germany is now installing for just over $2/watt. When we get as good as Germany then solar will cost us less than a dime per kWh.

            Yes, it is sometimes expedient to siphon off some fuel. As long as you don’t need that fuel in order to save your life.

            And it’s likely more efficient to drag a generator and some fuel to a short time position. But it clearly is less efficient and a heck of a lot more expensive to run a longer term base on fossil fuels.

            Finding a small exception does not prove your point.

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            Can you please provide a link to any of these as completed and operating plants. I can only find agreements and plans and brochures and promises. As I have said from the beginning of this thread, I am looking for facts of operating plants.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I can find you completed and operating systems. I do not find cost data for them.

            You can also find completed and operating systems. Just google….

            The industrial index is based on a 500 kilowatt flat roof-mounted system, suitable for large buildings. It is connected to the electricity grid and excludes back up power. $1,796,857/500,000watt = $3.59/watt.

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            Installed cost per watt coming down is good, and affects the amortized payback. I think solar will hit break-even eventually, but is not there yet and it must get way beyond break-even to have an EROI worth the investment. What’s hard to detect in the cost figures is the special arrangements that don’t get costed such as free land leases, guaranteed prices instead of market prices, shifting burdens to other utility customers, special liability and insurance arrangements, accelerated depreciation and tax breaks, special financing from federal and state sources, energy credits, etc. The raw deal Nevada citizens got is only now really becoming apparent. Nellis was promised a 15MW system and got 13MW, and I bet they were also promised a higher capacity than 22% as well. The technical spec I’m most interested in is real world W/m2 of dedicated land area averaged over a full 12-mo season. This gets past all the promises and formulas and models and puts us on solid footing.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Solar has hit grid parity in several parts of the world.

            You can look that up.

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            Solar is subsidized everywhere, so “parity” is a farce. You can look that up. I would start with Germany.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Cliff, I am totally tired of dealing with your crap.

          • if you look at full costs, solar matches up. but you are intent on leaving out the costs of climate change, casualties, and health.

            the military is not.

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            Bob, why don’t you tell Zachary about the solar “externalities” that need to be priced in. Do you have numbers for the environmental costs of mining silica and bauxite and the rarer materials needed to make the glass and aluminum and dope the semiconductors, and the life-cycle environmental damage of the industrial chemicals and toxins used in manufacturing and which must be handled in decommissioning. We also need to reimburse the taxpayers for any public land used for solar farms and furnaces, and for the pristine natural views and property values ruined by square miles of mirrors and panels. Even more importantly, we need to calculate the cost of the extinction of species and loss of biodiversity from industrializing millions of acres of natural habitat with solar farms. We also need to price in the toxins associated with the storage batteries and capacitors and fuel cells and smart grid meters necessary to make this viable, and reimburse the taxpayers for new rights of way for HVDC transmission lines and the costs of forcing existing electrical power plants to operate inefficiently with spinning reserves idling to make up for unpredictable lapses in variable solar power that otherwise endanger the grid.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Because if I wrote the kind of foolish stuff you do Cliff, Zach would laugh at me.

            You need to stop sniffing the right wing glue tube….

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            @Zach, if you go back and read the thread from the beginning, you’ll see that I am also arguing for minimizing the liquid fuel on the battlefield. We are all on the same side of that issue and no one wants the soldiers to be casualties. My point is that they will use MUCH LESS liquid fuel towing a small trailer with a side-by-side 10-ton AC unit and 40 kW generator on it and running that generator 24/7 than they will use if instead they have to use additional trucks and carry additional people into harm’s way to haul and set up and take down in a hostile environment a solar panel farm the size of 40 tents and the truck-full of batteries required to run through the night. Combat units are mobile units. OBTW it also costs a lot of fuel to fly or ship those extra panels and trucks and batteries from home to the theater instead of that single trailer. I’m all for minimizing the use of petroleum. Trying to use solar for anything of larger scale than 1 foldable panel per soldier for radio or LED light battery charging will dramatically increases battlefield fuel consumption, not to mention vulnerability to the enemy because of incredibly decreased mobility and the huge distraction of having to pitch 40 tents at every stop instead of just fire up the genny.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Let’s go at it this way…

          A diesel generator running at 90% full load would produce 7 to 10 kWh per gallon.

          How about we use 7.5kWh for our back of envelop calculations?

          OK, for a year of 1kWh, 24 hours a day, 365 days per year the military would have to ship in 1/7.5 gallon of fuel x 24 x 365. About 1,168 gallons of diesel.

          To get 24kWh per day, with a 0.22% capacity one would need 4.5kW of panels. (4.5kW x 5.28 hours of sunshine.) Add in another 10% for battery charging inefficiency and you’re just under 5kW.

          Cost: It costs the military as much as $300 per gallon to deliver fuel to forward bases. As much as $350,400 to fuel the generator. Plus driver deaths.

          Even at $20/gallon it would be $23,360.

