U.S. Military Links Alternative Energy Research to Lives--and Dollars—Saved
Originally published in Scientific American on March 3, 2011
By David Biello
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Flexible solar cells now power communications equipment used by U.S. Marines fighting in Afghanistan's Helmand Province, enabling them to shed 315 kilograms worth of batteries while on foot patrol. But an F-16 fighter jet flying over Miramar training base in California burns 105 liters of jet fuel a minute with its afterburners engaged whereas the C-17 cargo consumes 11,350 liters an hour.
That heavy reliance on oil—much of it imported—presents a real challenge to the U.S. military. As Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., put it in an address to the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-e) conference here on March 2: "We are reliant on our adversaries for our national security."
That's why the U.S. Defense (DoD) and Energy (DoE) departments are partnering on initiatives to further develop and test energy-storage technologies first developed by ARPA-e. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced two such development and deployment partnerships on March 2 for power electronics modules and batteries capable of storing megawatts of power—both to be funded by a requested $25 million each from DoD and ARPA–e in the fiscal year 2012 budget.
"Twenty-five million dollars is the cost of one H-1 helicopter," Mabus said. "The change that $25 million from DoD and ARPA–e can generate, can multiply that one helicopter hundreds and thousands of times.”
Mabus was referring to saving both lives—for every 24 fuel convoys in Afghanistan and Iraq, one soldier or Marine is killed or wounded, according to a U.S. Army study—and money. The DoD fuel bill came to some $14 billion in 2010. "For every dollar the price of a barrel of oil goes up, the Navy spends $31 million more for fuel," Mabus noted. "Our dependence on fossil fuels creates strategic, operational and tactical vulnerabilities for our forces."
The Navy has taken a lead in attempting to change that, setting a goal of deriving half its energy needs from non–fossil fuel sources by 2020 as well as making half of its bases energy self-sufficient. Already, the Navy has ordered some 150,000 liters of jet fuel derived from Camelina—an oil-seed plant like canola—and more than 75,000 liters of diesel like fuel for ships from algae, an order the U.S. Air Force has matched by requisitioning 150,000 liters of bio–jet fuel. "The Navy has taken delivery of its first algae-based jet fuel. We're not talking about some environmental weirdos, we're talking about the Navy," former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) noted in an address to the ARPA–E conference on March 1. "Why should a dried up little country with a crazy dictator like Libya play havoc with America's energy future?"
Read the rest on Scientific American to learn about the Navy’s first hybrid electric-drive ship and its advantages over one fueled by gas:
Editor's Note: David Biello is the host of the forthcoming sequel to the award-winning Beyond the Light Switch. The series, produced in partnership with Scientific American, will continue to explore how transformation is coming to how we use and produce electricity, impacting the economy, the environment and national security.