West Point looks to go green

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The U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, they’ve formed a partnership. Together, they want to establish a new entity called the Sustainable Infrastructure, Resilience and Climate Consortium. Here with what that’s all about, West Point Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Todd Davidson...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, they’ve formed a partnership. Together, they want to establish a new entity called the Sustainable Infrastructure, Resilience and Climate Consortium. Here with what that’s all about, West Point Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Todd Davidson spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Well, what’s going on here, this new consortium? Let’s back up to the partnership with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. How does this all work?

Todd Davidson: So I think maybe it’s important to put some of this in some quick context, understanding the importance of this topic. So the focus of SIRCC Sustainable Infrastructure Resilience and Climate Consortium is to try to help ensure that the DoD or the Department of Army and the DoD more broadly can help develop leaders and inspire leaders of character that can tackle these challenging topics far into the future. And within the context of this problem set, I think it’s really important to recognize some of the aspects that we have faced in warfighting environments in previous years. Some of which have included  the American people spending two, three, maybe even $400 per gallon of fuel to get to the frontlines of Afghanistan, it could have been on the order of 50% of casualties in Afghanistan associated with supply lines and fuel lines. It could have been that on the order of about half or more of the fuel consumed by Abrams tanks were spent while they were idling as opposed to in combat. These are challenging topics associated with the warfighting capability of U..S forces, which is directly related to trying to reduce the energy and water consumption needs of our military. On top of that, our installations and operational energy requirements face increasing challenges associated with building sustainable infrastructure, creating resilient infrastructure, and then addressing many of the potential looming challenges associated with climate. So we here at the Academy, in partnership with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations Energy Environment, have established what you noted, which is called SIRCC, the Sustainable Infrastructure, Resilience and Climate Consortium, to try to help train and educate cadets on these immense challenges that are associated with reducing our environmental footprint reducing costs. But critically, also increasing our mission capability and our warfighting capability.

Tom Temin: And by the way, at AUSA, I did see what they call an Abrams X tank, which is hybrid, there’s batteries and engine in it, the Army hasn’t started buying them. But I guess that’s kind of where things are going. So the word SIRCC has as part of its components “consortium”. So besides the two entities, the OSD and West Point, who do you envision being as part of this consortium.

Todd Davidson: So the word consortium was very purposefully used, because it’s an interdisciplinary effort across campus here at West Point. So it’s pulling together multiple departments that have basically deep expertise in the fields of sustainability and resilience and climate. Three of those primary partners are the Department of Chemistry and Life Sciences, CLS, the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, which is department which I reside in, and then the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering. So those three primary partners helped establish SIRCC but the goal of establishing this entity, this sort of central meeting node for work here at the academy, is that multiple departments, multiple centers, can all collaborate on interdisciplinary issues associated with everything associated with SIRCC, so on sustainable infrastructure, resilience and climate. And that’s intended because this challenge is not siloed in any individual topic, or any field of study. There’s everything from engineering issues, to climate issues, to management of water to political and human aspects of the challenges that we’re facing.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Todd Davidson, he’s assistant professor of mechanical engineering and deputy director of the Center for Innovation and Engineering at West Point. And it strikes me that the military requirements in these areas connected to sustainability and climate are a little bit more challenging, perhaps than in the private sector. For example, people that have electric cars, well, you put up with the fact that it can only go so far, and then you’re stuck till it charges. And so it’s everybody’s second car, and  if you got to go and come back, you use gasoline, or maybe in California, they’re okay with a grid that’s down 10% of the time. In the military, you know, you’ve got to have that mission first, ultra reliability of the platforms. So does the programmatic aspects of this the educational aspect, do you plan for it to focus on the real military requirement and not you know, the kind of pie in the sky thoughts that a lot of people have about climate?

