Put to the test: smart energy solutions for the military

NATO has had energy security at the top of its agenda for a number of years. As armed forces continue to increase their reliance on power-hungry platforms and equipment in the digital battlespace, this demand for power presents an Achilles’ heel to adversaries, as Claire Apthorp finds out.


nato

Energy security in general is a hot topic when viewed through the lens of national security interests: as a strategic commodity, the ever-growing demand for energy in modern life presents a security challenge to those nations that rely on oil and gas imports. At the same time, the implications of political instability in oil and gas producing states, and the growing asymmetrical threat of terrorism or rogue states to the infrastructure that underpins national power grids and control systems, all place the security of national energy infrastructure and supply chains at the centre of concern worldwide.

The same supply and demand constraints can determine military operations, marking out energy supply chains as a highly attractive and deadly target - between 2003 and 2007 some 3,000 US soldiers were killed or wounded during insurgency attacks on fuel and water convoys to Iraq and Afghanistan.

These issues have become particularly relevant over the last decade, with long-running operations taking place in austere environments with little to no existing infrastructure to draw on. And not only is energy usage in the field often highly inefficient - NATO reports that in a conventional 300-man camp, over 60% of fuel is used to produce electricity for the heating or cooling of water or air - but the burden on the dismounted soldier is immense, with the average soldier in the battlefield today carrying up to 8kg of batteries in multiple types to power his equipment.

Power struggles

These challenges have caused a marked push toward the assessment of energy efficient equipment and alternative power supplies by many military forces, as they recognise the benefit of reducing their reliance on energy supply chains.

NATO has been a major player in helping partner nations develop, share and understand the importance of energy security solutions, focusing on the reduction of energy consumption by military vehicles and camps, and the minimising of operational environmental footprints.

"NATO has been a major player in helping partner nations develop, share and understand the importance of energy security."

A number of key NATO-led initiatives are underway to study the behavioural aspects of saving energy in exercises and operations, and develop common energy efficiency standards and procedures. In February 2014 NATO adopted its 'Green Defence' framework, which seeks to make NATO more operationally effective through changes in the use of energy, while saving resources and enhancing environmental sustainability. Smart energy solutions are also being sought under the Smart Energy Team (SENT) project, supported by the NATO Science for Peace and Security programme.

NATO's Smart Energy programme

The Smart Energy programme essentially aims to improve the energy efficiency of allied armed forces through a number of means, including the use of renewable energy and the introduction of improved energy management systems.

SENT was responsible for conducting a two-year study into practical energy efficiency solutions between 2013 and 2015, and providing recommendations for NATO's standards and best practices. The overall conclusion of the report, presented in September 2015, stated: "Reducing fuel consumption in the military is an operational imperative. Smart Energy solutions cannot only save money when less fuel is used, but can also save soldiers' lives, and help improve the mobility, as well as the resilience and endurance of military forces."

A major aspect of this research took part at Exercise Capable Logistician 2015 in Hungary, where over 50 pieces of equipment for energy production, storage, distribution and consumption, as well as soldier power, were used to respond to disaster scenarios and assess interoperability.

Building on microgrids

The industry is playing a vital role in these efforts, stepping up to put smarter energy solutions into the hands of the military. Fourteen companies from across Europe and the US took part in Exercise Capable Logistician 2015, providing equipment for testing along with research and development agencies from the German military and US Department of Defense.

A key technology put through its paces at Exercise Capable Logistician 2015 was microgrids, with solutions in this arena presented by a number of companies including Pfisterer.

Microgrids are energy management systems designed to work as the 'brains' behind an energy storage device such as a rack or container with rechargeable batteries. The device works to ensure that all devices connected to it are being efficiently charged, meeting their power demands and running at their optimum levels, while prioritising output and switching between different power generator systems.

Microgrids also allow a mix of renewable and conventional energy sources to be used, and can be programmed to prioritise renewable sources and direct excess energy to be stored in high-performance batteries as a way of further reducing operating costs.

Compared to conventional distributed, uncontrolled energy supplies, microgrids such as Pfisterer's Mobile Energy Management System offer a higher level of efficiency, enable storage as an energy reserve, and add the flexibility to use various primary power sources while also reducing maintenance requirements.

Solar power to the rescue

Renewable power sources also figured strongly in the exercise, with solar power emerging as the most popular solution.

UK-based Renovagen drew on its experience in solar power to target military requirements, developing a flexible, pre-wired photovoltaic (PV) array that is designed to allow forward operating bases to transition to high percentages - or even 100% - of solar powered operation.

"UK-based Renovagen drew on its experience in solar power to target military requirements."

The company has developed a number of solutions here, including a mobile system that combines 9-18kW peak rollable PV arrays and a mounted steel container the same dimensions as a standard 463l pallet or trailer, integrated with an off-grid inverter system and controller. An array of up to 50m x 2.4m can be deployed from the container, and a storage system consisting of up to 53kWh of lithium batteries is housed in the compartment, creating a flexible power generation and storage solution.

Other renewable solutions tested at the exercise included wind power generators and a waste-to-energy system that converts waste into gas by high temperature slow pyrolysis so the gas can be used locally to provide energy for local demand.

Smart solutions to lighten the load

Thales provided some of the more accessible technologies for the exercise, including a universal battery charger. These chargers are designed to lighten the load on the deployed force by reducing the number of different chargers required to re-power the multiple battery types carried by soldiers. In addition to charging systems as diverse as AN/PRC-148, AN/PRC-152, AN/PRC-154 Rifleman Radio, BB-2590, Land Warrior and Nett Warrior LI-80 and LI-145, and conformal batteries BB-2525 and BB-2521, the chargers can draw power directly from solar panels as well as generators, and are rugged and sealed for austere mission environments.

Alternative fuel sources were also trialled, including small portable fuel cells for soldiers. These lightweight cells are powered by propane and are designed to deliver portable power in remote locations for soldier systems such as unmanned systems, handheld C4I devices and remote sensors.

Systems with low power demands also featured in the exercise, including LED lights and low-energy water purification systems. Tents that are insulated against extreme temperatures were also tested as a means to reducing fuel consumption by deployed troops.

The level of innovation displayed in alternative power generation and smarter energy solutions currently available or under development is good news for military forces looking to reduce their reliance on conventional fuel supplies.

The big hurdle, however, will be the price tag of such technologies compared to their cheaper and more established counterparts, and the difficulties of getting away from traditional mind sets. This is likely to provide a significant stumbling block for armed forces mired down in the process of cutting the fat from their defence budgets - but the work that NATO is doing to raise awareness of the long-term potential of these technologies could engender real change.