As the military commits itself to going green, it's supporting innovations that could ultimately help American consumers save energy
The Department of Defense is the single largest energy purchaser in America, if not the world. That's why the Navy's goal to source 50 percent of its energy from alternative fuels by 2020 potentially has huge ramifications for future fuel supplies and alternative energy technologies.
In the past year alone, the Navy has deployed portable solar panels, LED lighting systems, hybrid electric ship technologies, and, perhaps most significantly, so-called "green flights" (using aircraft powered by a mix of fossil fuels and biofuel). Some Marine Corps patrol bases in Afghanistan now operate exclusively on solar powered generators, while China Lake Base in California actually puts energy back into the grid. All of which raises a couple of questions. Why, exactly, is the Navy so determined to become green? And could the average consumer benefit from the new products the Navy is supporting?
Regarding the first question, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told me that for every 50 marine fuel convoys, one soldier guarding a convoy is either killed or wounded. Navy ships are also most vulnerable when refueling. Alternative fuels and energy-efficient technologies could help limit the number of convoys required.
Mabus added that our dependence on foreign oil leaves the armed forces vulnerable to volatile prices and supply fluctuations, in which fuel might not be available when the Navy needs it. "We give countries that we would never give the ability to build our ships or our aircraft or our ground equipment a say in whether the ships sail or whether the aircraft flies or our ground equipment operates because we buy our fuel from them," Mabus says. When oil went up $18 a barrel in February and March, it cost the Navy roughly $550 million.
The Navy isn't sitting back waiting for new technologies to come its way, though. In March of 2010, it invited commercial vendors to bring their energy-efficient products to a temporary Experimental Forward Operating Base in Quantico, Virginia. After testing the gear, the Marine Corps chose several technologies to send into battle in Afghanistan last September with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. During their deployment, two patrol bases were able to operate everything but their vehicles solely on renewable energy, and a third cut its non-vehicle fuel use from 20 gallons per day to roughly 2.5 gallons. What made the difference? Switching from diesel generators to solar-powered generators to run computers, battery chargers, and other communication equipment.
To meet its 2020 goals that half of its energy come from alternative fuels, the Navy will also need 8 million barrels of biofuels at a price similar to that of petroleum. As of right now, some biofuels are significantly more expensive than standard aviation fuel, for example, but Hicks says that by partnering with the Department Of Energy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the commercial airlines industry, the Navy may be able to achieve its goals even sooner than 2020.
"We're very encouraged by what we see in the emerging alternative fuels industry in this country and are very confident that it's going to be in the quantities at the price points we need to be able to use it in a very, very meaningful way," says Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy.
Biofuel expert Timothy Searchinger, however, told me that while the Navy's green strides are positive, he does have concerns about their biofuel initiatives. He worries that increased biodiesel demand will make it harder for the world's poor to obtain vegetable oils, an important source of calories, and that biofuel production may also cause habitat loss, require significant water inputs, and increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Still, many innovations seem promising. So, what are the technologies the Navy has adopted, and how can you get your hands on them? To be sure, thus far the technologies aren't exactly home appliances, and it may take a while for these military-grade devices to evolve into things consumers would actually want to buy and use. But here's our overview—a look at a few of the inventions that could make a difference.
What: A generator that weighs 2.6 pounds and can deliver 320 watts of output using flexible fold-up solar panels. Powers anything from radios to computers to lights to water purification systems.
Where: Used by India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment in Afghanistan; 1500 systems in theater.
Why: SPACES are so lightweight and portable that India Company, 3/5, can take them anywhere to recharge radio batteries and power equipment. While in the mid-'90s a company could carry only nine radios, today it can carry 224 and save 700 pounds in battery weight. Platoons used to need a battery resupply every two to three days, but with SPACES they can be in the field two to three weeks before needing a resupply mission. "We let marines do what they were sent there to do, which is fight and engage and rebuild and not guard resupply missions," Mabus says.
Price: $5,000 to $10,000 for one kit. Discounts for larger quantities. Customized kits available. They are built to military specifications, but Iris Technology says these are also ideal for first responders, law enforcement agencies, and NGOs, especially when they need power in remote locations or in disaster areas.
How you can get your hands on one: Contact Iris Technology directly at 866-240-9540 or check out its website at www.iristechnology.com.
LED light bulbs from Techshot Lighting, LLC
What: An LED light bulb so strong you can drive a truck over it. And they last for 50,000 hours (or roughly six years if you run them 24 hours a day).
Other details: At the flip of a switch, the light goes from white to "blackout condition," in which the light output drops from nine watts to three watts and a light frequency that produces a blue color. This option significantly reduces the enemy's ability to detect the light source. Whereas with traditional compact fluorescent bulbs, marines had to wrap each bulb in Mylar for protection, these bulbs are so sturdy marines can roll them up in their tents and pack them in their backpacks—all while saving valuable time. Plus they use significantly less power than their fluorescent predecessors.
How you can get your hands on one: They're built solely for the military. But enjoy the fact that the Navy is saving your tax dollars by buying these bulbs.
What: The navy flew an F/A-18 Hornet at 1.7 times the speed of sound on a blend of 50 percent standard aviation fuel and 50 percent camelina biofuel on Earth Day of last year. "The plane didn't know the difference," Mabus says.
The biofuel must have equal or higher performance to current aviation gases, create lifetime greenhouse gas emissions equal to or less than petroleum, and be compatible with traditional petroleum products and existing aircraft technology. Beyond that, Hicks says the Navy is interested that the "domestic, homegrown" fuels are on the right side of issues related to food security, water, and land use.
How much and when: If the Navy can work with other groups to create the infrastructure and demand for 8 million barrels of affordable biofuel, Hicks says then the entire commercial airline industry could conceivably have access to cost-effective biofuels by 2020.
Images: Courtesy of the U.S. Navy