MARINES TRUDGING through hot, dusty Afghanistan are replacing heavy batteries in their backpacks with rolled-up solar sheets. It is part of an initiative by the Marine Corps to use new energy technologies to make the military more effective. One Marine Corps goal is to cut per-soldier fuel use in half by 2025.
Major technological advances through the ages were developed first for military use and then, as they became more broadly adopted, they altered civilization. Some experts say that the military's bold deployment of new technology on the battlefield today will alter our energy universe here at home in the near future. Col. Bob Charette is one of the leaders in the effort. He opened an office in the Pentagon last year to speed deployment of new energy technologies developed by the Navy. In a telephone interview with EnergyBiz, Col. Charette discussed the pioneering endeavor.
ENERGYBIZ Can utilities benefit from some of the cutting-edge use of renewables now taking place on battlefields in Afghanistan?
CHARETTE We've actually been learning a long time from industry folks. We're trying to push it to the next level and get industry to help guide us. But unlike utilities, we're not dealing with fixed infrastructure.
ENERGYBIZ What is your view of solar?
CHARETTE In Afghanistan, we pay $7.22 a gallon at the pump in Helmand Province. Trucking that fuel in is a great risk to Marines. So if I use solar - which we've done - my equations are much different than back home. The economics work out incredibly well in combat.
ENERGYBIZ Many technological advances have come about because of military research initiatives. Will that be true in energy?
CHARETTE The military has led on the Internet, and the Navy led in computers. NASA has led in developing fuel cells.
ENERGYBIZ You are hoping to slash fuel use per Marine in half by 2025. What would be the implications of that?
CHARETTE We're moving about 120 trucks a day to support our armed forces in Helmand Province. About 80 are water trucks and 40 are fuel trucks. That equates to about 200,000 gallons of fuel a day. If you could take half those fuel trucks off the road, you would have a force now that could operate in more austere locations and you would be at less risk. New technology, in a battlefield environment, gives us tremendous capabilities.
ENERGYBIZ Describe some of your efforts.
CHARETTE We are using energy-efficient shelter liners, basically insulating our tents to reduce our need for air conditioning. We are also using LED lighting for our tents. We are using a solar blanket that the Marines take with them on patrol. It charges up radio batteries. One of our big demands at the small-unit level, along with fuel, is batteries, a lot of batteries. In the Marine Corps, we spend about $22 million a year for batteries. We found that with these solutions, we can cut that battery use by 50 percent.
ENERGYBIZ Have you looked at wind turbine technology?
CHARETTE We have. Because of our expeditionary nature, we cannot harvest enough wind in a tactical situation. However, every day, we're probably going to have seven hours of sunshine. Even on a cloudy day, we're able to harvest energy using the newer technologies. We're looking at harvesting energy from every source available. There's heat energy in our vehicles, there's heat energy from our generators, there's heat energy on the battlefield that we're not even capturing today. There's kinetic energy on bumpy roads, so there is the potential of harvesting energy from shock absorbers and the vehicle's muffler system. We're starting to look at some approach to capture heat energy from the sun. We need to find better storage technologies. We're looking at improved ways of making our gear more efficient. We're really looking at a systems approach to solve these problems. There's not going to be one new technology. It's going to be increasing efficiencies and increasing our energy-harvesting capabilities. We need to train Marines to be aware, train leaders to be engaged, and change the culture of the Marine Corps. Resource efficiency means better effectiveness.
ENERGYBIZ Are electric vehicles of interest?
CHARETTE Yes, they are. Right now, the technology for the battlefield is really costly and expensive, but that doesn't mean we're not interested. But we haven't found a technology that's the right cost yet.
ENERGYBIZ What do you hope to achieve for the Marine Corps?
CHARETTE We're really looking for the entrepreneurial spirit that's in America to support folks who have great ideas. Actually, we just got another 60 technologies that we're looking at right now. I've probably looked at another 100 or so more than that, personally. We would like to make the Marine Corps more combat-effective by making it less dependent on resources. Let me give you some perspective. In Helmand Province, we have over a hundred patrol bases. Our aim is to get as many of those off of fossil fuel as we can. Those patrol bases use anywhere from 25 to 300 gallons of fuel per day. If we can reduce the energy consequences of having gear on the battlefield - surveillance equipment, computers, radios - those things that enable us to distribute 100 patrol bases - that gives us an amazing combat advantage. Our Marines would be at less risk.