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The Things They Carried

“Mobility is freedom and progress.” – Bill Ford, TED talk, TED2011

This post is to shed a bit of light on the extent of our fuel dependency that you might not hear about everyday. Until recently, I also did not realize how the energy needs of our vehicles, communication devices, GPS, computers, and robots impacted our military. Plus, the other reason for discussing this issue and the strategies that the Army and Marines are doing to decrease their energy demand is that we are in the throws of another budget/debt ceiling debate in Congress. And what are we spending a majority of tax payer money on besides Medicare and Social Security? Defense. And that, as I hope to outline, is also an energy and environment matter.

The Department of Defense (DOD) R&D budget proposal for the FY 2012 is $77.8 billion. The DOD knows what it should be working on with this funding: Energy. And they are doing so for two reasons: 1.) to lighten the load in which our troops carry, a minimum of 20 pounds of which are the seven types of batteries being carried in addition to their gear and 2.) to save the resources and personnel required to protect convoys that transport fuel.  There are a number of reasons why our energy demands are detrimental to our military. Cost: the Government Accountability Office has the DOD spending at least $2.1 billion on power sources between 2006 and 2010. Danger: the weight of the batteries cause physical harm to the soldiers, perhaps even long-term, not to mention decreasing the effectiveness of these soldiers in combat. Strategic: Where does the fuel come from? It is transported, like many other supplies, through hazardous, mine-infested roads. You can see how maintaining the upper hand on our adversaries while gaining the necessary energy to have that advantage is a logistical nightmare.

An important start is to get better data on the DOD energy use. There is information about how much was purchased, but not information about where it is used. In the works are more automated energy-measurement systems to collect better data and be able to analyze where the most energy use is taking place.

Second is to develop centralized and standardized power that is reliably distributed. This can decrease the reliance on batteries as well as decrease the number of different batteries in which soldiers carry. One of the problems with rechargeable gadgets (and we all experience this with our devices at home) is that each requires specific chargers and batteries. Standardized power would also be much more adaptive and establish legacy systems. A majority of the DOD’s equipment like tanks and aircrafts are quite old. There needs to be considerations about the reliability and legacy of the new vehicles. What energy source are we going to use? And the vehicles that we build, will they use the same source 50 years from now? 70 years from now?

Many of the efforts that the DOD is deploying for decreasing its energy demand can also be done at the national level. Perhaps the problems do not seem has immediate as that of the military (protecting the lives of our troops and not placing them in unnecessarily in harms way); however still urgent. 1.) data acquisition: where can we decrease our energy use? The need for real time data. This is one of the most important things that we can do. Last week the White House hosted an event unveiling the policy for modernizing our grid system. At the event, they had two high school students who had sysytems installed that monitored the energy use of their school. They were able to decrease the schools energy use by 13 percent and a 250 percent return on investment! If two high school students can do this! Surely the rest of the Nation can too!  2.) Standardization: finding the systems that are competitive so that the convenience, efficiency, and confidence we have in disposable batteries doesn’t win. 3.) Entire life-cycle cost considerations: thinking about legacy systems in the context of the environmental implications involved in the energy systems that we employ.

The TED talk I linked at the start of this post is great example of thinking about sustainability through out the entire network or system. It is not enough to just have energy efficiency vehicles but to also have our energy using gadgets with the ability to anticipate and communicate with each other so that we are not expending energy when we are idle.

More Reading:

National Defense Magazine May 2011