All Along the Watch Tower: United States Military and Renewable Energy

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address 1961

Over sixty years ago our president warned us of not letting a group, no matter how good their intentions, have undue influence on our government and people. In specific he was warning about the military industrial complex, or the different defense contractors as an industry (Michael Crichton has since warned about the politico-legal-media complex that he argues has replaced them). He was worried that a coordinated effort by any group would give them power to incant changes that would be harmful to the government and its people. But just as it has the potential for harm, it has the potential to help. And that’s what the military will do with their new energy policy.

This is the first time the United States military has created an energy policy that focuses on efficiency. Before now, it has been a policy of using as much energy as needed to get the job done regardless of its efficiency.

What has changed?

The military has come to a public realization that its’ current reliance on conventional energy and fuels are unsustainable and therefore they should take an active hand in solving the problem.

USS Midway aircraft carrier
Creative Commons License photo credit: cybaea

The military has always been conscious of their energy needs and the need for a more efficient and usable energy source. The Navy first used wind, but as technology advanced they went with propulsion systems that could provide more reliable and efficient energy. While wind is free, it does not always blow in a given area. This would lead to ships lost because they did not have wind. The Navy changed to coal and established a series of bases around the world to hold coal for them. Then they switched to oil and were able to have fewer bases to hold supplies. After that some ships converted to nuclear power. This allowed them to stay at sea for years at a time.

While the military has been moving towards a more efficient model, they have not had a well defined plan. And now they do. Currently the military uses about 1% of the fuel used in the Unites States, or about 5 billion gallons annually. As we all know the cost of fuel goes up. The military spent around $13.5 billion on fuel in 2010. The price has increased by 255% since 1997, and they expect it to continue to increase.

The Department of Defense’s new energy policy calls for 3 specific goals:

More fight, less fuel.

More option, less risk.

More capability, less cost.

These are good goals for good reasons. In 2010 there were over 1,100 attacks on military convoys carrying fuel to forward units. Less use of conventional fuel would mean fewer attacks, and would free up more units to go to the front. Today’s soldier on the ground carries over 10 pounds of batteries to operate his equipment. By 2013 it will be up to over 20 pounds. They will need more efficient equipment to keep the weight constant or even reduce it.

The Department of Defense is also shrinking its budget.

The Army is planning to use $1.4 million to implement a program to monitor their energy usage. It’s important to know what goes where and how much. It can be a little bit more challenging if it’s spread across 4 continents. They have another $5 million earmarked to help develop solar and wind generators to be used on the front lines. While solar powered battery rechargers have already been used in Afghanistan, there is need for more and better use of solar and wind power generation. $20 million is going to help reduce the weight of batteries and expand the capability of the dismounted soldier.

The Navy has plans as well. They have set aside $133 million for science and technology research. $16 million will be used toward making hybrid electric drives for ships. What is that, you may ask. It’s a drive that while still using fuel, can also run on a battery. If you have ever seen a Toyota Pruis, you have seen a hybrid electric drive. Currently, most ships use steam power to turn a turbine, which powers and moves the ship. With a hybrid drive, like a Prius, the Navy would save fuel. Ships would work even better with a smart meter and a smart electrical system. A smart meter would keep track of which systems are using electricity. If the entire system was smart it would optimize the electrical usage by giving just the systems that currently (that pun again) need electricity just the right amount. The Navy’s fleet is also moving to more bio fuels. Imagine fleets of ships and planes that run off of a bio fuel.

The Marine Corp (OORAH) has an ambitious plan as well. Their first step is to instill an energy efficient conscience. They also plan to reduce their use of fuel by 50% over the next 15 years (with a 25% decrease in 4 years). This is so the modern day Spartans will be more self-sufficient. Instead of having to shepherd supplies to the front, the Marines can focus on the front. They will be deploying more solar and wind arrays and even doing the small things such as using LED lights.

Air power on display at Red Flag 10-4 [Image 3 of 3]
Creative Commons License photo credit: DVIDSHUB

The Air Force plans on reducing their fuel needs by 10% in the next 4 years. They are also doing research into new and lighter materials to reduce the weight of planes. The Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs is ramping up its use of solar energy and trying to become 100% renewable.

So why does this matter to me?

While I enjoy a good military thriller, how can an energy efficient military help me? If the military uses less fuel, there is more on the market for me to buy. By reducing their costs, and therefore the amount of money my government spends, they have the potential (however small) of helping to lower the deficit.

