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Pentagon Energy Expo: Bring On the Solar
By Sandra I. Erwin

Anyone who strolled through the "Pentagon Energy Security Event" this week would have to conclude that the military is shopping for new products mainly in two areas: Solar power and batteries.

Of the 43 organizations at the event — a mix of government research organizations and private companies — at least two-thirds were displaying solar panels or other portable power sources. A handful of firms focused on the other big trend in the defense energy world: smart micro-grids for military installations.

The market for military energy products, in dollar terms, is only a drop in the big bucket of Pentagon procurement programs. But it is projected to grow as the Defense Department’s operational energy office begins to enforce new rules designed to promote energy conservation and efficiency.

The Pentagon in fiscal year 2013 requested more than $1 billion for energy-saving technologies such as renewable-powered generators, micro-grids for forward-deployed bases and more efficient engines for ground vehicles and aircraft. Another $1 billion is sought for green energy installations across the United States.

U.S. military spending on renewable energy programs is expected to rise steadily over the next 12 years, to almost $1.8 billion in 2025, according to Pike Research, a business intelligence firm.

Suppliers who spoke with National Defense at the expo Oct. 3 said they are confident that the Pentagon will remain a steady customer, but would like more clarity on what specific products the armed services plan to buy.

Over the past several years, most purchases of solar panels, rugged batteries and other tactical energy products have been “urgent needs” procurements in response to requests from commanders in the field. With the war in Afghanistan winding down, some vendors wonder whether the sense of urgency might disappear, which could diminish the Pentagon’s appetite for renewable energy products.

One of the companies that displayed products at the expo, NEST Energy Systems, of Prescott Valley, Ariz., has designed a tactical solar panel that is one-fifth the weight of current systems that Marines use in the field. Vice President Tom Lederle said the company believes there will be growing demand for lightweight panels because soldiers and Marines would prefer to not have to carry a 100-pound box everywhere they go. He said NEST’s lighter panels already are being used at the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., as part of a micro-grid.

“I’m here to talk to the Marine Corps, the Army Rapid Equipping Force and the Research Development and Engineering Command to see what kinds of applications they’re looking at,” Lederle said.

Both the Marine Corps and the Army also will continue to search for lighter and more efficient batteries. Suppliers such as Bren-Tronics, a battery manufacturer in Commack, N.Y., expect to capitalize on that need. Danielle Pepe, an engineer at Bren-Tronics, said the company’s latest rollout of military batteries — those used to power radios and other electronic devices — includes one that promises twice the endurance at less than half the weight.

Special operations forces, which spend most of their time deployed in remote areas of the world, are seen as a promising long-term customer for lighter batteries and other deployable energy systems.

Lederle said NEST recently submitted a proposal to participate in an upcoming U.S. Special Operations Command’s technology demonstration in Avon Park, Fla.

These events, known as “Tactical Network Testbed” experiments, only take place three times a year, and are hot tickets for companies that are seeking to impress Army Green Berets and Navy SEALs with their innovative products.

The special-operations technology event in Florida, scheduled for February, will include tactical energy demonstrations. “We hope to be invited,” Lederle said. SOCOM is a coveted customer for many vendors that are chronically frustrated by the slow Pentagon procurement process. “SOCOM’s acquisition methods are different,” Lederle noted. He said attending a SOCOM demonstration might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work directly with the operators who use the power sources.

Large defense contractors such as The Boeing Co., meanwhile, also are eyeing the military energy market in the area of smart micro-grids. The company’s display at the Pentagon expo marketed an advanced micro-grid that Boeing is co-developing with Siemens.

Companies predict micro-grids will proliferate across military bases in the United States as the Army, Navy and Air Force seek to achieve their stated goal of producing at least 3 gigawatts of renewable energy at their installations in the coming years, a project that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta touted as “one of the largest commitments to clean energy in the nation’s history.”

Photo Credit: Sandra Erwin


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