Forward Operating Solar: Military Microgrids Lead The Way


In October 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) reported that the Marines had deployed an experimental ‘green’ forward operating base (FOB) to Afghanistan.

According to the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, the deployment featured a number of experimental energy systems incorporating solar power in whole or in part. In particular, the Ground Renewable Energy Network, stackable 1.6 kW solar arrays and rechargeable batteries combined to provide 300 watts of continuous electricity, reduced generator fuel consumption to two to three gallons a day from 25 gallons.

Of course, greenness had nothing to do with it. FOBs are temporary encampments for a battalion or more, generally located in hot zones as staging areas. Running fuel convoys to a FOB is one of the best ways to get your tanker trucks blown up.

Moreover, not being the focus of resupply convoys tends to reduce one's profile in the enemy's mind: ‘If you're not receiving fuel trucks, you must not be all that important,’ one source tells Solar Industry.

The experiment has given way to deployment. Detroit-based ZeroBase has reportedly supplied hundreds of its ReGenerator solar-rechargable power units to the U.S. military. Each ReGenerator can provide up to 6 kW of continuous, digital-quality power and store 13 to 26 kWh of energy. Civil versions are on the way.
In and of themselves, portable solar power/inverter/battery units may not seem terribly significant to the solar sector. They are not even all that new. However, the successful deployment of such systems in large numbers by the DOD represents an instance where a customer prefers solar power because it provides a distinct advantage, not because of a financial incentive or ethical principle. Such instances deserve further scrutiny.

In his June 25 speech, President Barack Obama, as part of his Climate Action Plan, directed the DOD to deploy 3 GW of renewable energy on military installations by 2025. This might turn out to be a fairly easy target to hit. Despite concerns over siting, contracts for solar power facilities on U.S. bases continue to flow. A recent Solar Energy Industries Association report says that as of early 2013, there are more than 130 MW of PV energy systems on military bases in the U.S.

In June, for example, Infinia Corp. began commissioning and testing the first block of 64 concentrating solar power (CSP) units at the Tooele Army Depot, a U.S. Army ammunition storage and distribution facility in Utah. The full CSP installation will incorporate a total of 429 of the company's PowerDish units in seven arrays and is expected to have a capacity of 1.5 MW.

Military bases will continue to serve as hosts for mid-range and even some utility-scale solar facilities. In February 2012, Borrego Solar Systems Inc., a designer, installer and financier of grid-tied solar PV systems, completed a 3.4 MW solar power installation at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California. However, the real action may be in how the DOD deploys solar power for its own purposes – not just because the commander-in-chief told it to.
Navigant Research reported in 2012 that over 40 DOD military bases either have currently operating microgrids, planned microgrids, or have conducted studies or demonstrations of microgrid technologies. The research firm forecast that the total capacity of U.S. military microgrids for stationary bases will reach 54.8 MW by 2018. However, if microgrids for FOBs are added, Navigant says the total capacity of DOD microgrids will surpass 600 MW by 2018, representing an annual market of $377.8 million.

In June, a consortium of energy companies formed to develop solar energy storage systems for military applications that will also be adapted for the commercial and residential markets. The partnership, which consists of Lincad, Oxis Energy, Pure Wafer and Solutronic, says it has embarked on a program to incorporate rugged and lightweight solar panels, electronics and new generation battery technology.

These sorts of integrated technologies, developed for military purposes, should have direct applicability for civil uses. In particular, the combination of solar power collection and advanced battery technologies should open up new horizons for commercial and high-end residential PV installations. Moreover, these do not have to be restricted to off-the-grid homesteads or upscale enclaves.

For the military, it seems, the killer app for solar is not getting killed. The technologies it develops to accomplish this objective might show the way to wide-scale adoption of residential solar.

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