Solar Power And The US Military

Posted on 05/27/2016 at 12:00 by Seth Hansen

Solar Power and The US Military Title Graphic

As we approach the end of May and draw nearer to Memorial Day, PowerFilm always takes this time of year to reflect on the cost of American Freedom and to pay tribute to our fallen military members that have paid the ultimate price.


To help commemorate this solemn occasion, we remember those who are no longer with us and reach out to our military veterans who are still with us to get their thoughts and opinions on how we can best serve the Warfighter.


Today we catch up with our very own Wes White, Director of PowerFilm’s Government Business Development Department with special emphasis on Military Sales, and explore how solar can help keep our servicemen and women safer while they defend our freedoms.


Wes, thanks for taking the time to chat. If I may, let’s start with the basics. What is your background in the military?


“Thank you, Seth, for coordinating this conversation. I always enjoy discussing the military, their service, and how we, as a company, can help them – it makes me feel like I’m still part of the military team.  


First and most importantly, I’d like to thank our former and current military members and their families. Your service and sacrifice are greatly appreciated.


Second, I’ll admit, Seth, that I was a little hesitant to participate in this interview. Mixing Memorial Day and what it means with a business/sales interview seemed a little “off track” to me. However, I’m proud of what we do here at PowerFilm and what we provide the military, so here I am.


To answer your question, Seth, I’m a retired, twenty-year active-duty Army officer. I was commissioned by Iowa State University as an Infantry Lieutenant and served in the Operational and Institutional Army overseas and here in the US. I did a couple of Middle East tours of duty, including Operation Desert Storm (I’m showing my age),  Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). My last duty station consisted of serving seven years in the Pentagon on the Army Staff, structuring and working the Requirements and Resources for the Current and Future Forces before retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel and moving back home to Des Moines, Iowa.


Very cool. What’s the difference between the “Operational” and “Institutional” Army?


In short, the Operational Army is the warfighting Army – what you see in the movies. And the Institutional Army supports the Operational Army by raising, equipping, manning, training, deploying, and maintaining the readiness of the warfighters. Both have critical missions and play a vital role in our National Defense.  


Who is the largest user of “energy” in the Department of Defense, and what is the biggest issue with energy consumption in the military today?


Let’s see. Taking that question out of context, the largest energy consumer is probably the Navy – but they have platforms that can generate their own power, excluding fossil fuels. However, keeping within the scope of this discussion on renewables, the largest operational energy consumer is the Soldier and Marine and the equipment they need to perform their mission. Whether it’s on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) using generators or on their person using batteries, our personnel have huge energy requirements.


The issue with FOB energy consumption is all the electrical equipment needed and the fuel required to run the generators needed to power this equipment – and, more critically, the cost in lives to get this fuel from point A to point B to the base.


On the dismounted Soldier and Marine, the issue is the weight and space of the batteries. We have great disposable batteries, but we can cut the weight of these disposable in half by using rechargeable batteries coupled with a lightweight solar panel to charge these batteries before, during, and after a 72-hour patrol. These weight savings can then be traded for more mission-essential equipment like food, water, and ammunition – or simply left alone to make the Warfighter lighter and more agile.


Where are most energy needs coming from, and what is the DoD doing to address this?


Today’s US Soldier and Marine is the best equipped and most high-tech Warfighter in the world. To maintain our combat superiority, we rely on our training, leadership, and C4ISR (Command & Control, Commuters, Communication, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) systems. These systems require power, and the more advanced the Warfighter becomes, the more power he or she needs.


Our radios, navigation systems, and night vision devices allow us to see and communicate faster, further, and better than our adversaries. Still, it comes with a cost: energy needs and weight.


However, I’m putting the cart before the horse. I never talk “solar” when talking with our military customers. I talk about “capabilities” and “operational needs,” and the capabilities and needs in this arena are best addressed by “remote power.” It just so happens that remote power is best supplied by solar technology. It’s fast, cheap, simple, secure, and readily available.


