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Renewable Energy at Work in War Zones

Participant in NREL's executive leadership class aims to bring solar and wind energy to Afghan farms; researchers advise military on powering bases.

Renewable Energy at Work in War Zones

Military Bases in Afghanistan Have Great Solar Potential

NREL scientists and engineers haven't hesitated to fly to war zones when military brass call on them to assess the potential for renewable energy at Marine, Army and Air Force bases. Full story.

Ever since Don Quixote tilted at wind mills, warfare and renewable energy have had a rough relationship.

It's tough to erect wind turbines or solar panels when the enemy keeps blowing things up.

Still, Lt. Col. Brian Stevens of the Texas Army National Guard is determined to try.

Stevens leads a group of 66 soldiers who want to help bring sustainable agriculture and renewable energy to rural Afghanistan.

A self described military brat who "grew up all over the world," Stevens is in the Energy Executives Leadership Program, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Energy Execs are leaders who want to learn about renewable energy to help guide the future energy decisions of their companies, organizations or communities. This year, 20 Energy Execs gather at NREL once a month for energy education sessions.

"There's no national power grid in Afghanistan," Stevens said during a break in the education sessions. "Power is generated where it's needed, usually using a diesel generator."

In this photo, an Afghan elder with a gray beard talks to three American soldiers on a dusty gravel road, while a U.S. military truck appears in the background atop a hill. Enlarge image

Lt. Col. Brian Stevens of the Texas National Guard, second from right, meets with an Afghan elder in southeastern Afghanistan to discuss the future of sustainable agriculture including possible wind and solar power applications.
Credit: Capt. Charles Peters

Stevens hopes to change that, knowing that the task is formidable.

"There's a little bit of micro-hydro power, a little bit of wind, a little bit of solar already in Afghanistan, built by Coalition units, the Afghan government, and non-government organizations," Stevens said. "Unfortunately it's usually not very sustainable by the Afghan government. In most cases, they don't have the trained people, the supplies or the means to continue the operations. As soon as the sponsors pull away, the installations typically don't survive very long.

Education Key to Sustaining Renewable Projects

"Any projects that we would build directly would become lucrative targets of the Taliban," said Stevens, who enlisted in the Army as a young man, served eight years, got a college education and has been with the Texas National Guard for more than 20 years.

So, instead of immediately erecting devices that will catch the wind or the sun's rays, his National Guard unit will focus on education and how to integrate these capabilities into the agricultural sector.

"We're hoping to work with the Afghan government to implement a curriculum at the college, then build a demonstration plant that the university would own," Stevens said. "They could use it as a hands-on solar and wind power learning experience. That way you'd have educated young people able to sustain projects and build bigger projects down the road, while they also develop suppliers and experience."

The Taliban and Al Qaeda can blow up things and chase the population away, but "they can't take that knowledge out of their heads," Stevens said. "Eventually, they'll get some traction out of that."

Stevens has worked on rebuilding projects before in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a civil affairs officer and adviser. He thinks the technical knowledge he learns at Energy Execs will help his newest idea succeed.

"The folks we've met at NREL, to a person, are remarkably enthusiastic and excited about what they're doing," Stevens said. "That optimism and enthusiasm … you can see that, too, in a successful military unit."

He's already learned that NREL, Stanford University and some other partners have put together curriculum packages for renewable energy. "We're looking to see how it can translate over in Afghanistan," he said.

His unit wants to improve refrigeration in arid, temperate Afghanistan. It won't be refrigeration like Americans know the term. "It will still be in cellar-type rooms underground," he said. "We'll be applying some dehumidification techniques and some minor cooling. That's about the most we'll be able to hope for."

"We'll also try to work with the Afghan government and universities to teach and train more efficient irrigation techniques," Stevens said. "Renewable energy will be a component of that."

Making the Most of Windy Months, Sunny Months

This photo shows Lt. Col. Brian Stevens and other NREL Energy Execs looking at a car while listening to a talk. Enlarge image

Lt. Col. Brian Stevens, center, discusses battery technologies in plug-in electric hybrid vehicles with NREL Engineer Michael Simpson, right, during the June class of the NREL Executive Energy Leadership Program. Stevens was selected from a national pool of candidates for participation in the five-month leadership program.
Credit: Janice Rooney

Most of all, Stevens wants to avoid doing something counterproductive, such as building wind farms where the wind isn't strong enough, or putting up solar panels where there is too much shade.

So far, the most successful renewable energy program in Afghanistan has used micro-hydro, generating power from the substantial spring melt off of snow running down the mountains.

Afghanistan has a four-month windy season in the spring, the same time of year when micro-hydro has the greatest potential. In the summer, it gets hot and dry in many places, ideal for generating solar energy.

"I don't know yet how we sustain it in the winter, when they get cold, snow and more cloud cover," Stevens said.

"But we have a great, great team, super motivated, almost all of them volunteers, from security guys to agricultural experts, to mechanical engineers and leadership," Stevens said of his Army National Guard command.

"Everything we do will be with and through the Afghan government," Stevens emphasized. "If we help them develop an increasing capacity to supply services to the people, it increases their legitimacy and allows them to continue to lead."

Stevens said the West has made several mistakes in Afghanistan over several decades, often by "applying a western solution to the problem. We fix it and then we walk away. It's not something they can maintain."

The university in his province has a partnership with Texas A&M University. "Hopefully, that will impel relationships that endure beyond us," he said.

Still, "In Afghanistan, even the easy stuff is hard, politically complicated," Stevens said. "And you have the Taliban and anti-government forces. Some of them are just criminals, opportunists wanting to get their cut. So they don't want to see this (reconstruction success) happen.

