Energy conservation for battlefield operations

New approaches to regulating energy demand at forward operating bases hold considerable promise.

Large truck convoys that transport fuel to forward operating bases (FOBs) present a tempting target to enemies.

Supply routes have long been weak spots for enemies to exploit. But the search for alternative power solutions acquired urgency in 2006 when Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Richard Zilmer, then-U.S. commander of Iraq’s Al Anbar province, issued a request for renewable and self-sustaining energy solutions to alleviate the reliance on convoys.

A shift in warfighting tactics and equipment in recent years has resulted in exponential growth in FOBs’ power consumption. That demand and the fact that fuel distribution accounts for about 70 percent of the Army’s logistics have put new strains on warfighter support.

How big a role renewable energy can play at FOBs is an open question, but new approaches to managing energy demands are showing promise.

“It is unlikely that we will ever achieve total energy independence,” said Michael Padden, project manager of the Mobile Electric Power program at Fort Monmouth, N.J. The program coordinates mobile electric power development and standardization throughout the Defense Department.

Padden said he is pinning his hopes on a program called Hybrid Intelligent Power (HI-Power), a joint effort between MEP and the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center.

Rather than keep generators isolated from one another, the program would use a microgrid approach to manage the generators via a system that could automatically start and stop them to match demand and store energy.

HI-Power would be a paradigm shift for all echelon levels, ranging from combat outposts, which would have a scaled-down subset of the grid, to tactical operating centers in brigades or divisions, Padden said. HI-Power’s ability to manage a grid would level off when power requirements start exceeding several megawatts, he added.

Padden estimates that HI-Power could reduce fuel consumption by 17 percent to 40 percent.

DOD officials believe the project could produce startling changes. “The HI-Power architecture is a paradigm shift from stovepiped power generation to integrated power management,” said Alan Shaffer, acting director of DOD’s Defense Research and Engineering, in written testimony before a March 3 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s Readiness Subcommittee.

HI-Power is still in the developmental stage, but it is set for deployment by fiscal 2013.

Although HI-Power will have the ability to incorporate renewable energy sources, it can’t erase many of the problems that such alternative sources present in the FOB context. For example, geothermal or hydropower energy sources are not viable in a tactical environment. And converting biomass, such as waste products, into fuel has supply problems. That approach would “in essence require foraging for suitable quantities, and in the end, it is probably self-limiting by the quantities in the area,” Padden said.

“We are fundamentally left with solar and wind,” he added. Yet solar and wind power are far from perfect.

“Wind is highly variable, requires very tall turbines — up to 100 meters high — and poses aviation hazards,” Padden said. When the Army tested an experimental wind turbine as part of an effort to create a transportable hybrid electric power station, the stations’ approximately 100-foot wind masts were difficult to erect and replacement 20-foot masts were ineffective, he said.

As for solar power, available panels are too inefficient and big to provide anything more than marginal capability in an FOB setting, Padden said. At lower echelons, solar energy can recharge batteries and provide small, isolated outposts — particularly those on the other end of an unsafe logistics run — with enough power for limited critical communications and sensors.

“Alternative energy sources clearly have a role in the present and future Army,” Padden said. “However, it is unlikely that they will provide the huge near-term fuel-reduction benefits some would like to believe.”