When did this movement toward renewable energy in the military first truly begin?


“Renewable Energy” verbiage and concepts started showing up in official documents, I’d say, around the mid-2000s.


At that time, I was serving in the Pentagon, and we were trying to balance working both the Current Force – with our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Future Force – preparing for the next war, which you always have to do. “Fighting now while preparing for later” is probably the hardest challenge any President, Secretary of Defense, or Chief of Staff of the Military ever faces in their job. On the Army Staff,  we knew that both priorities had one thing in common: power needs.


However, it was probably in about 2005 that the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in Iraq started causing a shift in our operations. We were fighting and destroying the insurgents, locating and defeating IEDs, up-armoring our existing vehicles, and developing and procuring better vehicles: Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicles (MRAPs), but that wasn’t enough.


The best answer was getting our Soldiers and Marines off the roads. To do this, we minimized our convoys by reducing logistics resupplies. This was best done through the reduction of fuel use. This was when solar power started playing a key role.

To underscore this, in 2009, the Secretary of the Army issued a strategy that became policy and widely accepted. Energy offices were created, and renewable energy became more legitimized.


Around 2011 we began seeing changes being implemented on the battlefield. It might appear like this took a long time, but this is actually pretty fast considering the immense effort this took and the complexities involved.


How long had the initiative to implement renewable effectively been “on the books” before it was set into motion in the field? Was there any significant pushback against the use of renewables in combat?


Well, it was a couple of years. Things like this take time. You’re talking about changing equipment and battlefield Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs), not to mention also changing a culture.


Getting guys in combat to give up their “tried and tested” disposable batteries in exchange for rechargeable batteries and solar panels took a little doing. It took education, training, testing, evaluation, and demonstration – we had to prove that this worked. We had to gain their trust. And why not? Their mission and lives depend on it.


It’s clear that renewable energy is important to the DoD and military as a whole, but In your opinion, what has been the biggest breakthrough for the military in regards to renewable energy?


In renewable energies, I think solar has moved the fastest in the military, and I say that not just because that’s what I work in but because it’s the easiest and fastest answer for the DoD right now.


Kinetic is making good progress, we (the military) have dabbled in wind, and batteries are getting better, but we have to act now. The War-Fighter needs “good” solutions today, not “make-believe perfect” solutions that could be available “someday.”


Solar is very safe, silent, secure, and difficult to disrupt. Yes, cloudy conditions and night-time are not conducive to solar, but that’s why you have rechargeable storage devices. Solar panels harvest the power at your convenience, and then you use it when needed.


We can also make our solar panels in the US, so we can’t be held hostage by foreign manufacturers or suppliers.


Great. Assessing where we are now, what do you think the future holds for renewable energy in the military?


Well, not to belabor the point, but solar continues to get better, cheaper, and faster (to use an old Army acquisition request), so I think it will always play a role. However, turning waste products into energy is something the DoD is looking at and high-tech – albeit maybe dangerous – advanced chemical batteries. I believe that solar power is not only a bridge to get us from where we are today to where we want to be, but it also may be where we want to get to. PowerFilm works with many solar technologies, including our core competency amorphous silicon, gallium arsenide,  Heterojunction with Intrinsic Thin-layer cells (HIT), and even mono and polycrystalline.


How will new and unique renewables applications help the soldier accomplish tasks more efficiently and safely?


It’s all about the “tooth-to-tail” relationship. The less it takes to sustain a War-Fighter in the field, the safer he or she will be. The less we need to focus on logistics and resupply, the more we can focus on combat operations. Making the Soldier and Marine lighter and more lethal is the key to success.


Why has PowerFilm been so successful in this military space? What does the company bring to the table that the military values?


The military values our understanding of their challenges and what they are trying to do. The military realizes that we know how to help and have the willingness and capability to do so. We put the Soldier first. We are honest and upfront. I can throw out many buzzwords and military-sounding bumper stickers, but our solar works. I guess that’s all I have to say.


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