Pentagon Looks to Smart Grids for Battlefield Energy
By Cheryl Pellerin
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 20, 2011 – The Defense Department is looking to technologies that move electricity generation and distribution into the 21st century to increase the battlefield capability of warfighters, the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs said today.
Sharon E. Burke, addressed an audience at the Military Smart Grids and Microgrids Conference in Arlington, Va.
A smart grid is an electrical grid whose capabilities are boosted by computer technology to monitor and regulate the energy that utilities generate and distribute to consumers. When it becomes fully functional over the next several years, the automated grid will be able to communicate with consumers, remotely sense and fix problems on its own network, and save users money by integrating power from wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources.
Around the United States, teams of utility companies, universities, national laboratories, state regulators and private companies are developing and demonstrating the key technologies that eventually will make up the new version of the nation’s aging electric power infrastructure.
Microgrids and minigrids are smaller and less-automated versions of smart-grid technology. They interconnect small, modular electricity-generation sources to low-voltage distribution systems, and some can be powered by a combination of petroleum-fueled generators, solar, wind and other sources.
“When you consider that we move about 50 million gallons of fuel every month right now in Afghanistan, much of which is for power generation, you begin to understand the huge financial cost of this fuel,” Burke said. Among other things, she noted, the fuel powers more than 15,000 generators in Afghanistan alone.
“That’s how we power our mission,” the assistant secretary said. “That’s the electricity our troops need to do their jobs.”
The efficiencies and capabilities associated with better combat power generation, she added, offer a range of positive outcomes that include less need for fuel, reduced noise and heat signatures, less maintenance, and a lighter force.
The Defense Department, she added, has begun to install and evaluate microgrids and minigrids for use on the battlefield and in domestic installations.
“Just two weeks ago, the Army Corps of Engineers announced $108 million in projects to centralize power generation, or so-called ‘minigridding,’ at bases throughout Afghanistan,” Burke said.
“These projects will generate and distribute power efficiently,” she added, “and that’s expected to take millions of gallons of fuel and thousands of fuel trucks off the road on an annual basis.”
The project will provide capability for the warfighter and save the Defense Department money, the assistant secretary said. “I believe their estimates are that we will see a return on that investment well within a year,” she added.
This summer, the Army deployed a 1-megawatt microgrid, or tactical microgrid, at Camp Sabalu-Harrison in Parwan, Afghanistan. Before the installation, the microgrid was tested for 3,000 hours by soldiers at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin in California’s Mojave Desert.
Despite some initial challenges in Afghanistan, the system has been running for more than two months, Burke said, “and the initial observations are that fuel use at that location is down by about 16 percent.”
The microgrid has increased operational hours, reduced generator wear and tear and can integrate solar power into the grid.
“The data we’re collecting on that microgrid is really significant, and the Army’s invested a good deal of time and effort to making sure that they’re monitoring the system to see what benefits it will actually bring,” she added. “That’s what it comes back to for us. When you’re talking about a forward-deployed tactical environment, we must see a return on capability, first and foremost.”
The Defense Department also is interested in the capability that microgrids and smart grids can offer at U.S. installations, particularly those that directly support military operations, Burke said. “Our installations are 99 percent dependent on the civilian grid, so what happens to the civilian grid happens to us,” she noted.
Although all the installations have significant backup generation capacity, Burke said, “the loss of electric power can place these critical operational missions and the homeland defense mission at a high risk of disruption.”
To address the challenge, the department has installed and planned a number of microgrids at DOD installations, an effort led by Dorothy Robyn, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment.
“We’re undertaking a number of different research, development, test and evaluation efforts in this area at domestic installations, Burke said, “and we’re very interested to see what [the lessons we’re learning] can tell us about how this technology can help us.”
Smart grid and microgrid technology eventually will help to strengthen the department’s resilience to energy price changes, the assistant secretary said.
“Better energy performance will translate to lower sustainment costs,” she added, “and that’s not a theory.”
It’s important for the department to leverage its projects and commercial projects that already are under way in a consistent approach that incorporates common standards, Burke said.
“If we have different services and different offices developing different smart grids or microgrids, the lack of interoperability for us would be a serious problem,” she added.
“Ultimately, this move to such technologies addresses the need for mission assurance and also our larger charge to reduce our energy use,” the assistant secretary said.
“We want to be able to manage those critical loads and we want to use less energy to get our jobs done,” Burke added. “And I think smart control systems have the potential to help us do both.”
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