Navigant Research Blog

Wearable, Solar Soldier Power Nears the Battlefield

— December 31, 2013

Seeking to solve one of the most intractable challenges of 21st century low-intensity warfare – supplying power to troops laden with electronic devices and deployed to remote battlefields – the U.S. Army is developing wearable solar panels that will be integrated into uniforms.

Today’s infantryman (or, rather, infantryperson) carries around a dozen pounds of batteries, according to Chris Hurley, battery development team leader at the U.S. Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).  “If we can cut down on the need for batteries, we’re saving fuel costs with the convoys that have to deliver these items to the field,” Hurley told Mashable.

More importantly, wearable solar could save lives: as documented in Navigant Research’s report, Renewable Energy for Military Applications, in forward operating theaters like Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous assignments is delivering fuel (and batteries) to soldiers in the field.

CERDEC is looking for other innovative, lightweight ways to provide what it calls “Soldier Power,” including kinetic energy.  Bionic Power, a Vancouver-based startup, has developed a knee brace that would capture the kinetic energy of a marching soldier and supply it to portable devices.  Called the PowerWalk M-Series, the brace could supply up to 12 watt-hours of electricity, enough to charge two or three smartphones.  The lightweight device would be another step forward for the technology movement examined in Navigant Research’s report, Energy Harvesting.

Last year Bionic Power announced that it has secured contracts with the Army, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Canadian Department of Defense to test the PowerWalk.

Paging Tony Stark

The eventual goal, naturally, is an Iron Man-style exoskeleton that can collect its own energy, enhance the wearer’s physical capabilities, and supply data and communications from integrated devices.  Known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, the superhero armor is being developed by universities and commercial labs under the direction of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command.  TALOS was first announced by the perfectly named Admiral Bill McRaven, the commanding officer of the Special Ops branch, earlier this year.  It’s still somewhat theoretical – a prototype is not expected for at least 3 years – but it’s already spawning some potentially powerful innovations in materials research.

One of the most intriguing is a nanotech “liquid armor” that would morph on impact (i.e., when struck by a bullet) from a flexible fabric into an impenetrable shell.  “It transitions when you hit it hard,” Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, told NPR. “These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can’t flow anymore and they become like a solid.”

On the Runway

The military, of course, is not the only field interested in wearable solar and other futuristic forms of apparel.  The fashion world is forging ahead in this area as well.  The Wearable Solar project, launched by Christiaan Holland from the HAN University of Applied Sciences, in the Netherlands, collaborating with solar energy developers and fashion designer Pauline van Dongen, has produced a line of dresses with built-in solar cells.

“Wearable Solar is about integrating solar cells into fashion, so by augmenting a garment with solar cells the body can be an extra source of energy,” Van Dongen told the online fashion magazine Dezeen at the Wearable Futures conference, in London.


Why Military Microgrids’ Influence Exceeds Their Market Share

— January 15, 2013

Glaring evidence of the electrical grid’s vulnerability to severe storms on the East Coast has increased interest in microgrids, which can provide continuous power in the event of a utility service blackout.  As documented in Pike Research’s recent report, Military Microgrids, the U.S. military, the largest consumer of energy in the world, is one of the strongest proponents of this technology.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) microgrid that carries the greatest implications for the larger commercial market is located at Twentynine Palms, the large U.S. Marine Corps base, near Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California.  Some 10,000 Marines train here at a site that stretches over 932 square miles, an area larger than the state of Connecticut.  With a capacity of approximately 13 megawatts (MW), and a generation portfolio featuring solar photovoltaics (PV), combined heat and power (CHP), and a new advanced metal halide energy storage system, this stationary base microgrid is clearly the showcase for General Electric’s microgrid solution for DOD.

The most cutting edge microgrid testing program at Twentynine Palms, known as “ExFOB,” (Experimental Forward Operating Bases), is aimed at overseas installations.  While the focus of large companies such as GE to date has been on domestic base military microgrids, the most radical innovations could occur overseas, where DOD operates approximately 600 FOBs, the majority of which are not connected with reliable power grids.

The 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment was chosen as the unit that would conduct the demonstration and testing of new renewable and efficiency technologies at ExFOB.  The deserts of Southern California feature an environment in the United States that resembles that of Afghanistan, where the battalion would eventually deploy in August of 2011.  The following three technologies were integrated into microgrid tests:

Solar Power Shade: The Military Solar Power Shade Shelter provides up to 1 kW of continuous solar power to low-power draw items.  It also provides shade from the sun, reducing solar heat loads from 80% to 90%.

Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (GREENS): These solar PV-based systems are capable of continuous power, or 1 kW of peak power, designed to be scalable and adaptable for missions that do not require a full base-scale power source or energy storage.

Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs): Lighting kits provide continuous tent lighting over a 20-day period in temperatures from 85 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit.  This saves a significant amount of energy and works well with renewable energy sources.  The durable lighting system can be set up by two Marines in less than 5 minutes.

A handful of these hybrid solar PV/battery/diesel generator systems were first deployed in July 2011.  They have proven so valuable that two small patrols in Afghanistan have been operating completely on renewable energy.  Another small base has reduced fuel use by 90%.  So far, over 400 portable Solar Portable Alternative Communication Energy Systems (SPACES) have already been deployed in Afghanistan, following testing and validation at ExFOB.

