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Grid Connection of Contigency Base Camps: Making It Happen

Base camps[1]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. The following discussion will:

Typical Base Energy Use

According to Army planning documents, the typical base camp consumes 1.7 gallons of fuel per person per day, and has an electrical demand of 0.32-0.36 kW per person per day[2]. Moreover, these are general planning assumptions—base camps in extreme environments (e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq) with substantial climate control energy requirements 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[3]. This is 0.5 kW/person per day; 40% more than the assumed load. Camp Leatherneck consumes a little over 36,000 gallons of fuel every day; that’s over 3.5 gallons per person ever day. About 42% of that, 15,431 gallons, is burned in generators[4].

How much does this cost? Although estimates of the “fully burdened cost of fuel” vary, and can be as high as over $400/gallon for fuel delivered to a remote FOB by helicopter[5], base camp fuel cost can reasonably be estimated at about $7/gallon[6], all-in…or about $108,000 per day, just to keep the lights on and the facilities air-conditioned. And compared to stateside power costs of about $0.10 per kW-hour, the electricity generated at Camp Leatherneck appears to cost $0.90/kW-hour[7], excluding additional costs of operating and maintaining generators. Moreover, transporting fuel in convoys, exposing personnel to IED danger, costs lives.

Commercial Power: A Solution?

This isn’t news. Policy and doctrine recognize diesel generation’s inefficiency, discuss the “power continuum” from tactical power through commercial power[8], and urge consolidation and centralization of base camp power systems[9]. 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.[10]”

Reality on the ground is different. After more than 10 years 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,” using on-site generation for 100% of their load. These are mature theaters…why haven’t they 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, increases the risk of outages, and takes power generation out of a commander’s control. Moreover, Army planning guidance[11] articulates another disadvantage. If the grid is constrained by demand (i.e. there’s not enough power available), there’s 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

These concerns can and should be overcome. Here’s why:

Although diesel generation appears reliable, it merely trades commercial grid failure risk for fuel supply chain risk. As the Defense Science Board 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.[12]” While the base camp transitions from a temporary to an enduring status, connecting to the commercial grid gives a 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 doesn’t make sense to pay for fuel to keep the air-conditioning on around the clock. Power the gym from the grid; if there’s an outage, it’s not a major event.

Increasing the commander’s options isn’t the only advantage. Contracting directly with the host nation provides counterinsurgency (COIN) benefits as well; General Odierno said as much when directing his forces to hire host country nationals to the greatest extent possible: “Employment of Iraqis not only saves money, but it also strengthens the Iraqi economy and helps eliminate the root causes of the insurgency[13]” 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 an opportunity to partner with other government agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State. The base camp commander shares a common goal with those agencies: a stable, developed infrastructure. 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 this shared goal.

Finally, it’s reasonable to expect that base camp facilities will ultimately be turned over to the host nation. The facilities are far more usable, and sustainable to the host nation, when grid-powered.

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 persist for years…grid connection should be the goal. If planners and other stakeholders follow guidance in FM 5-104 (General Engineering) and EP 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:

Once connected, the commander’s work isn’t 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:

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

Chris Garvin, PE is a Project Manager for the International Department of POWER Engineers’ Federal Division. He’s also a retired Navy Civil Engineer Corps officer.

Contact info: Phone: (208) 995-4017; e-mail chris.garvin@powereng.com

Jim Codling, PE leads POWER’s International Department of POWER Engineers’ Federal Division.  He also served on the LOGCAP program in a technical advisory position.

Contact info: Phone: (208) 850-7001; e-mail jim.codling@powereng.com


[1] Per U.S. Army’s EP 1105-3-1, Base Camp Development in the Theater of Operations, “A base camp is an evolving military facility that supports the military operations of a deployed unit and provides the necessary support and services for sustained operations.” (Page 1-3.)

[2] U.S. Army Field Manual 3-34.400 (FM 5-104) General Engineering, December 2008; p. E-5.

[3] Report of the Afghanistan Marine Energy Assessment Team, January 2011; p. 10.

[4] Ibid, p. 13.

[5] Defense Science Board report, More Capable Warfighting Through Reduced Fuel Burden, May 2001; p.19.

[6] Report of the Afghanistan Marine Energy Assessment Team, January 2011; p. 10.

[7] 5 MW/day load = 120 MW-hrs/day; $108,000/120 = $900.14/MW-hr, or $0.90/kW-hr.

[8] U.S. Army Field Manual 3-34-480 (FM 5-422) Engineer Prime Power Operations, April 2007; p. 1-1.

[9] U.S. Army Field Manual 3-34.400 (FM 5-104) General Engineering, December 2008; p. 14-1.

[10] Ibid, p. 14-3.

[11] U.S. Army’s EP 1105-3-1, Base Camp Development in the Theater of Operations; January 2009, p. 8-6.

[12] Defense Science Board Report, More Fight—Less Fuel, February 2008; p. 65.

[13] General Raymond T. Odierno, Memorandum, Increased Employment of Iraq Citizens Through Command Contracts, Multi-National Force-Iraq, January 31, 2009.