Ever since Don Quixote tilted at windmills, 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. Dept. 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 have gathered 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.”
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, supplies or means to continue the operations. As soon as the sponsors pull away, the installations typically don't survive very long.”
Education Is the Key
“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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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 importantly, reduced risk to Afghan and American lives. Retired Brig. Gen. Steve Anderson, Gen. David Patraeus’ 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. DOE’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 crewmembers 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.”
Fewer Trips 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% or less of their capacity,” he said. “But loading around 75% is best for efficiency and lifetime.
“Increasing the load on individual generators could immediately save around 40% of fuel used to generate electricity at one large base — and they could turn half their generators off.”
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 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.