A company of marines during a field exercise this summer used only solar energy to power the equipment in a command center for more than eight days.
Solar panels, solar-powered generators, solar-fueled heating and cooling: They are the shiny new tools that could free marines from the tyranny of fuel.
The 150 marines of Company I, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment — based at Camp Pendleton, Calif. — will soon deploy to Afghanistan with enough renewable energy technology that they may even leave behind many of their bulky gas-hogging generators and A/C powered batteries.
During training drills in August at 29 Palms, in the California desert, the 3/5 never turned on a generator to power its combat operations center.
In parallel to their combat training exercise, marines built at 29 Palms an experimental “forward operating base,” or ExFOB, where 28 vendors brought renewable power generators, energy-efficient tents and water purification devices. A similar ExFOB was built in March at the Marine Corps’ base at Quantico, Va.
After a week of tests at 29 Palms, officials narrowed it down to a handful of systems that India Company will take to war. If all goes well, green technology could soon proliferate throughout the Marine Corps, officials said.
The head of the Defense Department’s operational energy programs, Sharon Burke, said the Marine Corps deserves praise for having “operationalized” technologies that have existed in labs but have not made it to the field. All the military services have developed green technology, “but the marines came in at a leadership level and said, ‘We’re going to deploy this,’” Burke said in an interview. “That makes a big difference.”
Every service now wants to do what the marines are doing, Burke said. “We’re seeing it in their budgets,” she said. “They’re looking at how to use the technologies.”
Marines also should be credited for focusing on educating troops on how to use the new equipment. “At most military bases, there are people who know how to work the generators and how to repair them, but running them efficiently is not part of their training,” Burke said. “At 29 Palms, marines are being trained on the equipment,” she said. “It’s not as simple as putting up a poster in a tent that says ‘Turn off your lights,’” she said. “We have to be thoughtful of what we ask from our deployed forces.”
Among the technologies that the Marine Corps is deploying is a ground renewable expeditionary energy system (GREENS) that was produced by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, Md. It provides 300 watts of continuous power so it’s a valid alternative to a small generator, said Maj. Patrick Reynolds, an officer at the logistics combat element branch at the technology division of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based in Quantico.
Carderock is building seven GREENS systems for India Company. The unit used the system to power its command center for 196 straight hours during training, Reynolds said in an interview.
“They’ll take this equipment into country shortly,” he said. GREENS has four hybrid photovoltaic batteries that can be recharged with solar energy, plus a converter and a controller that marines can set up relatively easily, said Reynolds.
“It reduces the requirements on the marines,” he said. “They don’t have to be checking fuel levels and turning generators on and off. As long as there’s a wattage meter attached, as long as the power demand doesn’t exceed 300 watts, the device will run continuously from solar radiation that is captured in the battery bank.”
Company I also will be employing LED lights in tents, which are more durable and last longer than fluorescent tubes. It also will deploy solar-fueled light trailers that are made by NEST Energy Services, a small business based in Arizona. The light trailers are useful in areas such as checkpoints, said Reynolds. “They set up the timer for when they want them turned on and turned off,” he said. “Each trailer provides 12 hours of continuous light from solar energy alone.”
One of the biggest hurdles in providing renewable energy for FOBs in Afghanistan is that bases are spread over huge areas and each has different power needs. As a result, it is difficult to size generators for specific demands, said Reynolds. Renewable technology is a good fit in remote locations such as observation posts, where marines want to travel light and avoid having to send a gasoline-powered generator and additional troops to fuel and support it.
“Marines like the solar power generators because they are quiet, and they don’t have to worry about refueling constantly,” said Ayman Odeh, project officer at the logistics combat element branch.
The battalion will still have traditional generators at hand as backup, said Reynolds. “We are not at the point where we can remove all generators from the battlefield just yet,” he said. “That’s a couple of years down the road.”
In addition to using solar-powered generators, the Marine Corps also wants to retrofit current generators with “auto start-stop” systems, which could help save fuel, said Odeh.
The Warfighting Laboratory is seeking bids from industry on this technology, he said. The idea is to integrate many generators into a “microgrid,” monitor the load and have them automatically switch on or off based on consumption.
“You have to be able to lay out your generators at a given location and sync them all up, and make sure the generators are in phase so they run efficiently,” said Reynolds.
So far nobody has come up with the right solution, said Odeh. It’s a real stumper because it requires software that can control different models and makes of generators, some of which are no longer manufactured.
Running current generators more efficiently would be a welcome relief for marines who increasingly require more electricity in operations. Case in point: An infantry battalion that in 2001 would deploy with 175 radios now requires 1,220.
It also could add up to significant amounts of money. Amory B. Lovins, chairman and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, in Colorado, calculated that a typical Marine Corps combat brigade needs more than a half-million gallons of fuel per day, and much of it is for generators. A single typical 60-kilowatt generator burns 4 to 5 gallons per hour, or $700,000 per year based on an estimated fuel cost of $17.44 per gallon in Afghanistan. Fueling one base’s generators might cost more than $34 million per year.
After the 3/5 returns from Afghanistan next year, it will have valuable data on the potential payoff of renewable energy. For now, rough estimates show that by replacing conventional generators with solar devices, fuel consumption could be reduced by 30 to 50 percent.
Another part of the marines’ energy saving push is to reduce their dependence on bottled water, which has to be transported by ships and trucks. Marines are not allowed to drink the local water, so 60-ounce plastic bottles have to be shipped from the Persian Gulf and traverse Pakistan. “For every fuel truck, you have seven water trucks,” said former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway. Not only do water shipments increase fuel consumption in the transportation chain but the water, by the time it arrives at its destination, is hotter than the average shower, and unpleasant to drink.
Marines have drilled 600 feet deep into fresh water aquifers, which provide adequate water to shower but not to drink. If there were an easy way to purify the water to U.S. government standards, “We could take 50 trucks a week off the roads,” Conway said.
At the ExFOBs, marines tested a number of water-purification devices that would allow them to pump and filter water from local sources, but came up empty-handed. Some systems that are certified to produce potable water are too bulky, and others that are lighter and more portable are not NSC-certified, which is the required standard for military use.
Odeh said the Warfighting Laboratory is interested in buying water-chilling systems that would circulate and lower the temperature of the water that arrives in bulk containers.
“We want to cool the water at the point of consumption,” said Odeh. But the desired technology is not yet available, he said. “We don’t know the form factors that vendors will provide.”
India Company will not deploy with a water purification system, Reynolds said. The issue is the form factor, he said. The company-size filtration systems are too big, and others are too small and only good for individual use. Marines need an in-between system that could supply water for a squad, said Reynolds. “Trying to get the capabilities of the larger system into a form factor is what we’re shooting towards.”
Odeh said there are vendors that have systems in the desired form factor but they are still completing tests.
One industry source who spoke to vendors at the ExFOB said that reverse osmosis filters are now available in suitcase-size devices, but they require considerable energy to operate. Other systems use less energy and make the water palatable and safe to drink but it’s still cloudy. “People have a problem drinking water that looks bad even if it isn’t,” the source said. Cooling the water is a great idea, but it’s also a big energy drain.