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U.S. Military’s Efforts to Reduce Exposure to Energy Security Risks

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Last week, there was an important article posted up on the Army’s website, “Scientists bring energy solutions to the desert.” The article discusses how the Army has set up a small (one megawatt) smart-grid at the Army’s Camp Sabalu-Harrison in Afghanistan. The smart grid uses 4 large diesel generators to provide power for 66 structures. These 4 system is an example of a ‘smart grid’ because it is able to balance supply and demand throughout the day. This grid has replaced 20 separate generators that were required to be running all day regardless of demand. Whereas the old system required a fuel truck to refill each generator throughout the day, the new system has one centralized refueling point.

 

This article is an example of how the different branches of the military are innovating ways to reduce their exposure to energy security risks. I spent a few days down at Maxwell Air Force Base last week for a conference on the military’s proposal’s to address energy security. At this conference (held under Chatham House rules – so I can’t quote anything for attribution), it was clear that every branch of the military was moving to reduce their exposure to energy insecurity.

 

Mostly, this means that the military is trying to reduce their use of oil. There are two big reasons to do this. Strategically, military leadership understands that scarce resources, like oil, are a potential spark of conflict, and the military’s dependence on oil from unstable regions is a major strategic vulnerability. At the tactical level, the long logistical tail left by convoys carrying fuel or water are the most vulnerable to attack, with some sources saying that one casualty is taken for every 24 convoys.

 

Reducing fuel use means means different things to each service. The Navy and the Air Force don’t have to operate forward deployed bases, so they are less concerned about the vulnerability of their supply lines. Instead, they are concerned that future shortages of oil could impact their effectiveness. The Air Force is testing biofuels in an effort to secure ‘drop-in’ replacements for jet fuel. Similarly, the Navy has the Green Hornet program for naval aviation to run on a 50/50 blend of biofuel and traditional jet fuel and just last year it launched the USS Makin Island (pictured), the first navy ship to run on a hybrid gas turbine with electric auxiliaries propulsion plant.

 

Like the Army, the Marines are concerned about reducing the logistics tail of forward-deployed units. However, they have also been getting a lot of press recently for their push to use solar on the battlefield to reduce the heavy load of batteries that each Marine is forced to carry into battle.

 

All of this has led some policy people to talk about “Green Soldiers” or some such term, but the military’s push to reduce fuel use is not about being environmentally friendly, it is about helping the war fighters to more effectively fight and win wars. However, it is an important bonus that the technology they are developing could immediately be useful to American civilians. If a biofuel mix turns out to be a drop-in replacement for jet fuel, I am sure that civilian airlines will jump on. Similarly, the Army’s microgrid could provide significant experience for implementing a larger ‘smart grid’ here at home. Here’s hoping that innovations from the battlefield can help civilians as well as the military.

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