Army Powers Up for Ambitious Fuel Saving Program

By Breanne Wagner

Solar PanelsAs roadside attacks on fuel convoys continue to plague the U.S. military, the Army is pursuing a new “intelligent” power program that could cut petroleum use in half at bases in Iraq, Army officials say.

The energy management system, called the hybrid intelligent power program, or HI-Power, will use a variety of techniques to reduce fuel consumption and harmful emissions, says H. Scott Coombe, chief of the Army power division at the service’s Research, Development and Engineering Command.

The military has already begun to adopt fuel-saving technologies such as wind and solar powered generators. But those are individual systems that address only one piece of the puzzle. HI-Power is a much broader effort that seeks to efficiently manage the way energy is controlled and distributed at bases, program officials say.

HI-Power is “revolutionizing how we manage battlefield power,” says Michael Padden, project manager of the Defense Department’s mobile electric power program.

Army officials hope that these initiatives can help reduce the number of petroleum tanker convoys traveling to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Fuel logistics is still a major concern,” Padden asserts. “Petroleum is absolutely necessary; there is no near term alternative.”

The HI-Power project was conceived by the Defense Department’s research and engineering division, which also is funding the program. Plans call for the six-year effort to run until fiscal year 2013.

The initial goal is to estimate potential energy savings at a “tactical operations center” for an Army brigade, Coombe explains. This will be achieved through a so-called “central power bus,” he says at an Institute for Defense and Government Advancement conference in Washington, D.C.

“What we’d like to get to is a central power bus where we can have different sized units, renewables, all of that on a central power grid,” Coombe says.

The centralized “plug-and-play” system will allow different power sources — anything from generators to solar panels — to easily hook up to the line, similar to the way printers and other devices connect to a personal computer.

That model is a departure from current tactical power systems, which use several generators in a “power island” configuration. These individual generators, which are isolated from each other like islands and do not share any kind of grid, feed equipment such as laptops or radios.

Based on a brigade-level model, Coombe says that the new power management system has a potential fuel savings of more than 50 percent, according to an estimate by the Army’s Communications–Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Command.

The HI-Power concept would eliminate clusters of power lines required by the current “island” configuration and instead build a continual grid that would more efficiently distribute power. A grid could also help reduce capital costs by reducing the amount of parts needed, Coombe says. “If we are able to successfully tie them together in one power grid, we can operate with less power generation hardware.”

There are many potential advantages to a central power grid, but there are also significant technological challenges, says Peter Gardner, electrical engineer with Williams-Pyro Inc., a manufacturing and development firm in Fort Worth, Texas. The company was awarded a contract by the Defense Department to support research efforts for HI-Power.

“We’ve got more advanced problems than ever before,” Gardner tells National Defense.

One source of concern is that a grid may be more vulnerable than the power island setup. With a central bus system, there may only be two or three generators separated by a couple of wires. If one wire were cut, the base would lose power.

Coombe admits that this is a problem, but notes that the Army will address it as the program progresses.

“It would be more vulnerable to attack or simply a vehicle running over a cable. When we award our contracts, we will be grappling with a whole lot of survivability issues,” he says.

The HI-Power program will also require “intelligent” power control. The Army is looking for ways to turn power sources off and on to eliminate wasted energy. “Right now, the generator sets are running all the time,” Coombe says. “If we’re able to monitor demand and turn them off, we reduce operating hours.”

When generators run all day, it causes what is known as “wetstacking” — a buildup of liquid fuel that clogs up the exhaust system.

Researchers are looking at ways to equip future generators with a remote control capability to address this problem, says Ken Recchia, an engineer with Williams-Pyro.

Recchia says that power control is a major hurdle, and no one has yet figured out how to overcome it. “For this automated system to work, we need more information,” he explains. New concepts are still on the drawing board.

The Army also wants to add this feature to existing generators, which is even more of a challenge, Recchia says. Companies “don’t want to start retrofitting until they know it’s going to work. No one will build anything for the government without a requirements list,” he says.

Coombe agrees that the Army is going to have to address this concern. “Requirements are usually written around a piece of hardware. This is more of a capability. We will have to write a different kind of requirement.”

Power control is a critical part of the program, says Coombe. He estimates that a power grid with intelligent controls offers potential fuel savings of 17 percent.

Renewable energy sources, such as solar panels and wind turbines, have the potential to save 30 percent. Energy storage systems, which would recoup energy from generators, renewables, or other sources and save it for later use, would account for a 2 percent savings, he says.

A concept called intelligent load control could account for an unknown percentage of fuel savings, Coombe says. Intelligent load control involves efficient distribution of power, based on need.

All components of the HI-Power system contribute to an overall goal of power management, Coombe says. “We’re not trying to develop a new generator, we’re not trying to build a new solar cell, a new battery chemistry. Really, the crux of the program is the power management, being able to tie the sources together, being able to turn them off, turn them on when we need to.”

The program is still in the early development stages. Three research contracts have so far been awarded, including the one given to Williams-Pyro. Other contractors include Intelligent Power and Energy Research Corp. and Intelligent Automation Inc. All three firms were charged with “developing plug-and-play architecture for tactical power grids,” according to Coombe.

The Army planned to award multiple development contracts in March.

For the first two years of the program, the focus is on software development and component evaluation, Coombe says.

Next year, the Army plans to build a prototype power system at Fort Belvoir, Va., where contractors will have the opportunity to simulate a Stryker brigade power setup. Army evaluators will measure fuel consumption, performance, size and weight. Generator sets will be provided by the government, while contractors are expected to bring the power grid, renewable energy sources, energy storage and intelligent control technologies.

Without any hardware or software available at this stage in the program, the Army is relying on digital models to simulate the power management system. A design tool called Homer has helped analyze energy technologies, Coombe says. Homer, developed by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, “simulates operation of a system by making energy balance calculations.”

Army officials are also observing other energy saving programs such as the Marine Corps’ deployable renewable energy alternative module and the transportable hybrid electric power system, developed by the Army rapid equipping force, or REF.

“These programs are ongoing. We’re going to REF to capture what they’re learning. We’re looking for a Defense Department solution here. We’re trying to address all the service needs,” Coombe says.

The Marine Corps is seeking truck-transportable power systems in three different sizes, ranging from a small three-kilowatt system to a larger 30-kilowatt capability, according to Michael Gallagher, program manager for expeditionary power systems at the Marine Corps Systems Command. The program is a joint effort between the command and the Army rapid equipping force.

The transportable hybrid electric power system, or THEPS, is a mobile power station that uses several sources, including a wind turbine, solar panels, a diesel generator and storage batteries. The Army rapid equipping force purchased four power stations at the five-kilowatt level, built by Skybuilt Power of Arlington, Va. The technology has completed testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland and has been deployed to Fort Irwin, Calif., says Dave Muchow, chief executive officer of Skybuilt.

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Topics: Energy, Energy Security

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