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No Blood for... Solar Power?

Last Thursday, the Christian Science Monitor reported on an unusual memo from the staff of Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, the highest-ranking Marine officer in Iraqs troubled Anbar Province. According to the Monitor, and to more comprehensive treatments in Inside Defense and Defense Industry Daily, Zilmer asked the Pentagon to find a way to get "solar panels and wind turbines" into the hands of his troops. Without access to renewable energy solutions, Zilmer expects to see "continued casualty accumulation [which] exhibits potential to jeopardize mission success."Say what?Solar.JPGThe article in the Monitor suggests two different ways in which solar- and wind-powered generators for isolated outposts would reduce U.S. casualties. The first is that "despite desert temperatures, the hot 'thermal signature' of a diesel generator can call enemy attention to U.S. outposts." How, exactly, an array of solar panels and wind turbines would make U.S. troops less conspicuous in a country bristling with diesel generators is left unclear.The second argument holds more water. As hard as it is to believe, diesel and other refined petroleum products are actually imported into Iraq by truck, largely from Turkey. And fuel convoys not to mention the U.S. troops riding in them are some of the most tempting targets to insurgents: in August 2005, for example, the Army 1st Corps Support Command alone was reporting 30 IED attacks a week.All that fuel convoyin' costs not only lives, but money, too. Military estimates for the cost of one gallon of generator fuel delivered to a unit at a forward position range from $100 to $400. This is a problem.(If youre curious to know how they get those types of numbers for a single gallon of fuel, take a gander at this LMI presentation, from 2004, which cranks out an estimate of $3 per kilowatt-frickin'-hour or about $120 per gallon of fuel consumed on the battlefield, compared to $0.40/kWh ($16/gallon) to run those same generators stateside. If this stateside number seems high, too, remember that the number represents all costs associated with turning that gallon of fuel into useful energy, including personnel costs, equipment depreciation, and so on.)So, what can be done?Right now, theres no easy answer. Arlington, Va.-based SkyBuilt Power offers a containerized, deployable solar-/wind-powered generating station which has gotten a lot of press, but the system, which produces "0.5 kW to 150 kW or more," is reported by the Monitor to go for a neat $100,000.Still, that price tag looks a lot less scary when you keep in mind the absurd cost of running a diesel generator on the battlefield. According to the Monitor, Zilmers memo estimated that a system like SkyBuilts would pay for itself in three to five years.That, of course, is probably why In-Q-Tel, the CIAs own venture-cap firm, is one of SkyBuilts big backers.Part of the logistics crunch which is feeding those convoy casualty rates has more to do with inept planning than with a lack of available technology. In February 2006, the engineering journal IEEE Spectrum published a must-read article describing how diesel fuel is trucked in from Turkey to power Baghdads main power station, even while the natural gas which could power the same turbines, if the appropriate equipment were installed, is flared off as waste at an oilfield across the street.Obviously, renewable energy isn't going to solve problems on the scale of Iraq's FUBARed power grid, nor will it solve problems that are really about planning, and not technology. And just as obviously, there's no mature technology out there ready to take the place of every diesel generator and internal combustion engine in the U.S. armory.But as I wrote almost a year ago, the Department of Defense can't afford to sit around and wait for someone else to mature those technologies: "the mature renewable-energy and fuel-efficient technology of the future may never appear in reality until it appears among DARPA's 'Areas of Interest.'"Since I wrote those words, I'm glad to say that there's been all sorts of movement on this front. And the publicity garnered by Zilmers memo can only help matters along.So next time you hear about a company thats developing better solar cells, or more efficient wind turbines, pay attention. Theyre not just Mother Natures best friends they may well be a jarhead's best friend.-- Haninah Levine

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