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In the Iraqi war zone, US Army calls for 'green' power

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 7, 2006

Memo to Pentagon brass from the top United States commander in western Iraq: Renewable energy – solar and wind-power generators – urgently needed to help win the fight. Send soon.

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Calling for more energy in the middle of oil-rich Iraq might sound odd to some. But not to Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, whose deputies on July 25 sent the Pentagon a "Priority 1" request for "a self-sustainable energy solution" including "solar panels and wind turbines."

The memo may be the first time a frontline commander has called for renewable-energy backup in battle. Indeed, it underscores the urgency: Without renewable power, US forces "will remain unnecessarily exposed" and will "continue to accrue preventable ... serious and grave casualties," the memo says.

Apparently, the brass is heeding that call. The US Army's Rapid Equipping Force (REF), which speeds frontline requests, is "expected soon" to begin welcoming proposals from companies to build and ship to Iraq 183 frontline renewable-energy power stations, an REF spokesman confirms. The stations would use a mix of solar and wind power to augment diesel generators at US outposts, the spokesman says.

Despite desert temperatures, the hot "thermal signature" of a diesel generator can call enemy attention to US outposts, experts say. With convoys still vulnerable to ambush, the fewer missions needed to resupply outposts with JP-8 fuel to run power generators – among the Army's biggest fuel guzzlers – the better, the memo says.

"By reducing the need for [petroleum] at our outlying bases, we can decrease the frequency of logistics convoys on the road, thereby reducing the danger to our marines, soldiers, and sailors," reads the unclassified memo posted on the website, a defense industry publication that first reported its existence last month.

Use of renewable energy, such as solar power, is not new to the US military, one of the largest consumers of renewable energy, especially at off-grid outposts in North America. Four 275-foot-tall wind turbines were unveiled last year at the Naval Station at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, meeting about a quarter of the base's electrical needs and saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel.

Still, Major General Zilmer's request highlights what appears to be a small but growing focus on adding renewable sources of energy to the fuel mix for combat operations as part of Department of Defense planning.

Special operations forces concluded that using foldout solar panels to recharge batteries was better than carrying more disposable batteries into combat, a 2004 study for the Army found. Last year, Konarka Technologies Inc. in Lowell, Mass., received a $1.6 million Army contract to supply flexible printed solar panels to reduce the number of batteries soldiers carry.

A bigger picture of the need for renewables was sketched out in a key 2004 Pentagon study titled "Winning the Oil Endgame," by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank in Snowmass, Colo. It found a number of areas where efficiency would boost combat effectiveness, including:

•More than 50 percent of fuel used by the Army on the battlefield is consumed by combat support units, not frontline troops.

•Until recently, the Army spent about $200 million a year annually on fuel, but paid $3.2 billion each year on 20,000 active and 40,000 reserve personnel to transport it.