Three years ago, the Army began coating its tents in Iraq with 3 inches of spray-on foam in an effort to slash energy needs and trap costly air conditioning inside.
The initiative was widely praised as a major success -- helping curb the number of fuel-toting convoys weaving through dangerous terrain and significantly tamping down energy bills -- to the tune of more than $1 million a day, according to Army numbers.
But even as Defense Department officials herald the effort as a triumph and point to it as one of their chief success stories on curbing battle energy use, the Army has quietly stopped using the foam, citing a variety of reasons in a series of phone calls and emails with ClimateWire.
The foam, as well as a much-anticipated waste-to-energy project that stalled after a trial run in Iraq, ran up against myriad obstacles in far-flung war zones, according to Defense Department officials. But some in the defense community point to the fate of these types of technologies as evidence of a flawed system with a lack of enthusiasm for their use in war zones.
"We can have all the bumper stickers in the world saying we are going to do this and do that, but the question is, who are they going to have pushing this forward?" said Dan Nolan, the founder and CEO of Sabot 6 Inc., a defense consulting group. "There is no advocate for these technologies," he said.
With about 70 percent of the Defense Department's energy load coming from tasks like shipping and protecting fuel as it travels to forward operating bases, finding the right mix of technologies could make a sizable dent in the U.S. carbon footprint and help save lives and effort. But few renewable or alternative energy technologies have made it to the front so far, and only foam made it past the trial stage.
The problems are varied for each of these products, but the result is the same as they stall or run aground.
Foamed tents faced tough field tests
With the tent foam, the Army said it is difficult to relocate the foamed tents after use, and foam disposal costs are high. Moreover, in Afghanistan, there is also the potential for mold and fungus growth during the harsh winter or roof sagging from snow loads, it said.
Those arguments don't hold water for Steven Anderson, a retired Army brigadier general who served as the military's senior logistician in Iraq for 15 months in 2006 and 2007. He dismissed those reasons as "absurd" and called for a mandate to scale up the use of the foam in a January New York Times op-ed. Anderson, who subsequently began working for one of the companies that held contracts for the foam, has become a top advocate for the product.
Another project, geared toward converting waste into fuel, auditioned at Camp Victory in Baghdad three years ago.
The Tactical Garbage to Energy Refinery, or "TGER," project was designed to convert waste into either synthetic gas or ethanol and was touted as being portable enough to fit on the back of a flatbed truck. It was shipped to the base in April 2008 for a test run: processing food slop, plastic, paper and styrofoam. At the end of the 90-day experiment, however, the technology returned to the United States -- and is now gathering dust in a warehouse.
James Valdes, who headed up the project, said the 2008 experiment proves the concept works. However, there are "engineering issues" that would require fixes, he said. Effectively, the project is stalled.
Soldiers prefer simplicity
"The issue with putting these things overseas is the complexity of all of these systems," explained Frank Holcomb, chief of the energy branch at the Army Corps of Engineers' Construction Engineering Research Laboratory in Illinois. Soldiers need something that is simple to use and won't require much maintenance, he told ClimateWire in an interview last year. Moreover, some researchers believe the real value of the technology is now in its use for waste disposal and less for its energy-creating potential.
"I don't think [waste to energy] is a dead-end stream. It is going to have to be what we do in the future," Valdes stressed. For now, while the United States is fighting multiple wars and looking for immediate solutions, the answer may come from the commercial sector, from off-the-shelf technology, he said.
Sharon Burke, the Pentagon's first official tasked with overseeing the Defense Department's operational energy use, has also stressed that any early solutions will come from off-the-shelf technologies (ClimateWire, Aug. 27, 2010).
But even those may run into issues getting to the battle zone.
The Marines recently trumpeted its success with a collection of standard solar energy solutions used by one unit in Afghanistan. That unit was able to reduce its fuel needs exponentially -- taking generators that typically use more than 20 gallons of fuel a day and reportedly bringing them down to 2.5 gallons by using a collection of off-the-shelf solar technologies (ClimateWire, Jan. 14). Now, however, that Marine unit has returned to the United States, and the next steps for the technologies remain a row of question marks.
Solar power awaits more Marine 'feedback'
"Once we get sufficient feedback, we'll look at the possibility of a wider deployment of those technologies," said Lt. Gregory Wolf, a spokesman for the Marine Corps. "We are cautiously optimistic, but of course, there is a lot more trial and error to be had," he said. "We don't have any sort of timeline for this," he said. If or when the suite of technologies will be ramped up and deployed with other units remains unknown.
"It takes time to establish new offices and new policies, and so there is no single playbook spelling out: If you want to field renewable energy into a war zone, you do this, then you do this, and then this is the third step for how you make it happen," said Christine Parthemore, director of the Natural Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
Developing the technologies needed to help reduce the services' carbon footprint in battle zones may be getting a lifeline. Burke said last week that part of DOD's budget request for fiscal 2012 and the following five years is to receive $20 million a year to create an "Innovation Fund." With lawmakers looking to pare down costs, however, it is unknown if such a program will make it through the system.
To date, the Defense Department stands as the nation's top energy user. Though the Pentagon and individual services have established their own energy goals, there is no overarching energy requirement for slimming down energy needs in the battlefield. Operational energy stands outside the realm of federal laws and mandates that require DOD to shrink its energy use on its installations.
Changes in DOD culture and equipment may be sparking some savings, said Burke, but it remains unknown, since no one is collecting comprehensive data on the subject and putting it on the Pentagon's radar.
Burke's office was expected to issue the first operational energy guidelines -- setting policy for energy use in the field across all the services -- in a congressionally mandated document due in December. The document still has not been released, however, and the Pentagon remains tight-lipped about what that strategy may entail (ClimateWire, Jan. 5).
Assigning any sort of specific energy reduction numbers would be a challenge, according to Burke, since fighter capability is the top priority and war requirements may be in flux. The strategy is still expected to lay out other short-term and long-term goals for energy use -- including boosting energy data collection.
Burke last week said she hoped the plan would be ready for this month. The release date is up to the "mercies of the coordination process," she said, citing the need to first circulate it across the different services.
"It can take a while."
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