Yesterday's article in the New York Times about the U.S. military's need to move away from fossil fuel reminded me of an interesting email exchange I had recently with Terry Bollinger, a technology analyst at MITRE Corp., concerning the military's interest in renewable energy.
I asked Terry what interest does the DoD have in alternative energy. If anyone would know, it's Terry, given that he works for the Navy and DoD. Here’s his response:
What’s one of the easiest ways to remove fighting capability from a remote military base? Starve them of energy, and you’re well on your way.
What is one of the most dangerous things to do in supplying energy (gas, batteries) to a remote site in a hostile area? Driving a caravan of fuel (or water!) trucks.
What do military jets need most? Incredibly concentrated energy, which translates into hydrocarbons that still rule the roost on energy density per kg, and which are very costly to transport into military contexts (read “might locally produced biofuels help?” on that one – very unlikely in the short term, but who knows in the long term?).
What does an individual soldier in dangerous territory need most after basic food and water? Energy to power radios and other electronic devices, comms in particular being more critical to survival in such a situation than firepower, regardless of what Rambo movies might make you think. Think also of the value of Google Earth if lost in the wild. Think then of running out of AA batteries while using it…
And here’s a surprising one: What’s one of the best ways to leave a remote, non-networked village with a favorable overall impression of troops that moved through? Leave them with sustainable sources of power to get them more in touch with the outside would and make life a bit easier. (On that one, as Dean Kaman eloquently notes, supplying clean water can be even more critical, but that in turn depends on power. He actually likes working with the DoD because in his experience the Marines e.g. are actually more effective at getting water and power technologies deployed and working in remote foreign areas than is the State Department.)
So, alternative energy and especially local, sustainable sources of power are needed at every level of scale, from small nuclear plants (when they are an acceptable solution, which is seldom) to help bases be self-sustaining, through fuel-saving and fuel-extending techniques for deployed units and mobile vehicles, down to solar cells and fuel cells for soldiers and the individual pieces of equipment they carry. All levels can make a difference in capability and safety.”
Takeaway: If you’re a designer interested in renewable energy and are looking for an opportunity to exercise your talents, this may well be an avenue to pursue, if you aren’t already.