Marines Hope to Preserve Advances in Renewable Energy

By Dan Parsons
Best known for their killer instinct and hard-charging attitude, it is difficult to envision Marines as environmentally conscious energy savers.

For Marines, energy efficiency has nothing to do with hugging trees. Most couldn’t care less about their carbon footprints. But over the past 10 years, the service has made significant inroads to becoming self-sustaining in the field because saving energy and water translates directly to moving faster and killing more bad guys.

Combat commanders and their troops were wary of lugging untested technologies into the field until they saw what things like solar panels could do for them. Marines of all ranks have been converted to conservation as a tactical necessity. Now the race is on to preserve progress in efficiency and pave the way for new technologies, both of which are threatened by stringent budgets and a Defense Department habit of returning to the pre-war status quo.

Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus recently returned from Afghanistan, where he commanded 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward, which is spread throughout Helmand Province. Some of his Marines had been issued rigid solar panels and found innovative ways to use them at isolated forward operating bases that did not receive regular fuel resupplies, he said.

Renewable energy “is just one of the places where technology is going to be a huge benefit for us,” Gurganus told National Defense in April. “I hope we have that capability from now on, wherever we go.”

Marine officials call their expeditionary energy efforts an exercise in “increasing lethality” — making Marines deadlier by increasing maneuverability and the length of time troops can spend far from their supply base.

Col. Robert Charette, director of the Marine Corps’ expeditionary energy office, was a fighter pilot — a self-admitted “fuel waster” — when he was tasked three years ago with heading the Marine Corps’ expeditionary energy office. Charette — who alternately goes by his call sign “Brutus” and his unofficial title as the service’s “energy guru” — is not out to save the planet. He regularly differentiates between goals of the “Birkenstock crowd” and those of the Marine Corps.

“The hippie crowd started this [studying renewable energy] off in the ‘70s. It just took the military 40 years to put it on the battlefield,” Charette said. Because transporting fuel cost many lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, it would be foolish to discard efforts to conserve energy simply because a war is ending and budgets are trending down, he said.

“We would be silly not to take the lessons from the last 11 years of conflict … and just ignore them because we aren’t there anymore. I don’t see that happening. I don’t see the leadership in the Marine Corps letting that happen,“ Charette said. Preserving those lessons hinges on how convincingly Charette and other conservation-minded Marines can plead their case that energy efficiency prevents casualties and simplifies logistics.

While fuel and water convoys were being ambushed and hit by improvised explosive devices in Iraq and continue to be attacked in Afghanistan, that argument makes itself. A 2012 logistics casualty study from 2010 found that one Marine was wounded or killed in action for every 50 convoys. One in every 17 convoys was hit by an IED, the study found.

The argument to invest in renewable energy and fuel-efficient technologies becomes a bit more theoretical — and somewhat harder to make — without the clear and present danger of active combat after the 2014 prescribed withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Marine Corps’ goal is the ability to go ashore anywhere in the world carrying only mobility fuel by 2025. Given the Marine Corps reliance on electricity and motorized equipment during two landlocked wars, that goal seems daunting.

“We have a very specific mission we want to accomplish in 2025. A lot of people say it can’t be done,” Charette said. “We’ve never argued price or cost. We just think that’s a fool’s game. What we’ve always argued is, if I can bring these solar panels to the battlefield, that’s four or five extra days that I can operate without resupply. That’s more combat effectiveness no matter what the conflict is, no matter what the budget environment is.”

When the Marine Corps first stormed into Afghanistan in 2001, the entire service had 4,000 internal-combustion generators. It now has in excess of 13,000 generators — more than a threefold increase that has rendered Marines “critically dependent on fuel logistics,” Charette said.

Depending on the size of the base, generators have a heavy workload: powering and charging everything that would be found in a home, an office and on a Marine. Items that require electricity include batteries, telephones, tactical radios, computers, lights, radar, copiers, printers, projectors and sensors. There are also air conditioners, coffee pots and troops’ personal iPods. The Marine Corps’ M777 light howitzer and M142 high mobility artillery rocket system require electricity to operate.