But what will help the most is all the technology and procedures that they’ll develop. The military industrial complex is a large industry. Because of that they try to find multiple uses and markets for their products. They’ll repackage as much as they can for non-military use. Do I want a car that has a smart power system, so it can use less energy? Sure, I would even be OK if it did not have a combustion engine (as long as it still worked). Do I want smaller batteries that last longer? Of course, I would love for the charge in my iPod to last more than one chapter of a Patrick O’Brian novel.

Christmas in March? I Want Coal Year Around

“I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.” – Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol.

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. We’ve all watched a Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and a few of us have seen Tokyo Godfathers. But as we start the count down to the seasons (yes, lots of people begin the count down to the next one as soon as the previous one is over and some of us have already begun our Christmas shopping), I am left wondering why “naughty” children get coal for Christmas.

After all coal is a useful thing.

The Sicilian tradition tracks back to pre-Christian Italy. There, La Befana, an old woman, would go around and leave light and fluffy candy for “nice” children and pieces of a dark candy or coal for the “naughty” ones (Note: Most of the history of the legend is shrouded in the mist of time. Other places such as Holland have also claimed to have begun the ritual).

Coal has many more uses than being given to “naughty” children. In America it is mostly used to create electricity. You may ask yourself, “how do they produce electricity with a darkly colored piece of rock?” Good Question!! Here is how.

 Anthracite Coal

Coal is a combustible sedimentary rock that is made from decayed plant matter that accumulated at the bottom of bodies of water, such as ponds or swamps. Coal takes millions of years to form, so while there will be a little more available in the future neither I nor my 10^2,000,000 grandchild will be able to use it (her name will be Carol, by the way).

There are four main types of coal. Anthracite coal is around 90% carbon. Of the coals, it burns the hottest, but only makes up about half of a percent of the coal used. Bituminous coal makes up 50% of the coal production in the United States and is used to turn turbines to make electricity. Sub-bituminous coal accounts for about 46% of coal production, but does not produce as much heat as Bituminous. Lignite is the youngest of the coal and holds the least carbon. There are other types of coal and coal related rocks. Graphite is a coal, but its ignition point is so high, it is rarely used as fuel. Coal and diamonds are both carbon products, but it would take a Superman to make coal into diamonds while you watch.

Coal has been used for 6,000 years. Its first use was as jewelry in China. The Romans used it as a heating source. Coal is best known as being the fuel supply for the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Tagebau Garzweiler
Surface Coal Mine
Creative Commons License photo credit: Neuwieser

Coal is usually found underground. Most coal mines in the United States are surface mined. A surface mine is where you remove the surface and dig a large open air pit to get to a deposit - in this case coal.

In the present day, coal is mainly used to produce electricity. About 40% of the world’s electricity and 50% of the United States’ electricity come from coal.

How does coal produce electricity? The coal is burned for its heat. The heat is used to turn water into steam. The steam is used to turn a turbine, which produces the electricity.

So how efficient is coal at producing energy? A kilogram of coal produces about 2 kilowatt hours of electricity. It would take about 1 ton of coal to run a 100 watt light bulb for a year. (Natural Gas produces about 3.1 kilowatt hours per kilogram.)

It could make a light that yonder window breaks.

4th of July Party at Sara's and Steffen's Place
Creative Commons License photo credit: ReneS

Coal when burned emits a lot of undesirable emissions. 2000 pounds (1 ton that is used to keep a light bulb on for a year) of coal will produce about 5,720 pounds of carbon dioxide. Burning coal also produce sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide, both of which are harmful gases. Particulate matter, also know as fly ash, is left over as well.

So why would we use coal?

We use it here in America, because America has the largest coal reserves. It is somewhat easy to mine and does not require a lot of refining to make it a usable fuel. Also coal remains a cheap way to produce electricity.

America is no longer the largest user of coal. China surpassed America in coal consumption in 2008.

Over the years the coal industry has developed ways to capture the harmful gases. Scrubbers remove the sulfur before it can become sulfur dioxide and catalytic converters take out the nitrogen. The particulate matter is now collected and sold to different companies which include cement makers, embankment producers, and many others. They are also creating ways to capture and store the carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. The captured carbon dioxide can be used for many different things including improved oil recovery and even conversion into fuel.

The use of coal in electricity production is projected to rise over time. It will rise mainly because the need for energy will rise. Energy consumption will continue to rise with population growth and industrial development.