Generator fuel is often trucked, in convoy, across unsecure territory; sometimes it is dropped from aircraft—all at substantial cost. And yet for many base camps, a connection to the commercial grid is less than a kilometer away. Some base camps even bring commercial power inside the fenceline but rely instead on pricey diesel generation. Commanders should accelerate their base camp’s connection to the host nation grid, and sever the tie to diesel fuel’s long logistics chain.

Mature secondary distribution system on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. 100 percent of Bagram’s power comes from diesel generators, but is within 8-km of a major transmission line.

Base camps are inordinately reliant on diesel generators for power. After more than a decade of operation, the majority of base camps in Iraq and Afghanistan have not transitioned to local commercial grid power. The battlespace has matured. This transition is overdue. Grid connection expands the commander’s menu of options, and offers opportunities to partner with other agencies to achieve common goals. Key questions though must be addressed:

  • What is the typical base camp energy and fuel usage?
  • What is the current policy and doctrine with respect to grid connection?
  • What are advantages of grid connection?
  • How should a commander approach a “road map” to executing a utility purchase agreement?

Typical Base Energy Use
According to U.S. Army planning documents, the typical base camp consumes 1.7-gal of fuel per person per day, with a daily electrical demand of 0.32-kW to 0.36-kW per person. Moreover, these are general planning assumptions. Base camps in extreme environments with substantial climate control energy requirements (like Afghanistan and Iraq) will see an even larger fuel and power demand. Reported consumption data support this argument. Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, with about 10,000 people, has a 5-MW average load. This is 0.5-kW per person per day—or 40 percent more than the assumed load. And Camp Leatherneck consumes a little more than 36,000-gal of fuel every day. That is more than 3.5-gal per person every single day. Research shows some 42 percent of that, 15,431-gal, is burned in generators.

How much does all this cost? Although estimates of the “fully burdened cost of fuel” vary, and can be more than $400 per gallon for fuel delivered to a remote Forward Operating Base (FOB) by helicopter, base camp fuel cost can reasonably be estimated at about $7 per gallon all-in—or $108,000 per day. And that is just to keep the lights on and facilities air-conditioned. Compared to stateside power costs of about $0.10 per kWh, the electricity generated at Camp Leatherneck appears to cost $0.90 per kWh, excluding additional costs of operating and maintaining generators. Moreover, transporting fuel in convoys, thereby exposing personnel to IED danger, can cost lives.

Mature secondary distribution system on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. 100 percent of Bagram’s power comes from diesel generators, but is within 8-km of a major transmission line.
Commercial Power: A Solution?
Policy and doctrine already recognize the inefficiency of diesel generation. The “power continuum” from tactical power through commercial power is known. There has been an audible urging to consolidate and centralize base camp power systems. Field Manual 5-104 (FM 5-104) makes it clear: “In most cases where U.S. forces will maintain a long-term operational presence in a theater, the transition of military facilities to commercial power is a likely and desirable end state for power.”

Reality on the ground, however, is different. After more than a decade of operation very few base camps in Afghanistan are powered from the commercial grid. In Iraq, major bases like Victory, Liberty, Balad and Al Asad are “islanded”; they use on-site generation for 100 percent of their load. These are mature theaters. Why have they not transitioned to commercial power?

Base camp commanders are most concerned with reliability. Connecting with the host nation grid, especially during conflict or in a post-conflict environment, not only increases the risk of outages but takes power generation out of a commander’s control. Army planning guidance articulates another disadvantage. If the grid is constrained by demand, there is a risk of public perception that U.S. forces are using the host nation’s resources. Finally, the planning and coordination required may exceed available staff bandwidth. The quick and easy answer is: “Light off another generator.”

Overcome the Challenges: Accelerate Grid Connection
Such concerns can and should be overcome. Although diesel generation appears reliable, it merely trades commercial grid failure risk for fuel supply chain risk. As the Defense Science Board has stated, “The most significant energy-related risk to DOD’s combat capability is the burden of moving fuel from the point of commercial purchase to the combat systems that need it.”

