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Tactical Energy Considerations

Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the United States electrical grids knows that it is a patchworked and fragile mess. The US electrical network is actually made up of three separate grids, the West, East, and Texan grid. These grids are broken down further into a hodgepodge of competing, and sometimes overlapping operators.


Source: The New York Times - US Electrical Grid


As we all know, complexity is typically inversely related to a system's reliability, and that principle continues to stand true when applied to the US power grids. The move to ‘Green Energy’ and increased use of electric vehicles have introduced their own problems into the grid, generally exacerbating the system's unreliability. The fact is, the increase we have seen in grid disruptions will get worse before it gets better, and we are currently in a position where any events that affect the systems or its workers will cause longer lasting downtimes than in the past.


Complete reliance on the power grid is a recipe for disaster, whether you have an intention to homestead, or have tactical requirements like radios/optical equipment that need batteries, it is important that you understand the options available for you to achieve your energy needs.


Scope


This essay will look at a combination of conventional and non-conventional energy generation and storage techniques, and the considerations to make when building your own self-sufficient or tactical systems.


Energy Storage


Before we can talk about energy procurement, we must cover how energy storage works. A typical off-grid system comprises several key components. Solar panels are the usual energy input. These panels are connected to a charge controller, which regulates the voltage and current coming from the panels to protect the whole system. The battery bank is the heart of the system, storing energy for later use. Most modern batteries come pre-coupled with a Battery Management System (BMS) which is necessary to monitor and optimize the charging and discharging of these batteries, thus enhancing their longevity. Finally, an inverter converts the stored DC power into AC power for use by household appliances. Most household or vehicle sized systems require the user to buy and set up these components individually, however, for smaller scale tactically batteries, these individual components are set up into single units and are typically marketed as ‘power stations’.


With the most important component of these systems being the battery, it is important that you know what to look for. In short, Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP or LiFePO4) batteries are by far the best suited to these long term high power roles. LFP batteries have longer lifespans, don’t require maintenance, have better charge/discharge efficiency, and are much lighter than most other battery types; for these reasons, LFP batteries are the go-to choice for any long term homesteading or tactical application.



In order to maintain brevity, these are the key features to compare in different batteries:


Battery Capacity - Measured in amp-hours (Ah). The battery's capacity will indicate how much energy the battery can store. Most home or vehicle batteries (that are operating at 12V) will range between 50Ah(0.6kWh) to 270Ah(3.2kWh), however, it is typical for multiple of these batteries to be wired together in a sequence to increase the total capacity of the system.


Battery Lifespan - Measured in charge cycles. LFP batteries are usually capable of between 3000-5000 cycles which should last 10-15 years in most households.


Self Discharge Rate - This is a measurement of how much of the batteries capacity will be discharged naturally over a given time frame. Most LFP batteries will only lose ~3% of their charge over one month.


Finally, we can establish your needs. If you are operating a household then there are many online tools that will calculate your entire household's energy load. Here's a link to a calculator made by UnboundSolar. If your use case is more tactical in nature, then you must calculate your requirements by totalling all your radio, optic, and other specialized equipment’s battery capacities and expected recharge schedules.


Solar Power


Solar panels can be broadly classified into three types: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film. Monocrystalline panels are the most efficient but also the most expensive, followed by polycrystalline panels which are slightly less efficient, and finally thin-film panels are typically the least efficient of the three; though, it is important to keep in mind that these efficiency trends are only averages and do change depending on manufacturer. It is possible to buy a thin film solar panel with higher efficiency than a polycrystalline.


Monocrystalline panels are preferable as hard mounted solutions due to their higher heat tolerances and efficiency, though it is not uncommon for homesteaders to use polycrystalline panels to save money. Most average US houses need between 20-30 300W solar panels to become self-sufficient, though, this number increases sharply in the northern states; especially if you intend to have energy security during winters. If you are smart with your power and prioritize the necessary devices then you should be able to operate on as little as 10 300W solar panels.



For the more tactical and mobile applications, the right answer tends to be thin filmed panels. Thin filmed panels are less reflective, lighter, flexible, and perform significantly better in low or indirect lighting. There are a few reputable 20W to 40W systems that are compact enough to carry in a patrol pack and still capable of powering radios or drone batteries.


