DoD, Energy to fund new hybrid energy research

The Defense and Energy departments will team up on a pair of multimillion dollar research projects. The goal is to give the military access to secure, reliable ...

The departments of Defense and Energy will partner to spend tens of millions of dollars on projects intended to enable the military to store and use renewable energy on its hundreds of bases around the world, as well as in deployed scenarios, including aboard Navy ships and in the backpacks of forward-deployed Marine units.

The research projects, if they are funded by Congress, will aim to make progress on one of the biggest challenges of alternative energy development, said Navy Secretary Ray Mabus. He said the two departments have made big advances in generating renewable energy for military applications, but storing that power for use when and where it’s needed remains a challenge.

Mabus announced the DoD-DoE partnership at last week’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy < a href="" target="_blank">conference in National Harbor, Md. ARPA-E is a newly-created research arm of the Energy department. “How do we create stable delivery of renewable energy from power sources like solar or like wind that are as variable and sometimes as inconsistent as, I don’t know, the weather?” Mabus asked.

The research partnership is a follow-on to a memorandum of understanding that DoD and Energy signed last year, as well as the energy policies DoD expressed in last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review. In the QDR, DoD said it intended to make itself a test bed for the renewable technologies DoE’s labs are developing.

Mabus said he thinks the two Defense research projects have the potential to make it into the mass marketplace, following in the footsteps of the Internet and GPS.

One research program will focus on mobile uses, including for deployed Marines, who already are using solar to generate power in remote, forward deployed areas of Afghanistan, Mabus said.

“They’ve got these flexible solar panels they roll up and stick in the back of their packs, and take to charge their radios and their small electronics, and because of doing this, a foot patrol is able to operate without 700 pounds of batteries,” he said.

Although that works well while the panels are unrolled, the sun is shining and electronics are being actively charged, Mabus said photons that could otherwise be put to use are going to waste. He said the military needed to have a way to store that energy and take advantage of it where and when needed.

To produce equipment with that capability, DoD and ARPA-E have each asked for $25 million in their 2012 budgets to produce portable hybrid energy storage modules capable of storing large quantities of power, and charging and discharging energy quickly.

“With this module we’ll be able to store that energy for use at almost any time, and do so by building expeditionary tactical energy distribution networks from individual modules,” he said. “This means fewer Marines guarding (fuel) convoys, and less effort, less money getting fuel to the battlefield.”

Mabus said the Navy envisions those hybrid modules having important applications aboard ships as well. Just as in the commercial world, Navy vessels are being loaded up with more and more technology, and each new high-tech component is hungry for power.

“They’re also a critical step toward solving one of the shipboard integration challenges associated with the development of electric weapons, things like rail guns, things like directed energy weapons,” he said. “These require huge amounts of power, which have to be rapidly discharged to make them work right. Right now we’re working on doing that repeatedly and reliably, and energy storage is a big part of that solution.”

A second project Defense and Energy want to partner on would have the same goal – but for 500 military bases rather than individual deployed units. Mabus said they will build on research ARPA-E already is doing in a project that envisions an entire electric grid that can store renewable energy and distribute it where and when it’s needed.

Underlying Mabus’ push for energy alternatives is a sense that reliance on fossil fuels is a strategic vulnerability for members of the military, he said.

“All you have to do is look at the headlines. It makes them too susceptible to supply and price shocks caused by instability or natural disasters in volatile areas of the world where most of our fossil fuels are produced,” he said. “We would never allow these regions to build our ships. We would never allow these folks to build our aircraft or our ground vehicles. But we give them a say in whether our ships sail, our aircraft fly or our ground vehicles work.”

Mike McCord, DoD’s deputy comptroller, said aside from being costly on a day-to-day basis, oil is notoriously difficult to budget for. He said the unpredictability of the commodity is among the reasons that DoD does not believe it would have enough funds to make it through the year under a 2010 continuing resolution.

“We’re never going to get this right,” McCord said. “We have to work with [the Office of Management and Budget on kind of broad-based assumptions. The Department of Energy has the expertise on forecasting and then we adapt somewhat to our particular situation. But we’re very sensitive to it as a huge consumer of fuel. I think the latest figure I’ve seen is that for every dollar per-barrel price increase is about $130 million to us. We’ve seen that price go up quite a bit in the last couple of weeks. Historically, Congress has been pretty understanding in working with us when we do find wild price swings, but there’s no guarantee of that.”

McCord said one of the concerns the Defense Department has about the House-passed 2011 budget for DoD is that it reduces the cash accounts the department uses to pay for fuel price increases by $2 billion at a time when oil is getting more expensive, rather than less.

Mabus said for the Navy alone, each one-dollar increase in per-barrel oil prices translates into $31 million dollars in costs.

“If the price goes up $30 a barrel, which it has more than once in the last decade, that’s a billion dollars,” he said. “A billion dollars we can’t use for other things, a billion dollars that we can’t budget for. A billion extra dollars that goes just to power the ships and airplanes and ground vehicles that we have.”

For the Navy, Mabus said the current debate over the viability of alternative energy sources has echoes of the past. The service has, over its history, made the switch from wind, to coal, to oil, to nuclear.

“In every one of these cases there were naysayers who said, ‘you’re trading one form of very proven energy for another where we just don’t know if it’s going to work-it’s too expensive, it’s too hard, it’s too unproven,'” he said. “In fact, when we went from sail to coal, the uniformed officers of the Navy objected, saying that sail had been proven for thousands of years, what were we doing.”

(Copyright 2011 by All Rights Reserved.)

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