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Published on December 7th, 2016 | by Tina Casey


US Military Solar Power Programs Could Face Trump Axe…Quick, Call Ivanka!

December 7th, 2016 by  

Incoming President Donald Trump is not exactly a big fan of solar power, but since he has promised to pump up the US military with 90,000 more soldiers, it stands to reason that he would want to send them into the field with the latest and best equipment.

That’s where the solar angle comes in. The US military has been turning to solar energy for technology that helps to protect warfighters while enhancing force effectiveness, and the folks over at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have just come out with a pitch for — hopefully — keeping the funding stream open for solar energy research.


NREL Pitches Solar Powered Soldiers To PEOTUS

The military’s interest in solar stems partly from the emergence of the high-tech infantry. Something has to keep all that gear running, and right now that something translates into a heavy load of batteries.

NREL has just come out with an update on one of its military solar research programs, noting:

On the battlefield, mobility is critical — but a typical, modern Marine may shoulder an 80-pound backpack containing 20 pounds of back-up batteries for an array of electronics.

That also translates into new dangers in the field:

When soldiers or supply convoys are forced to move slowly on repeated trips, they can become “targets of choice” for enemy combatants.

NREL cites the wartime experiences of solar researcher and Marine Major Brandon Newell, who is the lab’s first military fellow.

During the Iraq war in 2003, Newell’s unit was moving so quickly that fuel convoys and supplies of fresh batteries could not keep up with the demand, forcing them to “take a break from the war.”

The lab’s current effort is a three-year, $1.5 million R&D program in concert with the Office of Naval Research to develop flexible, wearable solar cells.

The team is shooting for high efficiency and low weight, which in conventional terms means multi-junction solar cells (that’s fancyspeak for cells made with more than one material).

However, cost is a limiting factor.

The other option would be to use conventional thin-film solar cells, but the relatively low efficiency of that technology is an obstacle.

NREL has come up with a solution that involves transferring or “delaminating” high-efficiency CdTe (cadmium telluride) solar cells from their relatively heavy substrates onto a more lightweight backing.

That’s a lot more complicated than it sounds when you’re talking about a layer that’s only a few micrometers thick.

So far, initial tests are promising on a method that begins with a liquid nitrogen step to free up the solar cell, then attaching a type of handle to pull the cell off.

The process has been successful in small areas. Next steps include fine-tuning the method and applying it to larger areas.

Soldiers’ Lives Are Non-Partisan

CleanTechnica has been following the military’s interest in renewable energy (both applied and in foundational research stages) under the Obama Administration, but the Democrats aren’t the only ones “picking energy winners and losers” when it comes to national defense.

The Department of Defense has been ramping up its use of solar energy since the early years of the Bush Administration.

Our friends over at Wired took note of the renewable energy trend back in 2004:

During a battle, the ability to move troops swiftly and without detection can mean the difference between victory and defeat. The U.S. Army is developing tents and uniforms made from flexible solar panels to make it more difficult to track soldiers.

In 2015, MIT Technology Review had this to say about clean power on the go:

Today’s soldiers are more power hungry than ever, and the army believes flexible solar cells can provide the extra juice. The military is testing lightweight materials that harness the sun’s rays and feed electronic devices wherever mobile warriors travel.

Back then, the Army was still relying heavily on single-use batteries. In addition to supply issues, discarding batteries in the field could expose a unit’s movement, so spent batteries had to be lugged around, too.

The move to rechargeable batteries was a huge improvement, and PV tech adds another layer of progress.

The military has been pursuing scavenge-able energy hand over fist during the Obama Administration. One recent example is the Air Force, which just inaugurated a training program for the “Forward Operating Base of the Future” in a fully equipped renewable energy environment.

The military is not likely to back down from its renewable energy commitments without a fight, so things should get interesting after Inauguration Day. PEOTUS Trump has been looking at a raft of Koch-backed, climate denying fossil fuel fans to head up key environmental and energy positions in his administration.

On the other hand, daughter-in-chief Ivanka Trump has apparently decided that climate action is a good issue for the Ivanka brand, so it looks like the Pentagon has a highly placed ally in the solar camp.

Stay tuned.

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Photo (cropped): “NREL scientist Matt Reese holds a substrate with the solar cells removed to minimize the weight of the solar cell” by Dennis Schroeder via NREL.

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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+.

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