Defense goes renewable: The adoption of renewable energy by the military

Robin Whitlock

PHILIPPINE SEA(Feb. 22, 2016) USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) sails through the Philippine Sea. Providing a ready force supporting security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, Stennis is operating as part of the Great Green Fleet on a regularly scheduled 7th Fleet deployment. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Cole C. Pielop/Released) 160222-N-BR087-844 Join the conversation: USS John C Stennis sailing through the Philippine Sea as part of the Great Green Fleet [Image Source: US Navy, Flickr]

The Zephyr 8 is a High Altitude Pseudo Satellite (HAPS), or at least it will be when the first one rolls out of the Airbus Defense and Space facility at Farnborough, UK, in mid-2017. HAPS will basically be a solar-powered drone, driven by two wing-mounted propellers and fitted with a number of communication devices. It will be able to fly at 65,000 feet, enabling it to stay clear of adverse weather systems with its main mission being to provide persistent airborne surveillance over land and sea for months at a time.

The order for the craft was submitted by the UK Ministry of Defense (MoD). It follows a similar craft called the Zephyr 7 HAPS which had a wingspan of 22.5 meters and flew continuously for 11 days in 2014, breaking the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV or ‘drone’) endurance record. This was accomplished in winter and with only short periods of daylight to enable the craft to recharge its batteries. The Zephyr 8 will have a wingspan of 25 meters, be 30 percent lighter and will be able to carry 50 percent more batteries. It will also be able to carry a much greater payload than its predecessor.

Understandably, the MoD is keeping fairly quiet about how the craft will be used, but the November 2015 Strategic Defense and Security Review provided some indication, given its call for advanced communications equipment for Britain’s Special Forces, including advanced high-altitude surveillance aircraft. Aside from purely military tasks, the Zephyr 8 could find itself being deployed on humanitarian missions, farming, environmental and security monitoring and to provide internet coverage in areas of poor or zero connectivity.

It’s an impressive project, but if you thought this was the only use to which the military is putting renewable energy, you’d be wrong. Although it's mostly the United States that has embraced renewables thus far, the UK is following on behind and NATO countries are also starting to look at this.

In the UK, the MoD is attempting to make the country’s armed forces more ‘climate resilient’, but the US is way ahead in terms of trying to wean itself off fossil fuels, having made absolutely clear its concern about climate change and the security issues it will have to address in a warming world, as well as its own ability to operate.

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“Climate change in fact is a national security issue” said Colonel Dan Nolan, US Army (Retired) in the 2011 documentary Carbon Nation. “This is no longer the purview of Birkenstock-wearing tree huggers. Not that there's anything wrong with that.”

rsz_us_army_corps_of_engineers US Army Corps of Engineers solar PV array at the Battle Command Training Center at Fort Bragg, California [Image Source: US Army Corps of Engineers, Flickr]

This concern on the part of the US military has in turn produced a ‘crossover’ effect in that UK defense contractors are now themselves looking at renewable technology, and not solely with regard to military contracts. Rolls Royce made a move into the sector back in 2009, acquiring Tidal Generation Ltd before selling it on to Alstom in early 2013. Elsewhere, private companies in the UK, such as Carillion, are starting to bid for contracts in military housing. The Carillion venture was a £1.2 billion private-public partnership for military accommodation, but other companies such as Landmarc Support Services have gone into other areas of military support, with Landmarc installing a wind turbine at a firing range in Cumbria’s Warcop Training Area.

In recent years, the British Army conducted an exercise called FOBEX, the aim being to assess how renewable energy and the smart grid could help forward operating bases (FOBs) become self-sufficient. Power FOB looked at fuel efficiency and renewable energy with trials being conducted in Kenya and Cyprus.

Lockheed Martin joined with the Chinese Reignwood Group to develop a 10 MW pilot plant that will use ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) for electricity generation. This involves exploitation of the temperature differential between cooler deep ocean waters and warmer shallower waters to run a heat engine which in turn generates electricity. Lockheed believes the technology to be particularly suited to island and coast communities where it could be available all day every day, thereby being able to supply baseload power that other renewables, apart perhaps from biogas, are unable to provide. The plant will be the largest of its kind upon completion. In 2012, Lockheed also secured a $3 million contract with the US Office of Naval Research to design and develop solid oxide fuel cell generator sets for use on the battlefield. These would be integrated with solar panels in order to cut fuel consumption for tactical electricity generation by at least 50 percent.

SEE ALSO: Keuka Energy to deliver first US offshore wind farm

Pike Research, part of Navigant Energy, estimates that total US Department of Defense (DOD) renewable energy capacity will quadruple from 80 MW in 2013 to more than 3200 MW by 2025. These efforts will be worth almost $1.8 billion according to research analyst Dexter Gauntlett, making the US defense forces one of the most important drivers of renewable energy technology in the country. In 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order requiring a 30 percent reduction in energy use by federal agencies. This was followed by a US Army energy policy in 2010 called Net Zero which required the use of energy generated on site, including the deployment of solar technology at forward bases in Afghanistan. Another program by the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) is investing the use of renewable fuel in jet aircraft. These initiatives, although taking climate change into account, are mostly driven by concern about energy security and fuel economy. Net Zero is solely a US Army initiative, but the other departments have equally substantial programs and targets.

USDA The Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm Service Agency (FSA) Hawaii State Executive Director Diane Ley prepares to depart Hickam Air Force Base for the Great Green Fleet's RIMPAC exercise in 2012 [Image Source: US Department of Agriculture, Flickr]

For example, the Great Green Fleet, a US Navy initiative, embraces the Navy’s target of at least 50 percent of fuel used by the Navy and Marines from non-fossil fuel sources by 2025. The fleet itself first embarked in 2012 during the RIMPAC exercise. It included the carrier USS Admiral Nimitz which is powered by nuclear, although all its strike aircraft are now using a 50:50 mix of petroleum and biofuel produced from cooking oil and algae. The fleet’s escort ships use a similar fuel mix. The fleet deployed fully in January this year with advanced technology in fuel, equipment and navigation including Energy Conservation Measures (ECMs) such as the Shipboard Energy Dashboard, Stern Flaps, an in-flight refueling practice called Short-Cycle Mission and Recovery Tanking (SMART), Solid State Lighting using light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and a Thermal Management Control System (TMCS).

This is only a small part of what the US military is currently doing, with other initiatives using the full gamut of renewable energy technologies from wind to solar to biomass. Other countries starting to look at renewable energy deployment include Cyprus and Germany in Europe (alongside the UK). Other than that, renewable energy adoption by the military elsewhere in the world is still in its infancy, although you can be sure that won’t be the case for too much longer.

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