As a base camp transitions from temporary to enduring status, connecting to the commercial grid gives the base camp commander a relatively inexpensive primary source of power, while retaining on-site generation as a backup. Certain essential loads, like the Tactical Operations Center (TOC), will remain on diesel power; but for a non-essential load like the gym, it just does not make sense to pay for fuel to keep air-conditioning on around the clock. Power the gym from the grid. If an outage occurs, it is not a major event.

Increasing the commander’s options isn’t the only advantage. Contracting directly with the host nation provides counterinsurgency benefits as well. Gen. Raymond Odierno, USA, said as much when directing his forces to hire host country nationals to the greatest extent possible: “Employment of Iraqis not only saves money,” he said, “but it also strengthens the Iraqi economy and helps eliminate the root causes of the insurgency.” Similarly, the “Afghan First” policy shared by NATO, the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Forces Afghanistan acknowledges the importance of supporting the host nation. Utility contracting offers opportunities to partner with other government agencies, like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of State. The base camp commander shares a common goal with those agencies: a stable, developed infrastructure. But the agencies may have access to additional resources, and may not be faced with the same contracting constraints as the base camp commander, so it makes sense to work jointly to achieve the shared goal.

It is reasonable to expect that base camp facilities eventually will be turned over to the host nation. Those facilities are far more usable, and sustainable, to the host nation when grid-powered.

Mature secondary distribution system on Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. 100 percent of Bagram’s power comes from diesel generators, but is within 8-km of a major transmission line.
Grid Connection: What It Takes; Who Can Help
Base camp commanders should take the long view when planning and developing infrastructure. Recent experience in Afghanistan and Iraq shows that “temporary” base camps actually persist for years. Grid connection should be the goal. If planners and other stakeholders follow guidance in FM 5-104 (General Engineering) and Engineer Pamphlet 1105-3-1(Base Camp Development in the Theater of Operations), the base camp will be well-positioned for transition to grid power. In the case of a base camp that was not optimally planned, commanders can still be successful driving a transition to grid power. The commander should:
  • Inventory and publicize the number of generators and amount of fuel used to power the base. In a competition for scarce resources, this demonstrates that the commander knows his or her base and energy consumption—and the information builds the business case for grid connection.
  • Choose which facilities on the camp are candidates for grid power. The TOC? Probably not. The MWR tent? Sure. If there is an outage, the tent can run on backup power or do without. Commanders will likely see there are very few facilities on the base camp that require locally generated power.
  • Identify the appropriate point of contact at the host nation utility, and assess their capability to support the base. Expert assistance will be required, as there are complex technical and contracting questions to be asked and answered.
  • Reach out to other base camp commanders, services, government agencies, and coalition forces to find opportunities for synergy and sharing resources.
  • Execute, through appropriate contracting channels, the power purchase agreement and connect to the local grid.

Even once connected to a local grid, the commander’s work is not done. This is an iterative process. As the base grows and matures, opportunities to wean facilities from costly diesel power will appear. The commander has a number of resources to assist in these tasks:
  • Professional Services Consultants‒The professional services community has intensive, relevant, and long-term experience with power grid connection. When considering large-scale utility planning and development, a professional consulting firm has the depth and experience to provide the advice a commander needs.
  • Army‒The 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) can provide advice and technical assistance for internal electrical power and distribution systems.
  • Navy‒Construction Battalion Maintenance Units (CBMU’s) provide follow-on public works operations to maintain and repair existing advanced base shore facilities.
  • Air Force‒Prime BEEF are mobile assets typically deployed to air bases. RED HORSE units provide heavy repair capability and construction support. They are stand-alone squadrons that are highly mobile, largely self-sufficient, and rapidly deployable. Both of these units are capable of providing facility-level electrical-system installation and planning.

Base camp commanders are, by nature, biased toward action. Yet expediting commercial grid connection is an action that reduces risk and cost…and commanders should capitalize on this opportunity.

Lt. Cdr. Chris Garvin, P.E., USN (Ret.) is Project Manager,

and Jim Codling, P.E., M.SAME, leads the International Department of POWER Engineer’s Federal Division. They can be reached at 208-995-4107, or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 208-850-7001 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., respectively.