US Military Leading Way In Mobile Clean Energy Technology

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Sierra Club. Author credit goes to Gordon Scott and Anusha Narayanan.

Over the course of the past half-century, the U.S. military has proven prescient when it comes to developing and implementing new technology. From satellites to microwave technology to the internet to cellular phones, the military has taken the lead on nearly every significant technological advance that has later swept the private and consumer markets. Now, the military is getting a leg-up on another technology that is poised to lead the next major private-sector revolution – not weapons or communications, but large-scale mobile solar-powered energy systems.

Through a contract with SunDial Capital Partners, the Department of Defense has been implementing a new interface for mobile solar technology. Founded in 2009, SunDial pioneered a system custom-made for on-the-move military operations, harnessing renewable solar energy into a highly mobile unit.  With deep military roots, SunDial President Dan Rice, Vice President Keegan Cotton, and Partner Lee Van Arsdale – all three West Point graduates and combat veterans – recognized a unique market for mobile power supply. As energy prices from traditional fuels rise and the military’s dependence on energy continually grows, SunDial envisioned a new application for existing solar technologies for remote locations.

SunDial 28.2 kW mobile solar energy system in Afghanistan
SunDial 28.2 kW mobile solar energy system in Afghanistan

The Department of Defense and U.S. Special Operations Forces saw strong potential in SunDial’s system, and purchased the company’s first operational models. In 2010, Special Operations Forces began the Mobile Solar Power Initiative, testing the SunDial system at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, and later successfully testing models in the field in Afghanistan. Testifying before the U.S. Congress about the mobile solar initiative, Admiral Eric Olson, then-Commander of Special Operations Command, said the Special Operations Forces community, “inherently joint in all it does, is in a unique position to leverage and apply Service and Department Science and Technology efforts to rapidly field new technologies on the battlefield.” Often located in the most remote areas where fuel must be airlifted to the point of consumption, Special Operations Forces had the greatest need for renewable energy solutions.

SunDial’s unique system has a clear attraction for military operations. Packed into a single 20-foot shipping container for easy transport, the unit consists of 120 installation-ready solar photovoltaic panels combined with a convenient communications center. A team of one trained expert and five or six local laborers can unpack the container and set up a functioning solar field within two hours. Once emptied, the trailer is equipped to double as a self-sufficient field operations facility. The whole unit can be packed up again on a moment’s notice, and transported to the next location, or can be transferred to the local population as part of the exit strategy to power the village long term with sustainable energy – an innovative application in “nation building” at the village level that is very attractive to special forces.SunDial system being unloaded
SunDial team deploying a system in Tebu, Nigeria

When fully set-up and functioning, a single unit can produce 28.8 kilowatts (kW) of power at peak daylight hours (which will increase to 34.2 kW with capacity and design improvements already in development) – significantly more than other comparable mobile solar energy systems. While the sun is shining, the panels produce “load” power and also charge a system of 64 storage batteries housed within the floor of the trailer unit. After dark, the batteries provide power well into the night, with an optional back-up diesel generator that kicks in automatically when the batteries become depleted to provide seamless power. At sun-up, the diesel generator turns off and the solar panels take over again, producing power and recharging the batteries.

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