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Power module diagram

The US Army in Iraq may soon be using a $100,000 per unit solar-panel and wind-generator power system that fits in a standard shipping container, according to The Christian Science Monitor. It can be dropped onto a mountaintop or into the desert. The solar panels and wind turbine deploy in minutes. And where there’s water, a micro-hydro unit can be dropped into a stream for an added boost. Its successful deployment would mean civilian versions would follow quickly.
The US military is already one of the largest consumers of renewable energy, especially at off-grid outposts in North America. Four 275-foot-tall wind turbines were unveiled last year at the Naval Station at Guantnamo Bay in Cuba, meeting about a quarter of the base’s electrical needs and saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel.
Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, whose deputies on July 25 sent the Pentagon a “Priority 1” request for “a self-sustainable energy solution” including “solar panels and wind turbines” may find the SkyBuilt “mobile power system” better in battle than a $10,000, ten-kilowatt diesel generator.
The 007-style box is made by SkyBuilt Power Inc. of Arlington, Va. Aided with funding from In-Q-Tel, a venture-capital firm for the Central Intelligence Agency. The units can be configured to deliver anywhere from 3.5 to 150 kilowatts of electricity, depending on how many options are included.
Though many solar and wind technologies have been developed, what’s new here is the ability to combine them in a package. Using heavy, rugged steel container as a base means it is not necessary to pour heavy footings and install towers and guy wires to support the turbine, or hold solar panels steady against wind pressure.
The modular setup allows off-the-shelf components of many types to be added, including combustion-based generators and alternators, solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries.
The company’s president and CEO, Dave Muchow, said his inspiration and model in forming the company was the laptop computer, with its plug-and-play versatility of components, from the chips to the hardware and the peripherals. The open architecture enables a mixing and matching of components to suit the individual user so that they don’t have more than they need, and they can just add on what they might be missing.
This may be the first time a frontline commander has called for renewable-energy backup in battle, says Christian Science Monitor. Indeed, it underscores the urgency: Without renewable power, US forces “will remain unnecessarily exposed” and will “continue to accrue preventable … serious and grave casualties,” says Zilmer.
Apparently, the brass is heeding that call. The US Army’s Rapid Equipping Force (REF), which speeds frontline requests, is “expected soon” to begin welcoming proposals from companies to build and ship to Iraq 183 frontline renewable-energy power stations, an REF spokesman confirms. The stations would use a mix of solar and wind power to augment diesel generators at US outposts, the spokesman says.
Despite desert temperatures, the hot “thermal signature” of a diesel generator can call enemy attention to US outposts, experts say. With convoys still vulnerable to ambush, the fewer missions needed to resupply outposts with JP-8 fuel to run power generators – among the Army’s biggest fuel guzzlers – the better, the memo says.
“By reducing the need for [petroleum] at our outlying bases, we can decrease the frequency of logistics convoys on the road, thereby reducing the danger to our marines, soldiers, and sailors,” reads the unclassified memo posted on the website InsideDefense.com, a defense industry publication that first reported its existence last month.
Still, Major General Zilmer’s request highlights what appears to be a small but growing focus on adding renewable sources of energy to the fuel mix for combat operations as part of Department of Defense planning.
Special operations forces concluded that using foldout solar panels to recharge batteries was better than carrying more disposable batteries into combat, a 2004 study for the Army found. Last year, Konarka Technologies Inc. in Lowell, Mass., received a $1.6 million Army contract to supply flexible printed solar panels to reduce the number of batteries soldiers carry.
A bigger picture of the need for renewables was sketched out in a key 2004 Pentagon study titled “Winning the Oil Endgame,” by the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy think tank in Snowmass, Colo. It found a number of areas where efficiency would boost combat effectiveness, including:
More than 50 percent of fuel used by the Army on the battlefield is consumed by combat support units, not frontline troops.
Until recently, the Army spent about $200 million a year annually on fuel, but paid $3.2 billion each year on 20,000 active and 40,000 reserve personnel to transport it.
That was before $70-per-barrel oil. This spring, the Defense Energy Support Center reported the US military used about 128 million barrels of fuel last year, costing about $8 billion, compared with about 145 million barrels in 2004 that cost $7 billion.
“At the tip of the spear is where the need to avoid the cost of fuel logistics is most acute,” says Amory Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who led the 2004 study. “If you don’t need divisions of people hauling fuel, you can realign your force structure to be more effective as well as less vulnerable.”
Zilmer’s call for renewable power is also buttressed by Pentagon studies from June 2005 dating back to the 1990s that show the costs and advantages of solar-panel systems in place of or as supplements to diesel generators burning JP-8, the standard battlefield fuel.
Still, such lessons are learned slowly, says Hugh Jones, a former analyst with the Center for Army Analysis, now a consultant on energy issues to the US Army. Analyzing feedback from the frontlines after Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait 1990, he produced a raft of studies on uses for solar power in combat.
But during the 1990s when fuel was cheap, he found little interest in the idea.
“There aren’t a lot of people who have expertise in this area of renewable power in combat operations,” Mr. Jones says. “There are a lot of people in the service who smell like diesel fuel, but not many who have been in the field using solar power and hybrid-optimized solutions.”
Even so, he’s noticed “there’s much more interest today.” The high cost of fuel, and troop casualties in the Iraq war, may be changing that traditional outlook.
And costs of such hybrid packages begin to look more reasonable when the cost is considered of delivering a gallon of fuel to a generator gulping it 24/7. The true cost of fuel delivered to the battlefield – well prior to the recent oil price hike – was $13 to $300 a gallon, depending on its delivery location, a Defense Science Board report in May 2001 estimated.
An analysis in Zilmer’s memo puts the “true cost” for fuel for a 10-kilowatt diesel generator at $36,000 a year – about four times the amount needed to purchase the fuel itself initially. The rest of the cost is due mainly to transportation. On that basis, a SkyBuilt system could cut costs by 75 percent and pay for itself for three to five years, the memo estimates.
But another cost is time. Even though the Army’s REF is moving on it, there is still no firm date for a request for proposal to be made public, the REF spokesman acknowledges. Zilmer’s memo, however, warns that without renewable power to replace fuel, victory could be forfeited.
“Without this solution, personnel loss rates are likely to continue at their current rate,” the memo says. “Continued casualty accumulation exhibits potential to jeopardize mission success.”

