The value of solar for military operations

The Obama administration has made clear its intentions to position the US at the forefront of renewable energy research and application. This show of leadership has spawned an interesting relationship between the US Department of Defence (DoD) and the US solar industry, as evidenced by the recent announcement of a government program encouraging returned service-men and women to retrain as solar energy specialists. But why the interest, especially from the armed forces?

As the old adage goes, an army marches on its stomach. But now energy is just as important for warfare – it has evolved to the point where ready access to fuel and electricity are critical for mission success. Western forces utilise modern electronics to provide an overwhelming edge over their often undermatched adversaries, and this vast array of sophisticated equipment needs electricity.

A 2010 report by energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins outlines the major issues caused by the overdependence of western forces on combustion fuels for transportation and, crucially, electricity needs. In regions where the local electricity grid is unreliable or unstable, diesel generators and the like are relied upon to power military operations and accommodation.

An often understated fact, the cost of providing and enabling the transport of fuels to the theatre of war is huge. The logistics required to coordinate supplies in hostile environments is extremely challenging and, more importantly, fuels envoys are ideal targets for opposing forces. Not only is the transport of fuel to battle zones a massive drain on taxpayers but it also costs lives – in 2007 there were 170 US Army casualties killed in fuel convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fully burdened cost of fuel (FBCF) is a metric used by the DoD to account for the true overall cost of providing fuel to battle zones. It includes the cost of logistics crews, the transport of fuel to remote hostile environments and the cost of providing a security presence to enable safe delivery. The FBCF is 10 to 100 times that of the wholesale cost of fuel, making the deployment of renewable energy such as solar PV that much more attractive. Groundmounted PV panels could easily operate within army bases and, in addition, the use of smaller portable generators would be invaluable for expeditionary missions.

Unfortunately, there’s is a small sense of irony in all this. It could be argued that there would be no need for western forces to be currently engaged in certain conflicts if the use of renewables and complementary technology–specifically electric vehicles–was more widespread. The chances of Australian forces committing to action in the Middle East would be a lot lower if our society was less dependent on combustion fuels. Perhaps the best way to fight these wars is to not fight at all but rather change the way we source energy at home.

Top Image Credit: SEIA

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John Rodriguez