YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — Later this year, two Army brigades will deploy to Afghanistan wth portable solar panels, capable of powering the units’ electrical equipment, the Army announced recently.
Under the plan, small dismounted infantry units will carry the solar panels that will allow them to stay in the field for six days, instead of two, before they need to be resupplied, according to Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army (Energy & Sustainability).
The panels also can recharge batteries, which means less weight for soldiers in the war zones as well as cost savings, Kidd said.
“Last year for the first time, the Army spent more than half of its funding for batteries on rechargeable batteries,” he said. “When the war in Afghanistan started, only 2 percent of our batteries were rechargeable.”
The move is part of the Army’s initiative to find alternative energy sources for its soldiers and bases.
“The Army doesn’t have any green initiatives in terms of being green for green’s sake,” Kidd said. “The Army has a range of energy and security and sustainability initiatives that are associated with mission success on our installations or in operations overseas.”
Even in this era of budget austerity — the Defense Department is looking at nearly $500 billion in spending cuts — the Army wants to nearly triple spending on its alternative energy programs from $120 million this year to $346 million in fiscal 2013.
The money will help fund biomass, wind and solar energy generation as well as work to make on-post buildings more energy efficient.
Other green initiatives include the construction of “micro-grids” to manage power at Army installations. Forts Sill, Bliss, Carson and Hunter Liggett already have micro-grids that allow for alternative energy to power the bases if there is an outage in the national grid. The micro-grids can cut power to nonessential services, such as gymnasiums and food courts, so that the lights can stay on in places such as command posts and fire stations. They are more efficient than the Army’s existing backup systems, which are generators that can be turned on to power essential services in emergencies, Kidd said.
The service also is pushing ahead with efforts to reduce fuel consumption by its fleet of 86,000 nontactical vehicles — the federal government’s largest fleet outside the U.S. Postal Service.
“Last year, we reduced petrol consumption by 8 percent by replacing gas guzzlers, more efficient use of the fleet and downsizing,” Kidd said.
A key part of that effort is making sure the right vehicles are used. For example, workers inspecting water meters, who used to drive Chevy Suburban pickup trucks on some bases, now drive smaller Ford Focus cars, he said.
It makes sense to keep investing in energy efficiency, even as the defense budget shrinks, said Peter Singer, a defense researcher at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
“You have to look at the issue of spending and savings beyond just one budget cycle,” Singer said. “Some added spending now is worthwhile if it ends up saving you more money and more lives in the longer term.”