Military interest in energy storage remains strong

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The US Army is interested in using energy storage to improve tactical capabilities on the battlefield. Pic: Trish Harris.

By Jason Deign

Military enthusiasm for energy storage applications is at an all-time high, according to one supplier close to the industry.

“There’s no doubt that their interest is strong,” said Ryan O’Keefe, senior vice president of business development at the power conversion systems maker Ideal Power.

Energy storage is seen as one of a number of technologies that can help military chiefs offset costs and risks while allowing troops to operate more independently in the battlefield, he said.

“They identified quite some time ago that their military bases, wherever they are, are at the mercy of the electric grid. The military is clearly in planning mode for how to make their operations resilient.”

Ideal Power is currently working with “a couple” of military suppliers on how to improve frontline logistics and power quality.

Mobile hybrid solar-plus-battery system

Last month the company unveiled a project with EnerDel, a lithium-ion battery maker and energy systems integrator, to create a mobile hybrid solar-plus-battery system for the US Air Force.

The system, which is mounted on a military-grade trailer and can be towed by a humvee, is “aimed at reducing the diesel fuel used to power forward operating bases (FOBs),” said Ideal Power.

“The project supports the US Air Force’s Energy Strategic Plan, which seeks to improve the resiliency of their FOBs and reduce dependence on diesel-powered generators.”

Ideal Power said the mobile microgrid concept had been undergoing tests for the past seven months and could eventually be deployed at Air Force locations across the globe.

For now it is operating at the 319th Training Squadron’s Basic Expeditionary Airmen Skills Training facility at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, where it is powering lights and air conditioning systems for 10 FOB living quarters.

Eliminating the need for diesel-fuel convoys

“We’re deploying these systems to minimise and eventually eliminate the need for diesel fuel being trucked into frontlines or hostile territory,” said O’Keefe. “The logistics cost is what the real motivation is here.”

Diesel fuel consumption can be reduced by about 75% using EnerDel and Ideal Power’s battery system, he said. And when that fuel is being transported in warzones, it does not come cheap.

Add into the equation the fact that the ‘logistics cost’ may also include the lives of servicemen and women, and it is evident the military has a big motivation to adopt energy storage.

There are added benefits beyond simply saving lives and money, however.

For example, said O’Keefe, the power quality of diesel generators “is awful”, which means troops relying on them have to carry additional stabilising equipment or risk outages that could affect vital battlefield technology.

A true grid-quality waveform

“Our unit will use the battery to put out a true grid-quality waveform that can be used to power even sensitive electronics without spikes in power or voltage,” said O’Keefe.

Another plus is that battery systems are much less conspicuous than diesel generators in the field. “There’s nothing noisier behind enemy lines than a diesel generator running,” O’Keefe said.

Given these benefits, it is perhaps unsurprising the military interest in energy storage is on the rise, with the Ideal Power and EnerDel deal being just one of several contracts announced so far this year.

In May, for example, Sandia National Laboratories announced a project with the US Marine Corps to “increase energy security and reduce fuel dependence through alternative technologies, including renewable energy and microgrids.”

A Sandia Microgrid Design Toolkit will “enable the Marine Corps to make smart choices in planning investments in microgrids and renewable energy technologies, such as solar and batteries,” said the announcement.

A long-range US Navy weapon

A fortnight previously, it emerged that battery maker Saft had been selected to provide storage for a long-range US Navy weapon that fires projectiles using electrical rather than chemical energy.

The Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, was said to be using the batteries for an electromagnetic railgun capable of launching missiles at almost six times the speed of sound.

Despite such futuristic plans, however, O’Keefe said the military’s approach to technology adoption was more conservative than you might expect.

Pretty much all the military battery systems he was aware of were based on industry-standard lithium-ion batteries, for example.

“The US military doesn’t make quick decisions, nor are they necessarily the first adopter of commercially available technologies,” O’Keefe said. “They like to test and prove.”

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