Diesel Generators


Diesel generators have consistently been a go to emergency item, typically selling out in days leading up to hurricanes or other disasters. These generators offer the invaluable advantage of instantaneous and dense power generation, proving pivotal especially during intervals when other sources, such as solar, fall short due to environmental conditions. Diesel fuel is the usual choice due to its superior energy density, with most portable generators rated for about 5kw, which is sufficient for most applications short of powering a whole house. This combination of swift responsiveness and longevity establishes diesel generators as a mainstay in off-grid energy considerations.


However, in a balanced assessment, one must also consider the challenges associated with diesel generators. Among these concerns is their pronounced acoustic footprint—a significant deterrent in situations where discretion is vital. The noise of a generator in either urban disasters and rural settings will compromise your position and usually end up drawing crowds of people wanting to charge devices. Additionally, the potential logistical challenge of procuring diesel, especially in remote or off-grid settings and during times of societal collapse, will negate most of the advantages that these generators offer. Other issues like maintenance and the fumes that generators produce typically discourage the use of generators unless in situations where diesel is still procurable or the situation completely requires their use.


Jerry Rigging Alternators


An alternator is a device that converts mechanical energy into electrical energy, it is not necessary that you understand how alternators work for the following section, however, you do need to understand that there are two different types of alternators. The two primary types of alternators are Permanent Magnet Alternators (PMAs) and Automotive Alternators. Automotive alternators are widely used in cars to charge the vehicle's battery while the engine is running, and they require an external source to initiate an electromagnet in order to produce energy; in other words, they need power in order to make power. On the other hand, PMAs utilize permanent magnets instead of electromagnets. This means they can generate electricity without an initial external power source.



For jerry-rigging purposes, especially in applications like turbine generators, PMAs are often the preferred choice, however, there are ways to scavenge alternatives. Any DC motor, when driven in reverse, can be used as an adequate electrical generator. Many enthusiasts who build their own wind/hydro turbines will scavenge the motors from treadmills, these motors tend to be in the right range of low enough resistance for the turbine to spin yet still high enough resistance to generate adequate power.


You can find many demo videos online of people building turbine generators in their backyards. While the process is not overly difficult, the primary obstacle to overcome is the construction of the turbine itself. The goal of turbine making is to ensure that the blades are as light and balanced as possible, for this reason, most enthusiasts will construct their blades from cutting into PVC Pipes.


To learn more about this process we highly recommend you read this paper. It details the process of turbine construction as well as many considerations for the generator itself.


Once the turbine is constructed, the only thing left to do is connect the alternator or generator to a charge controller and battery. While a single turbine is a poor source of power, a collection of turbines (especially in the right location) could become a primary source of power for your off-grid setup.


Electrical Concerns


It's essential to recognize that certain energy-intensive luxuries may need to be forgone. Adaptability and creativity are paramount. Rather than relying on electricity-powered refrigeration, consider using rivers or streams to keep perishables or medicine chilled. Begin to plan how you will cook food without gas or electric stoves and begin to get comfortable living without any electric lighting. These electricity saving measures will become necessary when you are responsible for your own energy generation, especially if you expect to continue using night vision, radio, drones, and other specialized fighting equipment.



It's crucial to differentiate between essential electrical equipment and expendable luxuries. Create a priority list, starting with devices that are indispensable to your survival, such as medical equipment, communication devices, and other fighting equipment. Next, list those that significantly enhance convenience, such as cooking appliances. Finally, identify items that are non-essential. This list will be your guide when rationing power, especially during periods of low energy generation. Over time, you might find that many items previously deemed 'necessary' have lost their utility, replaced by simpler and more sustainable alternatives.


In an off-grid scenario, there's a practical need to stock up on specialized batteries that power certain essential devices. Batteries such as CR123's cannot be recharged. Therefore, you must choose between stockpiling these primary (non rechargeable) batteries, or switch to using the potentially more volatile rechargeable variants. Moreover, learning your battery lifetimes and how many batteries you will use in a WROL situation is a necessary study you should be undertaking sooner rather than later.



Self-reliance is vital, whether for homesteading or tactical purposes. While energy generation and storage may not be a high priority for your contingency planning and training, it is necessary that you begin to consider what electrical equipment is supporting your survivability/lethality, and to plan how you will charge and maintain that equipment.


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