NATO May Be Planning to Build Solar Panel-Powered Tanks

Could solar panels actually power a heavy battle tank?
Chris Young
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NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently called for solar panels to be used to help power "heavy battle tanks or fighter jets and naval ships," at an online seminar titled New Ideas for NATO 2030 — whose transcript is published on the NATO website.

During the seminar, Stoltenberg addressed the fact that the militaries of the world need to take action to curb their considerable CO2 emissions — which are so sizeable they exceed entire countries.

"NATO should do its part to look into how we can reduce emissions from military operations," Stoltenberg explained. "We know that heavy battle tanks or fighter jets and naval ships, they consume a lot of fossil fuel and emit greenhouse or co2, and therefore we do have to look into how we can reduce those emissions by alternative fuels, solar panels, other ways of running our missions."

NATO May Be Planning to Build Solar Panel-Powered Tanks
The Challenger 2, a NATO main battle tank. Source: Graeme Main/Wikimedia Commons

Stoltenberg also described the way that reducing reliance on fossil fuel could increase the resilience of troops and military operations, which are often conducted in regions where fuel transport is an extra hurdle to mission success.

"If we can make [ourselves] less dependent [on vulnerable supply lines], we are both reducing emissions, but at the same time, increasing the military effectiveness, the resilience of our troops," the NATO chief said. "So we are working on that with different projects to look into how we can make our militaries greener and less dependent on fossil fuels." 

Combat's carbon footprint

Breaking down the carbon footprint of these vehicles, and indeed global military organizations give us a more rounded view over Stoltenberg's comments — which can be characterized as massive understatements when it comes to military fossil fuel consumption.

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According to an SGR reportthe carbon footprint of EU military expenditure in 2019 was more than 24.8 million tCO2e — equivalent to the annual CO2 emission of approximately 14 million average cars. However, the same report points out data quality issues with the estimate, stating that the number may, in fact, be conservative.

A 2019 study, meanwhile, shows that the US military is more of a polluter than 140 countries combined. As for tanks themselves, The National News reports that "the carbon emissions from a 60-tonne US Abrams main battle tank are calculated to be the equivalent of 10 Mercedes-Benz cars."

Could solar panels actually power a heavy battle tank?

Powering a tank via current solar technology would be, by all accounts, incredibly unpractical — though advances in solar, such as Perovskite cells, do stand to improve efficiency and durability.

Given the fact that solar panel-powered car technology is still in its infancy, and industry leaders such as the Light Year One, are currently only capable of approximately 7.5 mph (12km/h) of charging via solar, the technology still has a long way to go — especially as a US Army armored division requires the energy of up to 500,000 gallons of fuel a day.

NATO May Be Planning to Build Solar Panel-Powered Tanks
Solar-powered vehicles, such as the Light Year One, are still a burgeoning technology. Source: Light Year

Still, a recent article by The Driven explains how hybrid-electric propulsion systems could be used in the short term to help improve tank performance by providing power for sub-systems, reducing supply chain demand, simplifying maintenance, and a host of other applications. The underlying takeaway is that incremental steps can be implemented as we prepare for oncoming breakthroughs in renewables.

"We all have a responsibility to do more to combat climate change," Stoltenberg explained in the online seminar. "Which is why we are looking at how NATO can play our part in reaching Net Zero." Given the fact that NATO was devised as a peacekeeping organization in Europe, it has a great responsibility to halt the ongoing climate crisis.

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