Todd Davidson: Well, that’s a very important question. And it’s a critical thing to recognize is that every challenge that we are placing in front of the cadets should be viewed through the lens and the context and the mission of the Department of Defense. Which means that we need to ensure that any hardware machinery that we’re giving to our future soldiers and our current soldiers, is as good if not better than anything we have fielded in the past. So with that in mind, we 100% are working to try to identify and find solutions that can achieve these goals of improving our infrastructure, improving our resilience within the context of other additional future challenges that may come our way associated with climate. I think it’s really important to recognize, though, that this is all a win-win. I mean, the Abrams concept that you alluded to, has not been fielded, however, that diesel electric system may very well deliver just as much if not more torque than the existing gas turbine engines that are available on the marketplace. On top of that, if we can create a vehicle that is more fuel efficient, then we have fewer supply lines going out into the battlefield, which is quite literally protecting American lives. So it’s important to recognize that these things actually go han- in-hand, and that they really are not mutually exclusive. By reducing our energy demand, we will quite literally create a more capable fighting force. But by reducing our energy demand, we will also reduce our environmental footprint and the greenhouse gas emissions that can be attributed to the Department of Army and the Department of Defense. So the goals of SIRCC is to put these very real world challenges in front of cadets to ensure that they are aware of what the long-term implications are, if we continue to consume fuel at the rate that we’re consuming, but also to make sure that they are aware of what is the mission capability requirements of our hardware? And how can we achieve that with sort of next generation thinking of what our hardware could be?

Tom Temin: And the output of the consortium? Will it be specialized courses? And will it even be a major perhaps for cadets that want to focus on the environmental and sustainability area?

Todd Davidson: Great question. So I think the quick answer to that is that yes, we already have in many ways curriculum that is addressing a lot of these aspects. So just as an example, I teach a course on thermodynamics, which focuses on  how do internal combustion operate? We also have courses on power plants. And specifically in the context of power plants, what I mean is, what is our machinery that is being utilized to actually make a Bradley Fighting Vehicle as capable as it is. In addition to that, we’ve got courses on say wastewater management, we’ve got courses on chemistry, coming out of CLS, all of these topics are directly related to okay, what type of materials for example, could I utilize in the future that are more sustainable? Could I use, you know, cross laminated timber, for example, to be building some of our installations, which may have a lower greenhouse gas emissions, but just as sustainable in terms of long term management of our infrastructure? From the wastewater management standpoint, you know, we will have cadets that will be going in to USACE and have to consider what are some of the infrastructure challenges that all of our installations in the nation more broadly faces in terms of managing our water, our energy infrastructure, our roads, all of that is frankly, wrapped up into the concepts of sustainability. Because it’s not just about emissions. It’s also about the long-term viability of the infrastructure that we build.

Tom Temin: And I can see the role that the faculty and the different departments at West Point will play in this. What does the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations Energy and Environment, what will their role be in all of this?

Todd Davidson: So ASA IE&E has been an exceptional partner. And we’ve been working with them for a number of years on a variety of projects that span everything from understanding large outage events at installations to understanding what does it mean to roll out electrified non-tactical vehicles to all of our installations. So their role in a lot of this is helping ensure that the latest thinking, the latest problems that our installations are facing, are being brought to the table for cadets to look at and see. So we pride ourselves here at the Academy within the departments that I’ve mentioned on project-based learning, and that project-based learning involves questions that do not have easy answers. So questions that are not immediately available in a textbook. And the questions that do not have an answer in the textbook are the questions that are most contemporary right now. What are the emerging challenges that the army is facing? And how can we put cadets in front of those challenges so that they know what they’re going to need to face when they step into leadership roles in just the next few years? So ASA has been an exceptional partner, and they help bring really critical voice to In our conversation about what are the most emerging, immediate challenges that they are facing in order to improve sustainability, resilience and address issues related to climate.

Tom Temin: And I’m guessing that you know, from the standpoint of a professor, you must see a lot of incoming interest among incoming cadets, just as people throughout the society entering engineering school care about these issues to begin with?

Todd Davidson: Yes, we do. It is no exaggeration to say that there is a significant portion of youth that are very interested in trying to address the challenges related to climate change. And within the context of SIRCC this absolutely is an opportunity for, you know, youth to try to solve these problems within the context of mission of the Department of Defense. But that absolutely then has cascading benefits to society more broadly. I mean, the expensive technology that will be deployed within our fighting vehicles will inevitably propagate outward into the supply chains that will impact consumer products within the civilian sector. And so helping streamline and reduce the amount of energy that the Department of Energy needs will quite literally have these beneficial impacts that will propagate further out into what society more broadly will need if we were going to reduce our broader greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy.

Tom Temin: Todd Davidson is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and he’s deputy director of the Center for Innovation and Engineering at West Point.

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