Marines Accelerate Green-Energy Tech Procurement (UPDATED)
The plan is to continue to stage "experimental forward operating bases," or ExFOBs, where contractors can showcase new products, Col. Bob Charette, director of the Marine Corps expeditionary energy office, said April 19 at the Navy League’s annual symposium.
“Coming to Ex-FOB is at your own risk, meaning industry has to pay to come out, but you get a subject matter expert from the military … and we hand over all our data. It’s really worth industry’s while to come out,” he said. Previous Ex-FOBs have been hosted at Quantico, Va., and Twenty-Nine Palms, Calif.
Green-energy projects so far have focused on how to make units in Afghanistan more self-sufficient and less dependent on fuel shipments. But as U.S. forces plan for a drawdown over the next two years, the focus will be on green technologies that can be used in other environments, Charette said. In response to plans to increase its presence in Asia-Pacific, the Marine Corps has tested its renewable technologies in the Philippines and Thailand, he said. The service has also requested funding for a recurring equipment test program in the Pacific based on its successful deployment of green technology in Afghanistan.
“There are obviously challenges like jungle canopies where you couldn’t use solar. We’re looking into all that," said Charette. "The only place I don’t have anything is Antarctica. I’m behind on that.”
After four Ex-FOB events, only a handful of products have won contracts, like the ground renewable expeditionary energy system, or GREENS. The portable, 1,600-watt solar panels have been used to power entire forward operating bases in Afghanistan, reducing Marines’ dependence on batteries and liquid fuel.
A fifth event has been scheduled for April 30 trough May 4 at Camp Lejeune, N.C. At least 14 companies are expected to perform 19 technical demonstrations of commercially available solar arrays and man-portable water purification systems for individual troops and small units, the Marine Corps announced April 19.
For every device that is fielded, hundreds are rejected for various reasons. Charette said he would like to see more companies come forward with new products, especially innovative small businesses.
Steve Smith, director of the Small Business Administration’s office of disaster planning, said small firms are nimble but often lack the resources to bid on military programs. “You don’t want to be wasting your time, money and resources on something you have no chance of selling to DoD,” Smith said.
One success story Smith highlighted was Packet Digital, a Fargo, N.D.-based firm that builds computer chips that cause electronics to draw power from batteries more efficiently. The company’s device is the size of a pinky nail and is compatible with any battery, said Smith. But the company was relative unknown until executives were introduced to military buyers through the SBA. Working with the Office of Naval Research and the Marine Corps, Packet chips are achieving 67 percent increases in battery life for battlefield electronics.
But it may not have been, had the device been cast into the “valley of death,” that technologies must cross between laboratory and production. The SBA has begun a program to help bridge the divide called “clustering,” Smith said. Companies large and small are organized into clusters centered on a particular technology. The SBA has created 33 such groups, made up of contractors, investors, colleges and universities. More than half of those are focused on energy efficiency technologies.
Facilitators on both ends help small businesses weed through Pentagon requirements and, in turn, help the Defense Department filter the flood of companies seeking business. Prime contractors can help small businesses access government buyers and small businesses provide technological know-how. “They almost function as a venture capital group,” Smith said. “They really can help small businesses come together and turn their innovation into something that can meet [Defense Department] requirements.”