A mobile app being developed for the U.S. Army would be able to tell soldiers exactly how much electricity they need to power the devices they plan to use.
Such a relatively simple tool would go a long way toward reducing energy waste in combat zones, where thousands of troops live off the grid and rely on fuel-hogging generators for their electrical power.
Army Col. Peter Newell estimates that hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel could be saved just by matching power with demand.
Newell is the director of the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, based at Fort Belvoir, Va., an organization created to expedite the procurement of equipment for troops in the field.
During visits to seven combat brigades in Afghanistan last month, one of the most frequent requests Newell heard from unit commanders and command sergeant majors was “power generation,” he told National Defense in an Oct. 18 interview.
Troops in remote outposts want renewable energy sources so they don’t have to carry big loads of batteries. The average infantry platoon, for a 72-hour mission, requires 400 pounds of batteries just to meet basic needs, such as powering radios, weapon sights and night-vision goggles.
The Rapid Equipping Force so far has spent more than $10 million on hybrid solar-power generators that are being delivered to 30 small units in Afghanistan.
The problem is not a lack of money, but the risks of transporting fuel. Existing power generators are big fuel-hogs, not suitable for use in remote areas that supply trucks cannot reach, either because the roads are mine infested or because there are no roads. “The challenges of delivering water and fuel are the hardest,” said Newell.
Many of the larger 60-kilowatt generators at forward-operating bases are only working at 20 percent to 50 percent capacity, which results in a huge waste of fuel, on the order of hundreds of gallons per week, said Newell. A smaller generator that functions at 80-90 percent of its capacity is much more fuel efficient, he said. Even without reducing the demand, just by properly sizing the supply, the Army can save a significant quantity of fuel.
The energy-meter phone app — expected to be ready in 60 to 90 days — will be one way to simplify power management, said Newell. A menu would list all the devices that a unit has and how much power each draws. A soldier would select the devices that the unit will need and the app will spit out the power requirement. With that information, said Newell, “I should be able to hook up the power solution that is the right size.” The mobile app, he added, “has to be easy and cannot require a lot of effort.”
As more Army units now are beginning to deploy solar panels, being able to measure power needs helps soldiers better manage their use. A 60-watt solar blanket can recharge batteries, but a 10-watt panel is all that is needed to recharge phones.
The Army is now in the market for small microgrids that can draw energy from solar panels and from conventional generators, and is seeking wireless systems that can transfer energy between devices.
Asked to identify the one big energy innovation that the Army needs right now, Newell said it’s batteries. “I want lighter batteries, with more storage capacity.”
The Defense Department has spent more than $2 billion on power sources over the past five years, but none of the existing programs thus far has resulted in significantly more efficient and lighter batteries for soldiers.
Most batteries in the field today are inefficient lead-acid products, said Newell. “When they reach 50 percent, they have to be recharged. You can only use 50 percent of the capacity. We need to be able to use 100 percent.”
Lithium-ion and other more advanced batteries are lighter but are “cost prohibitive,” Newell said. “We need to keep pushing” industry to lower costs, he added.
With U.S. forces expected to remain in Afghanistan until 2014, the energy problems are going to continue, even as troops draw down, said Army Maj. Gen. Raymond V. Mason, assistant deputy chief of staff, and staff lead for operational energy.
During a meeting with reporters last week, Mason said, “Operational energy becomes more important as we draw down forces.” Although it seems counterintuitive, the reason is that there will be fewer bases, so the distances between them will be longer, “and your ability to push fuel is harder because you don’t have those intermediate bases,” Mason said.
Newell noted that over the past year, discussions of energy problems in the “tactical edge” have gained a sense of urgency.
But even for “rapid fielding” organizations like Newell’s REF, it will not be easy to fill the growing demand for deployable-energy systems.
Military and industry experts wonder whether the Army’s procurement agencies, even after 10 years of war, have learned how to bridge the gaps between what troops needs and what industry can offer in a timely manner. Renewable energy technologies are progressing but suppliers often question why Army buyers often ask for the “100 percent solution” rather than settle for what is available now. According to one Army officer who recently was at the Pentagon discussing renewable energy projects, “Washington, D.C. may be five thousand miles from Afghanistan but it is a million miles away from the fight.”