For Military, a Solar Energy Solution Lightens the Load and Could Save Lives

The great military book is from early China, The Art of War. There is no art of soldiering. You heavy up, go for a walk, look for trouble for a few hours. Or days.

 Pete Newell is a U.S. Army colonel. Soldiering doesn’t change, he says. Technology does.

 “The average weight on a soldier’s back,” says Newell, “is some-where around 104 pounds. 27 of it [is] batteries.”

Colonel Newell is the director of the Rapid Equipping Force – REF – a think tank, hardware store, tech lab for combat soldiers. A perfect solution to a soldier problem – a Humvee redesigned against IEDs, for instance, might take years.

 REF tries to find pretty good answers that already exist, or are about to exist. “What we’ll describe is, ‘Find the first, best, fastest solution we can,'” explains Newell.

 Here’s an example, something REF helped develop to answer a soldier problem – again, with IEDs. And if you wonder what all those batteries are for – well, Newell says, “It’s called the Thor III.”

 Thor. It sounds heavy. 

 “The piece of equipment itself weighs 25 pounds,” explains Newell. “Over a three-day patrol, a platoon of 28 soldiers will have three of these systems because of the bands that they operate at.”

 Thor is a signal jammer. Everybody adapts technology, including the people trying to kill us. A favorite tactic: a hidden bomb with a cellphone trigger. Wait for the soldiers to get close, call the number…boom. If you’re going out on patrol for three days, you want a Thor III, batteries included. If Thor is working, the bomb triggers will not.

 Newell says it takes 238 pounds of batteries to run Thor III for 3 days. “So, [that’s] 238 pounds distributed across 28 bodies, on top of the weight for the system and the weight of all the other stuff they’re carrying.”

 Colonel Newell is a former brigade commander, awarded a silver star and a unit commendation for leadership at Fallujah, the biggest fight in Iraq.

 He knows soldiering, but when he took over REF three years ago, he didn’t think about energy. “I would tell you that I really did not see that as a major task for the Rapid Equipping Force,” he says.

 But combat outposts – remote, battlefield camps for 20 to 150 soldiers – use a lot of fuel. The convoys to supply them are magnets for bombs and snipers. They’re the Army’s single greatest vulnerability in Afghanistan. It’s also true for a single soldier – heavied up, and walking patrol.

 The Thor III is a REF solution. Too heavy, too power-hungry…but it works right now with existing technology, until they design something better.

 Still, in January, at REF headquarters at Fort Belvoir outside Washington, the colonel was more excited by something else. He pulled out a solar panel. “These are solar recharging blankets and you’ve probably seen them before. So this is a 10-watt blanket and it’s about two feet by three feet, the size of a poster.”

 It folds neatly, it weighs 12-ounces, and it comes in camo. Its 10-watts of power is enough to fully charge two smart phones in an hour.

 Nine months ago, Newell says, this was the best thing he could find on the market for being developed.

 Then he put aside the poster-size charger and showed me what looked like a camo napkin.

 “This is a 10-Watt solar blanket,” he explains. “This weighs 3.8 ounces. So, within nine months, we went from what we thought was really, really, really good to a 28% efficient solar cell, and reduced the size down to a third of what it was before.”

 REF just bought two kilowatts of these cells for $2 million – $100 per watt. That is way too expensive for normal use, but it’s a tenth what the cells would have cost a year ago.

 And in another two years, Alta Devices – the Silicon Valley company that makes them – hopes to have the cost down to $10 a watt.

 Meanwhile, soldiers are going to be using these, and if they come to trust the mats, maybe some of those 27 pounds of batteries can stay back at base.

 For all the technological wonders, REF’s social tech impressed me most.

 The fuel-eating combat outposts I mentioned earlier – REF is prototyping a radical redesign. They put one up at a gunnery range by Fort Bliss, Texas, and got two-dozen soldiers to live in it for two weeks.

 And then REF hired a leading Silicon Valley marketing firm, IDEO, to run a three-day exercise to try to understand what the soldiers had learned, and what they would change.

 It’s the kind of thing very big tech firms do – because it works. REF thinks of the soldier as the customer. Among changes the soldiers suggested: an emergency intercom system. REF is working on it.

 REF directors – Colonel Newell and those before him – spend a lot of time with high tech firms and venture capitalists, and at the best engineering and business schools, trying to understand how to be very, very agile.

“Stop trying to solve the problem,” the colonel advises. “Spend your time trying to understand what it is you’re supposed to be doing. The problem will eventually solve itself.”

 Colonel Newell left his post at REF last week. He’s retiring from the Army. The Department of Defense has just decided to change REF’s status from interesting experiment to permanent agency. We’ll see how that works.

 But I was in the Army long ago, and even at Fort Bliss for a while. It wasn’t this smart.

Alex Chadwick is the host of the public radio series, BURN: An Energy Journal, from SoundVision productions and American Public Media’s Marketplace, produced with funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.