The SkyBuilt units can be configured to deliver anywhere from 3.5 to 150 kilowatts of electricity, depending on how many options are included.
Though there have been many solar and wind technologies developed, what’s new here is the ability to combine them in a tidy package. Using the heavy and rugged steel container as a base means that it is not necessary to pour heavy footings and install towers and guy wires to support the turbine, or hold solar panels steady against wind pressure.
The modular setup allows off-the-shelf components of many types to be added, including combustion-based generators and alternators, solar panels, wind turbines, and batteries.
The company’s president and CEO, Dave Muchow, said that his inspiration and model in forming the company was the laptop computer, with its plug-and-play versatility of components, from the chips to the hardware and the peripherals. The open architecture enables a mixing and matching of components to suit the individual user so that they don’t have more than they need, and they can just add on what they might be missing.
“We are the world’s first plug-and-play, open architecture, mobile, and expandable renewable power system,” said Muchow.
The system could also integrate diesel, propane, natural gas or gasoline-powered generators. “However, the supply-line for fuel can be problematic in many of the emergency-response applications we handle”, said Muchow. Additionally, he points out that in addition to being clean, the 5-10 kilowatt renewable energy systems, for example, can be 50% more cost-effective than diesel gensets — sometimes as much as 90% more efficient.
Muchow served as a General Counsel for thirty years in the energy industry, representing 300 natural gas and electric utilities before he launched SkyBuilt. “We use off-the-shelf components and adapt them to be plug-and-play so you don’t have to replace the operating system when an individual component changes,” said Muchow.
“What you find in the industry is that nuclear people don’t talk much to solar people. They specialize in their own focused area of research and development,” he said. Meanwhile, the customer might only need a portion of this, a smattering of that, but the specialists only know about their own product.
“We think sideways, across the many companies, rather than focused on any one. The customer wants a cross section that represents the best solution for their particular needs.
“We could haul a solar-powered water pumping system into a remote area by donkey, install it in a day, and it will last for decades,” said Muchow. “The first solar panels installed in the 1950’s are still working,” he noted.
“Think of all the uses for the container once the components are out of it and assembled,” said Muchow. “It can be turned into a medical clinic, a fire house, a birthing clinic, a police station, civic building, or even a school.” The SkyBuilt.com website itemizes yet further uses of the interior of the Mobile Power Station: “air-conditioned office space, telecommunications, medical center, emergency operations/command center or storage.”
In disaster response, which is one of their primary applications, having a clean, sturdy, enclosable small building can be as helpful as the power system that comes packaged in it. According to the company website, “The container can be heated and cooled for climate-controlled and lighted storage, office, medical clinic, border patrol facility, telecom, operations centers, or other secure, self-powered space in any environment from the desert to the artic”.
“And it floats,” said Muchow, noting that sometimes shipping containers will fall off ships en route to their destination. A floating container can also be a crucial component in a hurricane or flood.
The ruggedizing is in the container itself, and the patented connectors. Designed to avoid the problem of jerry-rigged exposed wiring that can be nibbled by animals and corroded by natural processes, these rugged modular connections will enable the portable station to withstand degradation caused by temperature extremes and other factors.

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