The Army is aiming to shrink its carbon bootprint in 2011.

Following in the footsteps of the Marines, which sent an initial wave of renewable energy technology into Afghanistan this past fall, the Army plans to field its own batch of specialized equipment to minimize its fuel needs.

The goal is to require fewer dangerous deliveries through rugged terrain in Afghanistan. Its approach will be two-pronged.

The Army thinks its first line of attack will be to ensure that it better manages the amount of power coursing from fuel-burning generators to individual buildings.

By fusing all of the power generators into a more centralized system, the hope is that a given base could slash its fuel load by about 17 percent, said Maj. Gen. Nick Justice, head of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

"What we're looking to do is lay out a grid sensor so we can turn off some of the generators we don't need," he told ClimateWire. "Then, if we have a demand peak, and we need more power, we can automatically turn on more power."

This will be accomplished with the Army's first battle zone-ready "microgrid" -- a management system that will coordinate a base's fuel-guzzling generators and automatically turn them on and off to help guarantee they are only humming when they need to do so.

Designed to work with solar equipment
Typically, this type of technology is also touted for being able to incorporate various kinds of renewable energy into the mix -- and subsequently store excess power on windy or sunny days. But for now, the Army is just focusing on reducing excess generator use while it weighs the possibility of weaving in other fuel sources, said Justice.

The microgrid technology it will be tapping will be borrowed from Fort Irwin, a base near Barstow, Calif., where it has already clocked about 1,500 hours of tests.

While the Pentagon also has a number of other microgrid projects in the works, this one has been selected mainly because its testing period is scheduled to be finished around the time the Army hopes to field it, said Michael Padden, who oversees all tactical power generation for the Defense Department as its project manager for Mobile Electric Power.

The Army's work will be "complementary" to the Marines' efforts, which have included sending portable solar panels, tents outfitted with solar cells and solar chargers for their equipment, he said.

The Army still has to decide where the microgrid, which has a 1-megawatt capacity, should have its initial run.

Proliferating a hybrid system for remote locations
To that end, Justice plans to send a small team to Afghanistan next month. It will be tasked with gauging where the microgrid should be placed among the various outposts across the country. Since the microgrid has such a small load, the team will need to hunt for a base with minimal energy needs -- probably with only about 600 people. By contrast, Bagram Airfield, one of the country's largest bases, has approximately 30,000 people.

Justice hopes the microgrid will be in place by this summer.

His team will also be hunting for remote bases that could benefit from having 3-kilowatt hybrid units they could use for powering their communications systems. Those portable units will be a blend of wind and solar technology and a battery storage device alongside a backup generator.

"We haven't completed the assessment of how many of those are going to be sent out into the field," Justice said, but "we're talking at least a hundred or more."

The hybrid units will not take a huge bite out of the Army's fuel needs, because they are so tiny, but they will reduce risk, since sending fuel convoys out to remote areas can be both risky and expensive. Guarding that fuel requires a lot of manpower and long convoys that make inviting targets for insurgents.

The biggest challenge to make these units work will be preparing troops for the cultural and technological shift, said Justice.

In the past, innovative technologies such as waste-to-energy equipment did not perform as well in the battlefield as they had when tested at home -- both because of the extreme temperatures and whipping sands -- but Justice said with any equipment, there is never a guarantee.

"You're always balancing risks," said Justice. "We are trading a greater risk for a lesser risk here," he said.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500