"But the Afghan people by and large are awesome. There is the extreme element in every country. But most of the Afghan people want the same things we do — security, drinking water, they want their kids to be able to go to school. There is an element that wants to establish a functional government, and an extremist element that wants power and control to further their objectives. We want to help empower the government to increase its ability to provide reliable security and services to the people. By doing this, we can help protect the Afghan people and prevent the extremists from attacking our country again.

"Generally, the Afghans are great people, very hospitable and gracious. They just don't have many of the great opportunities that we have, yet."

Learn more about NREL's Executive Energy Leadership Program.

— Bill Scanlon

Military Bases in Afghanistan Have Great Solar Potential

Photo is a close-up of Barnett in his NREL office. Enlarge image

NREL scientist John Barnett discusses his trip to Afghanistan where he made several recommendations to save money with renewable energy
Credit: Pat Corkery

NREL scientists and engineers haven't hesitated to fly to war zones when military brass call on them to assess the potential for renewable energy at Marine, Army and Air Force bases.

They sleep in barracks, eat in mess halls and duck the occasional explosions alongside the professional soldiers.

John Barnett arrived at a U.S. base in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, last September, part of a Marine Corps team charged with finding ways to reduce the number of truck trips needed to supply American troops.

Convoys of trucks carry diesel fuel, bottled water and other supplies to U.S. military bases in southern Afghanistan, across rugged roads controlled by Taliban forces and tribal chieftains.

Every convoy that doesn't have to roll across the dangerous roads means cost savings and, more important, reduced risk to Afghan and American lives. Retired Brig. Gen. Steve Anderson, Gen. David Patraeus's senior logistician in Iraq, estimates that more than 1,000 Americans have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan hauling fuel to power tents and buildings. Fewer truck trips would save billions of dollars and the lives of the truck drivers, he said.

"The convoys are obvious targets," said Barnett, who works in the Integrated Applications Office at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Private Afghani contractors bring supplies to the main bases. They make their way through hostile areas with the help of convoy crew members representing local villages and tribes. U.S. troops then provide transport to outlying bases, which are the most dangerous and expensive part of the supply chain."

Cutting Down on Truck Trips Can Save Lives

Barnett and the Marine Corps team noted that about half of the cargo in these life-risking convoys was bottled water. But it turned out that every base visited had good potential for water wells. The team recommended that commanders take advantage of the local water, test and certify the supply at each base and eliminate the need to import bottled water in convoys.

Much of the rest of the cargo in those truck convoys is diesel fuel to power the bases — from lights to refrigeration, computers to air conditioning and heating.

In the necessary urgency to get bases up and running early in a war, electrical loads are hooked up to generators without much attention to efficiency, Barnett said. "The generators we saw tended to be loaded at 25 percent or less of their capacity," he said. "But loading around 75 percent is best for efficiency and lifetime.

"Increasing the load on individual generators could immediately save around 40 percent of fuel used to generate electricity at one large base — and they could turn half their generators off."

Blazing sun in Afghanistan Can Power Lights, Batteries, Showers

Barnett next turned his attention to the potential for renewable energy.

"The solar resource in Helmand Province is outstanding," Barnett said. "Solar water heating is a great option, and could improve conditions for soldiers who often seem to run out of warm water for showers. And there are plenty of rooftop and brownfield options for photovoltaic (PV) arrays." Brownfields are sites where toxins or other pollutants have made the land unsuitable for some uses.

Barnett also noted the potential for waste-to-energy generation at large bases. "At the big bases, tons of garbage are produced every day, and until recently it was just burned in an open pit," he said. "That's electricity waiting to be made."

Installing renewable energy and connecting it to a smart grid is a great way to win over local people, who can enjoy the fruits of the clean energy long after the American soldiers are gone, Barnett said.

The benefits of renewable energy are no less important for small bases. "With their modest power requirements of several kilowatts, the smallest bases should be able to get to net zero energy—producing as much energy as they need using local renewable resources," he said.

Barnett and the Marine team delivered their recommendations to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, emphasizing near-term priorities. The recommendations were well received. Gen. Conway, the Marine Corps Commandant, is an outspoken advocate of energy efficiency, renewables, and sustainable "green" planning.

"Of course, in order to get any new equipment deployed to theater, it has to be proven in field conditions," Barnett said. So the Marine Corps has established an Experimental Forward Operating Base at Quantico to demonstrate field applications of commercial technologies and help speed the successful ones overseas.

Air Force Bases in Qatar, Afghanistan, Can Make Solar Energy Work

Mike Helwig was a naval officer for 20 years and a defense analyst for three years before beginning work at NREL. Earlier this year he was asked to go to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, and Kandahar Air Base and Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan to make recommendations about how to save energy for the U.S. Air Force as part of an eight-person assessment team.

Helwig found that in Qatar, the local utility was charging the U.S. Air Force base 49 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity. At that price, renewable energy options can be extremely attractive.

"It's perfect for solar there," Helwig said. "There is plenty of sunshine and the ground is flat. My major renewable energy recommendation for Al Udeid Air Base was that we should give large-scale solar a shot, subject to a feasibility study. I see no reason why that won't work, assuming we can work out the details with local contractors and the government."

His only concern was the dust that settles everywhere, including on any potential solar cells pointed toward the sun. "You can clean them and sometimes five minutes later, they're covered with dust again. But our solar experts tell me that's not as much a factor as you might think. You can still get a fair amount of electricity from a less than completely clean PV system. There appears to be a great opportunity there."

Learn more about NREL's work in applying renewable energy technologies.

— Bill Scanlon


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