This is my contribution to a dialogue on the military and clean energy being hosted by National Journal.
To understand the promise of renewable energy for the U.S. military, it helps to start as far from Washington, D.C., as possible. (This is true for most forms of understanding.) Start far from the politicians, even from the military brass, far from the rooms where big-money decisions are made, far out on the leading edge of the conflict, with a small company of Marines in Afghanistan's Sangin River Valley.
Not long ago, for a three-day mission out of a forward operating base in Afghanistan, each Marine would have humped between 20 and 35 pounds of batteries. One of the reasons Marines are so lethal in such small numbers today is that they are constantly connected by radios and computers. But radios and computers require a constant supply of batteries, brought by convoy over some of the deadliest roads on earth and then piled on the backs of Marines in highly kinetic environments.
In late 2010, India Company, from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, tried something new. They packed Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy Systems, or SPACES -- flexible solar panels, 64 square inches, that weigh about 2.5 pounds each. One 1st Lieutenant from India 3/5 later boasted that his patrol shed 700 pounds.
"We stayed out for three weeks," he said, "and didn't need a battery resupply once."