One of the first items to be rapidly fielded through the expeditionary energy office’s experimental forward operating base (ExFOB) program, the ground renewable expeditionary energy system (GREENS), has alleviated the need for generators at isolated bases. GREENS is an array of rigid solar panels housed in ruggedized cases that can be rapidly deployed to provide power to a mobile unit.

“We use those things quite a bit,” Gurganus said of GREENS. “We use every one that we can get our hands on. Where we used them to some really good effect is in some of the really outlying FOBs, particularly small patrol bases that didn’t have the great big generators, and you just can’t keep bringing the fuel in. … They weren’t the sole solution, but it really reduced the amount of fuel we had to burn. It reduced the amount of equipment we had to move to keep the guys’ lights on and keep the [communication] equipment up.”

Still, Gurganus was able to comfortably spread his Marines over vast areas of Afghanistan because the equipment they had allowed self-sufficiency and almost-constant communication. The problem is those units, and the communications equipment that keep them in the loop and in contact with resupply and reinforcements, need power, he said.

The Marine Corps tallied up where its energy was going and prioritized a list of fuel hogs. Atop that list was air conditioning — by far the largest consumer of energy in the service’s inventory. In Afghanistan, 60 percent of fuel “goes right out the door in AC,” Charette said. Those cooling units are all drawing power from diesel and gas generators that were found to run inefficiently — some burning fuel but producing a mere 10 percent of their potential electrical load, he said. That is one reason for the abysmal statistic that the U.S. military harnesses only 10 kilowatts of the 30 kilowatts of energy contained in every gallon of gasoline, Charette said.

An ExFOB in 2011 focused on the use of hybrid power to increase generator efficiency by pairing them with batteries and solar panels.

“One of the reasons we’re using a lot of energy is the generators run very inefficiently,” Charette said. “If you put [in] some batteries and smart controls and a solar kicker, we saw 50 percent fuel savings and an 80 percent reduction in generator run time. In some cases the generators were kicking on only every three days.”

Gil Forer, global cleantech leader with Ernst & Young, said the Marine Corps should be able to ride the wave of innovation and demand that has hit a vibrant global renewable energy market in recent years.

By continuing to reach out to industry through the ExFOB program, the Marine Corps can access the best technologies on the commercial market without the sluggish pace of government-sponsored development projects. Whether the U.S. military gets on board, the global market for renewable energy and fuel-efficient products is expected to skyrocket, Forer said.

“The major driver for investment is that the global status quo cannot stay. … Global population, competition for dwindling resources, the escalating price of fossil fuels, all are driving the economy to be low carbon,” he said. “There have been great advances in renewable energy generation in the last five or 10 years.”

The Defense Department is one of the most coveted customers in the world because its demand for fuel can almost instantly create a market for renewables and alternative energy technologies, Forer said.

“Industry is always looking for certainty,” he said. “The Department of Defense is the most attractive consumer today for industry, in terms of the expected spending by the various armed forces. It’s one of the biggest concerns in the market.”

Charette recognizes that the Marine Corps, the smallest of the armed services, is a juicy opportunity but not a large enough customer base to support an entire industry. He is working with Army officials to share his experience and find technologies that could be adopted by the larger service to increase the scale of potential programs of record. The Army is in the process of adapting the Marines’ hybrid generators into micro grids that can efficiently power large installations and bases.

Like the military, industry and foreign governments are turning to green technologies not because it is an ecological duty, but because it is an economic necessity. The inspiration for going green has evolved from one that was politically unpopular to one that governments and industry are finding difficult to ignore, Forer said.

“We moved from being green just because of climate change, then to save money during the financial crisis — if you put money into energy efficiency, you will see results,” Forer said. “And today, after Fukushima and the Arab Spring, it’s about energy security.”

Much of the rest of the developed world is investing in renewables to spur job creation and economic growth, Forer said.

Peer nations suffer none of the political hang-ups about renewable energy and fuel efficiency that the United States has experienced, Forer said. Europe is well ahead of the United States with solar and wind technologies. Other peer nations, like China, are investing heavily in renewable energy technologies because they recognize the foreign-policy implications of being overly dependent on fossil fuels. They also understand the fundamental advantage to being out front on game-changing technologies, he said.

Topics: Energy, Science and Engineering Technology

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