          A 5kW system should cost well under $15,000 plus batteries and inverter.

          At the end of that year the solar system will keep on producing power. For 20, 30, 50? years. A helicopter can fly in, hook up, and fly it off to a new site. Or we could leave it behind in a pacified village and create a world of good will.

          The diesel? Gone up in smoke….

    • Bob_Wallace

      The Nellis Air Force Base solar field.

      Built about five years ago at the price of $7.14/watt is not what is happening now. Large scale installed solar is around one-third that price and still dropping.

      Was the Nellis installation a “money maker” for the military?

      Did the Nellis installation help drive down the price of solar, serve as a good investment toward future lower prices?

      Does the US military recognize that climate change is happening and that climate change presents a major danger to the country they are tasked to protect?

      Does cheaper solar make it likely that more solar will get installed and reduce the danger to us?

      Is the US military working to save our butts?

      Feel free to thank them….

      • Cl1ffClav3n

        @Bob: Nellis represents a near best-case scenario for solar because it’s located in the cloudless desert on land that was provided for free, with all panels installed contiguously with high density on tracking mounts, and the system serves a customer who can accept 4 times its nameplate capacity. The Air Force should be thanking the taxpayers and the customers of Nevada Power who are really paying for this with subsidies and rate hikes. Please provide us the operating performance details of another more recent large-scale PV solar installation so we can see how much progress has been made since Nellis.

        • Bob_Wallace

          When this array was installed the cost of solar panels was around $5/watt.

          The price of solar panels is now under $1/watt.

          How did you miss that development Cliff?

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            The price does tend to drop when the masses realize the product is a ripoff and stop buying it. You can tell when a product is standing on its own two feet and is a value to its customers because demand goes up and price goes up. Solar panel manufactures are dying left and right all around the world. Hard to miss. Once the subsidies stop, it will get even worse. Please quote me the demand statistics for PV solar panels from 2007 to today.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Cliff, you’ve drifted into lala land.

            The world installed around 24GW of solar last year. That’s a 40% increase from what we had at the beginning of the year. We’ll install even more in 2012.

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            Falling global solar sales has been big news since last year. I’m sure you couldn’t have missed it (recent story here: http://finance.yahoo.com/news/chinese-solar-industry-faces-weak-sales-price-war-061841959.html ). We were talking panel prices not installs (which tend to lag quite a bit, especially for large projects), but changing the subject instead of answering the question is your standard pattern.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I cannot find any installation data for 2012 other than this…

            ” Solar installations in the United States jumped 85 percent in the first quarter of 2012 from the previous year ”

            I suppose we’ll have to wait a bit to see if the (mostly) world-wide recession will slow installations for a year or so or if the price decreases will boost installations as seems to have happened in the US.
            Japan, China and India are likely to show increases. Parts of Europe could be down.

            If there’s a question you believe I haven’t addressed, then please repeat it.

          • Cl1ffClav3n

            The chart in your link is installs, not panel sales. I keep asking about the leading indicator, you keep giving me the lagging indicator.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I don’t have any 2012 panel sales data. Do you?

            If not, why bother with this stuff until the data appears? Sales could be up because prices are down. Sales could be down because economies are hurting. Who can tell without data? 2012 data may not even be meaningful because 2012 sales could be built on pre-2012 contracts.

            This article is about the US military and solar. Seems to me that you can’t prove your point that running bases on diesel makes sense so now you’re flailing away to find something critical to say about solar.

            BTW, there’s no link in my reply.

          • RobS

            My reply had the link. I struggle to see how installs is not an indicator of sales unless you don’t think the installed panels had to be sold at some point. As Bob points out we don’t yet have 2012 sales data, we can however get some idea from EIA generating data, for the first 5 months of 2012 to the end of May solar power produced 1,164 Gwh, to the end of may 2011 solar power produced was 587 Gwh, that’s a 98.4% year on year growth so far in 2012. From that somehow I doubt sales have plummeted, furthermore remember that the EIA only includes utility scale systems and doesn’t take customer and small installations into account.

          • RobS

            Whilst it seems Cliff had no reply to my challenge to produce any basis for his claims, we now have solar install details for the first half of 2012 and they are up a whopping 120% on 1st half 2011, even higher then the first quarters QonQ growth of 85%. So again unless cliff thinks panels have somehow been installed without ever being bought then the claim that PV sales are falling has once again been summarily disproved.

          • RobS

            Claiming that global pv sales are falling is nothing short of clinical delusion, the average installation growth rate over the last 4 years is over 60% . This chart tells the story, installations are booming. https://c1cleantechnicacom-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/files/2012/05/global-solar-installations.png

          • RobS

            Cliff, you’re the one claiming demand has fallen off a cliff, why don’t you provide the demand data to back up your claim?

    • This makes no sense. My solar home system runs my entire house 100% annually and the surplus powers my Volt 6,000 miles and it has ac…


      • Thanks. And for anyone catching this comment later, it’s in reply to another comment, not the article. 😀

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