DEFENSE:

Army's ambitious renewable energy goals run into war-zone realities

A much-touted military complex slated to become the main hub for future Afghan security forces is also being looked to as a key proving ground for renewable energy.

But two years into its construction, alternative energy plans are running up against the harsh realities of building in a remote setting in a war-torn nation.

Earlier plans for the 105-acre base included a 1-megawatt wind turbine, waste-to-energy technology and a fleet of ground-based photovoltaic panels.

Last month, however, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent two experts to survey the future site of the base just outside of Kabul -- which will house more than a half-dozen military training facilities, including the Afghanistan equivalent of West Point -- and they discovered it is time to rethink those plans.

One finding: The 1 MW wind turbine featured in draft blueprints cannot become a reality.

"The roads won't support it. You can't get a crane large enough out there to support it," said Frank Holcomb, a senior energy official at the U.S. Army's Construction Engineering Research Laboratory. To build and maintain a wind turbine that size, construction workers would need to employ a 300-ton crane and bring in hefty trucks to carry in pieces that are about 35 meters long each, he explained.

Meanwhile, the largest crane in the country weighs less than half of that, he said. To keep the turbine running, the massive crane would also need to stay in the country for repairs.

So the Army Corps is working to refocus draft plans to include fewer than two dozen smaller 10-kilowatt wind turbines -- though they will not equal the power of the 1 MW wind turbine. Building about 100 10-kilowatt wind turbines to create equivalent power appears to be out of the question due to the difficulty and expense of constructing a large wind farm across such a rugged site.

Problems in a 'relatively austere environment'

Other alternative energy plans are also being scrapped after re-evaluating the needs of the Afghan people and the realities of the site.

Incorporating waste-to-energy technology there seems to be "leaning too far forward," said Holcomb -- who noted that there is more of a focus there on just proving incinerators rather than moving to this technology. The only workable option right now, he said, would be to make fuel bricks from trash with a low-tech compacter -- and that depends on if the community would use or buy them.

And ground-based photovoltaics are being swapped out to be replaced by roof-based panels that would not take up as much space or be at risk of vandalism or theft. But with the location change, the size of the project is slated to shrink. While initial assessments suggested 2 MW of solar would work on the ground, planners are now considering the possibility of just installing several hundred kilowatts of solar power.

"We have a number of considerations for these technologies," said Jack Kem, who is overseeing the project as deputy to the commander of the NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan. One major consideration is sustainability, in terms of both cost over at least five years and the ability to maintain these technologies in a "relatively austere environment," he said. "Secondly, we are working to be good stewards of the environment to assist Afghanistan in addressing Millennium challenge goals and to enhance environmental standards," he said.

The downsized projects are a far cry from the possibilities outlined in the original feasibility studies, which suggested these projects could set the bar for renewable energy work.

Isolation, diesel generators and convoys

Without any alternative energy sources, though, the site -- which is not connected to any transmission lines -- would be powered exclusively by diesel generators that would require private contractors or military personnel to truck all their fuel in -- often with a high casualty count.

"Any in-house solar or wind resources we can put in site will offset the generators and fuel needs. Even if we can take one convoy off the road ... it's a good thing," said Holcomb. "This complex is highly isolated."

Building up renewable energy at this site would be an opportunity to bolster efforts to teach Afghans how such construction and maintenance work can be performed, Holcomb said. In addition, the Afghanistan National Security University makes for an ideal test bed because it is contained and will have a high level of security.

Tall wind turbines or a sea of solar panels could make for an easy target for terrorists looking to destabilize power supplies, he explained. But this site -- which is expected to include about 100 buildings -- will be carefully guarded and allow Afghan workers to learn how to build and maintain these technologies, he said.

The university, once completed in fall 2012, will be the "crown jewel of the enduring institutions we're creating to sustain and build the Afghan National Security Forces," Kem told reporters and bloggers last year.

Outside of this university, there are smaller efforts under way to incorporate renewable energy into everyday life in Afghanistan.

In Kabul, there is no reliable electric grid, so in December 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers kicked off a solar streetlight initiative with the mayor of Kabul's office to light up commercial streets in downtown Kabul.

Solar streetlights in Kabul

The 28 poles and 56 lights that were built during the first pilot phase of the project use light-emitting diode lamps that collect power during the day to power the lights starting at dusk. Many of the techniques that were applied to this project were learned in Iraq, where the corps was doing similar solar projects, said U.S. Army Col. Thomas Magness, who commands the Army Corps of Engineers' Afghanistan Engineer District-North work.

NATO also backed efforts to dispose of solid waste in several Afghan prisons with biogas digesters and is currently working to install 11-kilowatt solar power units at more than a dozen police districts, said Kem.

The Marine Corps, too, is looking to boost use of solar power in Helmand province.

Each renewable energy project -- whether for Afghan civilians or for direct military forces -- helps the military to gather more information that may be useful for how it powers its own forward operating bases and in future missions, said Magness.

"We brief General [David] Petraeus every month on where we are on some of these water-resource issues, these renewable-energy opportunities, and we use that as a way of sharing lessons learned," he said. "All of these lessons we're now applying not just to the Afghan infrastructure but to U.S. and coalition bases," he said.

Technologies like these -- wind turbines and PV solar panels -- are being considered as part of the energy portfolio for more enduring forward operating bases or to build up Afghan infrastructure -- but are not the same models that the more expeditionary Marine Corps would use to help reduce the amount of fuel and batteries it might need for isolated missions.

Still, each success at building up ways to power remote bases could benefit other military locations or be useful when responding to disaster situations like Haiti, experts say.

At the very least, said Magness, "I think this is unquestionably the way ahead for Afghanistan."

"It's not about green technology as much as it is about sustainable solutions for electricity and power here in Afghanistan."

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