The US military has long been viewed as a source for technological innovation. Inventions, from airplanes to computers, were tested in initial phases for military use.

This time around, the US military may be leading the way in energy efficiency technology.

In an exclusive interview with Breaking Energy, the military’s Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, Katherine Hammack, spoke of various military projects that are aimed at reducing dependence on foreign fuels, increasing efficiency, maintaining the army budget and improving conditions for soldiers, who often have to carry dozens of pounds of batteries on their backs.

“We intend to be the incubator for prudent and efficient solutions,” Hammack told Breaking Energy.

Hammack has been particularly active in launching a net zero program, aimed at dramatically reducing waste by limiting consumption, recycling resources, composting and repurposing “waste” items for more energy. The program has already set up 17 test bases that are set to consume no more energy, waste or water than they generate by 2020.

“The net zero strategy, we think, has direct applicability to the private sector, whether you are talking about campus installations, cities or small towns,” Hammack said.

She emphasized that the reduction of solid waste and water use is directly linked to energy efficiency because the treatment of water and sewage requires energy. She added that a comprehensive energy efficiency model, in her words a “cradle to cradle strategy,” must account for a product’s end-of-life function just as it does for its use at purchase.

The military has its own strategic reasons for focusing on energy efficiency. Soldiers in combat will often set up “contingency bases”, temporary stations that serve as life support and hubs that distribute supplies to even more remote soldiers.

“One of the challenges in contingency operations is that you don’t want a large target and it needs to be transportable,” said Hammack. In some of these areas, little or no electrical infrastructure exists.

To solve this problem, Hammack has helped the army innovate “solar blankets” which cover the tents and can provide enough electricity for basic air-conditioning, lighting and power systems.

Security lampposts around the contingency bases also run on solar power with LED bulbs. These lamps can burn for up to four consecutive days on the power stored in the lamp’s batteries.

For domestic and permanent bases, the military has also found ways to save money and power. A microgrid system links together a string of generators, allowing for maximum efficiency from each one and greater flexibility in terms of power use. If, for example, soldiers must remain stationed at a base longer than expected, the microgrid system links generators to a power management system that can reduce fuel consumption allowing for a longer timeframe of use. To date, the army has installed 20 such microgrids.

Military sites have been cutting oil consumption, by using electric and hybrid cars for low-speed short-range transportation needs, such as supplies shipments within bases.

“What we are working on is a charging strategy to ensure that we are charging from renewable sources that don’t put additional strain on the power grid,” Hammack said.

With any energy efficiency program, however, the military’s top concerns will be cost and security.

We are looking, said Hammack, for a “fiscally prudent return on investment.”