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

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That was before $70-per-barrel oil. This spring, the Defense Energy Support Center reported the US military used about 128 million barrels of fuel last year, costing about $8 billion, compared with about 145 million barrels in 2004 that cost $7 billion.

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"At the tip of the spear is where the need to avoid the cost of fuel logistics is most acute," says Amory Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who led the 2004 study. "If you don't need divisions of people hauling fuel, you can realign your force structure to be more effective as well as less vulnerable."

Zilmer's call for renewable power is also buttressed by Pentagon studies from June 2005 dating back to the 1990s that show the costs and advantages of solar-panel systems in place of or as supplements to diesel generators burning JP-8, the standard battlefield fuel.

Still, such lessons are learned slowly, says Hugh Jones, a former analyst with the Center for Army Analysis, now a consultant on energy issues to the US Army. Analyzing feedback from the frontlines after Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait 1990, he produced a raft of studies on uses for solar power in combat.

But during the 1990s when fuel was cheap, he found little interest in the idea.

"There aren't a lot of people who have expertise in this area of renewable power in combat operations," Mr. Jones says. "There are a lot of people in the service who smell like diesel fuel, but not many who have been in the field using solar power and hybrid-optimized solutions."

Even so, he's noticed "there's much more interest today." The high cost of fuel, and troop casualties in the Iraq war, may be changing that traditional outlook.

One guy who thinks he can solve the general's problem is Dave Muchow, president of SkyBuilt Power Inc. in Arlington, Va. Aided by funding from In-Q-Tel, a venture-capital firm for the Central Intelligence Agency – SkyBuilt makes a hybrid solar-panel and wind-generator power system that fits in a standard shipping container. It can be dropped onto a mountaintop or into the desert. Its solar panels and wind turbine deploy in minutes. And where there's water, a "micro-hydro" unit can be dropped into a stream for an added boost.

Such 007-style systems are not cheap. Today, SkyBuilt's "mobile power system" can cost up to $100,000, compared with just $10,000 for a 10-kilowatt diesel generator.

But costs of such hybrid packages begin to look more reasonable when the cost is considered of delivering a gallon of fuel to a generator gulping it 24/7. The true cost of fuel delivered to the battlefield – well prior to the recent oil price hike – was $13 to $300 a gallon, depending on its delivery location, a Defense Science Board report in May 2001 estimated.

An analysis in Zilmer's memo puts the "true cost" for fuel for a 10-kilowatt diesel generator at $36,000 a year – about four times the amount needed to purchase the fuel itself initially. The rest of the cost is due mainly to transportation. On that basis, a SkyBuilt system could cut costs by 75 percent and pay for itself for three to five years, the memo estimates.

But another cost is time. Even though the Army's REF is moving on it, there is still no firm date for a request for proposal to be made public, the REF spokesman acknowledges. Zilmer's memo, however, warns that without renewable power to replace fuel, victory could be forfeited.

"Without this solution, personnel loss rates are likely to continue at their current rate," the memo says. "Continued casualty accumulation exhibits potential to jeopardize mission success."