The DOD has played a consistent role in commercializing new technologies that provide tremendous social benefits in the civilian realm.  The microgrid may be another instance where the DOD plays an incubator and market maker role.  The developing world could apply a new model of grid infrastructure, as microgrids deployed initially by DOD are then adopted for non-military village power or industrial mine remote microgrid applications.  The opportunity to help develop these microgrids has attracted a number of powerful technology companies beyond GE, including Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, Boeing, and Eaton.


U.S. Military Sticks to its Guns with Large Renewable Installations

— October 11, 2012

The U.S. military is taking an all-hands-on-deck approach to deploying cleantech for military applications (including facilities, vehicles, and soldier power).  The application with the most firepower is medium-to-large-scale installations – up to 12 megawatts (MW)  –  at U.S. bases – with biomass, solar PV, wind, and geothermal expected to be the primary sources of renewable energy.

Large-scale solar PV projects currently in operation on Department of Defense (DOD) property include Nellis AFB (14 MW) and Fort Carson Army Base (2 MW).  A year-long ICF International study commissioned by the DOD found potential for 7 GW of solar to be installed at seven sites in desert bases in California and Colorado alone.  Pike Research only expects a fraction of this to actually be developed, but it nonetheless underscores the size of the opportunity and the financial feasibility of deploying solar PV.  The following table illustrates some of the most economically viable military sites for solar development.

(Source: ICF International)

The Army’s Energy Initiatives Task Force (EITF), which is directing the implementation strategy for the Army, has screened 180 Army and National Guard sites and has identified potential for 20 renewable energy installations totaling 683 MW.  Of that total, 183 MW have moved from the EITF planning pipeline to the execution portfolio.  Of the 183 MW in the execution portfolio, biomass currently represents roughly 75 MW, solar represents 55 MW, and other (unnamed) technologies represent 53 MW.  The following map provided by EITF shows the large-scale renewable energy installation opportunities either under consideration or undergoing review.

(Source: EITF)

Despite the massive potential for 100+ MW deployments, the U.S. military appears to (wisely) be sticking to installation sizes that it has experience with.  A $7 billion request for proposal (RFP) released by the Army in August 2012 called for renewable energy projects across several sites to generate 2.5 million megawatt-hours of power over the next 30 years – all via projects up to 12 MW (the military will not own the power plants, but instead pay a fixed rate over the lifetime of the contract).  Twelve MW is large enough to make an impact on the overall renewable energy use at the base, but small enough to avoid the large amount of red tape, environmental and wildlife concerns, water use, and transmission issues associated with much larger renewable energy deployments.


Microgrid Matchup: The Military and The Utilities

— June 14, 2012

One of the compelling storylines in the cleantech industry is the emergence of the U.S. military as one of the leading proponents of increased reliance upon renewable energy and microgrids.  In contrast, utilities are often painted as being obstructionists toward the same two technology categories.

Not surprisingly, a closer examination reveals not a black-and-white contrast, but several intriguing shades of gray.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is indeed committed to bringing online 3,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy capacity by 2025.  This new generation will largely take the form of distributed energy, such as solar photovoltaics (PV).  And that means that much of this new capacity will be aggregated and optimized through microgrids.

However, the difficulty of doing business with the Pentagon cannot be overstated.  The inability of the Department to pay a premium for anything, along with the need to rely almost totally on private outside sources of funding because the federal government is essentially broke, introduces complexity and delay in the procurement process.  Furthermore, when it comes to microgrids – networks that can provide reliable power even during combat – the DOD still seems quite attached to its diesel generators.  For example, in its so-called SPIDERS program, initial demonstrations will shift the entire load of the microgrid to diesel generators and then bring online the remaining generation and/or storage assets gradually.  This approach to microgrid islanding is not exactly what the smart grid was supposed to be all about.  (I learned this at the recent Defense Renewable Energy & Military Microgrids conference, in Washington, D.C.)

The Supreme Threat

What about utilities? While most of the new renewable generation capacity being installed within their service territories is being developed by third parties, some utilities, such as those in California, are installing relatively large amounts of solar PV that they themselves will own or incorporate into their rate base.  California’s three investor-owned utilities alone are scheduled to add roughly a third of what the Pentagon has committed to in terms of renewable capacity over just the next four years.

The majority of utilities, particularly those that are privately owned, view microgrids as the supreme threat to their existence.  Yet when it comes to different forms of public power, these utilities are playing a leading role with both grid-tied and remote microgrids.  While I can’t reveal the Pike Research forecasts for these different segments just yet (look for a new report on this topic in the next several weeks), it’s safe to say that utilities have already brought online far more microgrids today than the military has.  Along with forecasts of three different categories of utility microgrids, the analysis in our upcoming report will also quantify the economic benefits grid-tied microgrids bring to the overall power delivery system.

What’s most remarkable about both the DOD and utility microgrid sectors is that at present there is no comprehensive policy framework promoting any microgrid application whatsoever.  For a variety of reasons, however, North America (and especially the United States) still represents the best overall market for all microgrid segments in terms of aggregate capacity.  Connecticut appeared to be the first state moving forward with a policy program to promote microgrids, in response to Hurricane Irene in August and then a rare blizzard in October 2011.  Both events led to massive power outages.  However, the focus of this effort – which identified over 300 viable microgrid sites – was on the more traditional customer-driven microgrid model of development, and it collapsed this past May due to special interest infighting.


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