Army Soldiers On With Energy Projects, Despite Budget Cuts

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Into the trash can went $250 million worth of alternative energy and energy conservation projects for the US Army last year, thanks to the federal budget compromise of across-the-board cuts known as the “sequestration.” That’s really cutting off your nose to spite your face, since the Army’s energy projects are designed to save money in the long run and they literally save lives by cutting down on the need for fuel convoys to service remote bases, to say nothing of the calming effect that fuel diversity will have on geopolitics related to the global oil market.

The good news is that the Army still has some major progress to report, thanks to programs that are ongoing or don’t fit within the conventional budget framework.

army energy independence from solar powered tent
Solar canopy courtesy of US Army Africa.

Army Energy, Civilian Energy

That progress is significant because the Army is in the energy game for two key reasons, one of which is to  directly improve its national defense capabilities. The other is to support those improvements indirectly by serving as a role model to the civilian sector for energy conservation and environmental stewardship.

After all, oil was the key factor driving the war in Iraq, and if the US is to help transition global markets from fossil fuel dependency to more diversified, distributed and sustainable sources of energy, support by the public at large is essential (for more on that topic see the documentary The Burden).

Relatedly, mission and morale are undermined when US Soldiers put their lives at risk overseas, only to come home to communities harmed by destructive fossil fuel extraction including mountaintop coal mining and natural gas fracking.

That’s on top of risks posed by our aging domestic oil infrastructure, as aptly illustrated by last year’s oil pipeline spill in Arkansas and the ongoing tar sands oil mess in Michigan.

In that context, take a look at the Strategic Energy Security Goals of the Army’s Energy Security and Implementation Strategy. Along with reducing consumption overall, the goals include diversifying supplies through renewables and other alternatives, ensuring a reliable supply chain (we think that’s code for on site and hyper-local renewable sources), and reducing environmental impacts.

Apply that to the Army’s stated Energy Security Vision and this is what you get:

An effective and innovative Army energy posture, which enhances and ensures mission success and quality of life for our Soldiers, Civilians and their Families through Leadership, Partnership, and Ownership, and also serves as a model for the nation.

That in turn leads you to the Army Energy Security Mission:

Make energy a consideration for all Army activities to reduce demand, increase efficiency, seek alternative sources, and create a culture of energy accountability while sustaining or enhancing operational capabilities.

Army Energy Progress

While that phrase “create a culture of energy accountability” sinks in with all its implications for us civilians, here are some Army energy highlights from 2013 as outlined in a recent presentation by Richard Kidd, the Army’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy and Sustainability.

First off, Kidd had some harsh words to say about the effects of the nose/face equation in terms of future costs. The sequestration has slashed its way through SRM, the accounts that the Army uses to sustain, restore, and modernize its facilities:

Existing Army facilities are breaking and they’re not being repaired and their energy performance is going down and this represents a significant long-term cost liability to the country because once they break, they’re going to consume more energy and be more expensive to fix once we do get the funds. The significant reduction in SRM accounts is going to create a financial hole that will have to be paid in the future.

On the bright side, Kidd had some encouraging figures to cite about prospects for improvement, if and when the sequestration is lifted.

Overall, the Army reduced total energy consumption by 16.2 percent in the past ten years even though its force grew by 20 percent during the same period.

Breaking it down, one highlight is the improvement in fuel consumption by non-tactical vehicles, which dropped by 20 percent just since 2011.

Aside from vehicles, diesel generators account for most liquid fuel use in the Army (at least 40 percent). Kidd cites the introduction of renewable energy and “smart” grid technology that matches output with loads more efficiently with consumption, for making a significant improvement.

At remote bases in Afghanistan, for example, some outposts that needed refueling up to six times monthly are now down to once or twice.

Aside from saving money, the switch frees up manpower to focus on the mission itself:

What’s important about this is, yes, it saves money and you have paybacks of less than a year, but more significantly, this is the cheapest and best way we have found to return combat power to the fight in Afghanistan, because we have been able to free up resupply security resources that were previously devoted to energy.

Army Energy And Batteries

We’ve been following the Army’s progress on portable solar power, which has the aim of cutting down on the battery load that Soldiers need to carry into the field. Just a few years ago the typical load involved 23 different batteries weighing 14 pounds, requiring resupply even during a relatively short 72-hour mission.

According to Kidd, the load is now down to 9.7 pounds thanks to wearable smart mini-micro-grids and new batteries that conform to body shape called, aptly, body conformal batteries.

The Marine Corps is no slouch in the portable power field either, btw — check out their solar powered “talking” vest.

Coal Boilers

We’ve also covered the Army’s transition to alternative energy at its domestic bases (too many articles to list, just google us), and Kidd confirms that the overall plan is to replace all of its coal fired heat/electricity boilers with alternative fuels. For now one key alternative is natural gas, which we’re not particularly fans of to say the least, but Kidd also cites the falling cost of “other forms of energy” as a driver in the changeover.

In that regard, the Army has a little catching up to do with the Navy, which just last June shut down the last coal fired power plant at a domestic Navy facility, while also opening up its first EV charging station.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3324 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey