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Marines Test Alternative Power in Afghanistan

March 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine
E-mail About the Author

 

Solar panels soak up the sun’s rays and convert it to electrical power during training at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California. Third Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based out of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, used the recently acquired panels to power radios, laptop computers, lighting, ventilation and other systems during Enhanced Mojave Viper, a month-long, combined-arms, live-fire, predeployment exercise in the Mojave Desert.

Devil Dogs are lean, mean and becoming a little more green as they strive to reduce fuel needs to decrease travel dangers.

The U.S. Marine Corps hopes a forward operating base that obtains its power from renewable energy sources will benefit the force in many ways—especially by saving lives. Eliminating the need for fuel deliveries lowers the number of convoys and exposed troops on treacherous roads in perilous places. The experimental base also could reduce the amount of equipment Marines take into theater, ensuring the Corps remains an expeditionary force. With the tools in the battlespace now, program officials are waiting to hear how the concept performs in combat.

Warfighters in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment’s Company I volunteered to take the Expeditionary Forward Operating Base (ExFOB) with them on their seven-month deployment in Afghanistan to determine how the included technologies operate on the battlefield. The deployment follows field studies at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California. In that environment, Marines were able to maintain continuous power for 200 hours without any fossil fuels. Program officials decided the time was right to send it into combat operations based on the users’ assessments. “A 19-year-old Marine gave us the thumbs up,” says Col. Bob “Brutus” Charette Jr., USMC, director, Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office.

Narrowing down which technologies to include in the ExFOB was an involved process for decision makers. They received almost 200 proposals to evaluate and eventually invited 26 vendors to showcase their capabilities at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. In the end, the Marines purchased seven technologies, six of which traveled to Afghanistan. The items sent into the theater are a solar field shelter to power lights and field communications; a portable hybrid photovoltaic/battery power system called the Ground Renewable Expeditionary ENergy System (GREENS); a ReGenerator that uses solar energy to power high-tech devices; a towable solar lighting system, a light-emitting diode (LED) lighting system; and the Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System that offers portable power to charge batteries, operate communications equipment and run electronic accessories.

The generators power computers, radios, life-support equipment, shavers, iPods and the other various devices troops take onto the battlefield. Each produces approximately 300 watts of power and has battery storage. During the summer training at Twentynine Palms, these technologies kept all equipment up and running except the surveillance system. Col. Charette explains that traditional fuel still is necessary for that capability, though the military is working on a renewable energy source for it as well.

During the field assessments, program officials monitored activities to ensure that none of the equipment was harmful. After handing it off to young troops, leaders watched how they operated. Col. Charette compares the process to cooking. After going to the grocery store to buy ingredients, the shopper still has to come home and turn them into dinner. In the same way, the Marines have to put together the components of the ExFOB and make war.

As evidenced by the choices, the Marine Corps has particular interest in solar-energy technology. “The biggest point I like to leave with industry when I talk to them is we’ve got to harvest the sun,” Col. Charette says. He would like developers to obtain as many watts as possible from the center of the solar system, but he also wants to find methods to derive more energy out of diesel fuel.

Experiments with wind power have proven unsuccessful at that tactical level because of the size of the necessary towers and because of the unknown conditions where Marines often operate. The colonel explains wind is difficult to harvest, and the Corps has found no wind solution with the potential to work in expeditionary operations. Marines also have researched nuclear power, which comes with issues of its own, and geothermal power. They have had some success with the latter, but Col. Charette explains that “it comes with a lot of drilling.”

Desert conditions in Afghanistan with their high levels of solar radiation are a prime place to test solar-energy technologies. Marines also plan to examine the technologies in jungle conditions, sending them along with Marine Corps Forces Pacific personnel to the Cobra Gold exercise in Thailand. Troops there can experiment with how the energy gathering works in areas with a thick overhead plant canopy and determine if they have to put flexible panels up in trees.

 

Maj. Sean M. Sadlier, USMC (l), of the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office, explains the solar power element of the Expeditionary Forward Operating Base (ExFOB) concept to Col. Anthony Fernandez, USMC, during a testing phase of this sustainable energy initiative in Tan Tan, Morocco, at African Lion 2010, a month-long theater security cooperation exercise led by Marine Forces Africa. Photo by Maj. Paul Greenberg, USMC.

The Marines pulled no punches when they decided to allow Company I to move out to Afghanistan with the experimental solution. The unit is engaged in the northern section of the Helmand Province, an area of the country with an extremely kinetic fight. Sadly, the unit has suffered heavy losses, including the deaths of more than a dozen Marines in less than two months in 2010. Conditions currently are so dangerous that not only were the Devil Dogs unable to accommodate an interview, but at the time of Col. Charette’s interview had not yet reported on their experiences. And the officer is in no hurry to receive any information if it means putting Marines in even more danger.

In fact, keeping troops safe is the major goal in this impetus. His biggest test of success will be if the unit “comes back and says we didn’t have to have a Marine on the road because of this solution.” Col. Charette adds that if he learns one Marine was relieved from having to haul fuel, that fact will be worth the approximately $3.5 million spent on research, development and procurement. When the unit does return, the colonel explains, the plan is to write a report about what worked well and what needs improvement.

Though the Corps hopes to replace fossil fuels, according to Col. Charette, it is not particularly focused on the issue. “Others will figure that out,” he says, explaining that the Marines maintain dialog with those groups, but “we don’t drive the fossil fuel equation.” What the Marine Corps would like is a drop in its need for liquid fuels from the current 200,000 gallons a day in Afghanistan to 100,000 gallons a day by 2025 when comparing forces of the same size and needs. Col. Charette emphasizes the term “liquid fuels,” which he expects will remain the norm. However, what makes up that fuel could vary.

Another reason for the ExFOB is the Marines’ focus on the expeditionary edge. “Your Marine Corps is the expeditionary force in readiness,” the colonel says. This means they need small, lightweight equipment to move from sea to shore. The Army and Air Force have renewable-energy experiments for larger camps and systems. Col. Charette says the Corps’ capability is to provide resources to the expeditionary fighter.

One huge consideration for remaining a lean, mean fighting force is the amount of equipment troops must carry with them. For Marines, this entails thinking about how their items fit on the ships that transport them. Col. Charette says that some of the solar technologies in the ExFOB might originally take up more space than their fossil-fuel counterparts. However, with these renewable-energy generators, the number of batteries needed per day for equipment drops from seven or eight down to one or two, resulting in less room needed overall. The colonel states that this drop in batteries pays off pretty quickly not just in money, but also in weight and space.

In some cases, the benefits might be a little harder to find. GREENS can fit onto the back of a military vehicle, but the solar panels and batteries take up more space and cost more than similar gas systems. They also cost more. Col. Charette says one such system runs $50,000 to $70,000, while a same-level, traditional-fuel generator costs approximately $800 at a commercial hardware store. “But the thing is, you have to look at the holistic picture,” he explains. While the solar alternative is bulkier and more expensive up front, it results in fewer fuel trucks on the road, which comes with its own costs in money and lives. He urges people not to look at this capability myopically, but to stand back and consider overall effects.

 
Being at the front edge of the fight was a major impetus for the ExFOB project. The commandant of the Marine Corps began the initiative in 2009, telling his personnel that Marines would take the lead in pushing expeditionary technology out to the battlefield. He also directed them to employ commercial off-the-shelf technology as quickly as possible to reduce risks and increase combat effectiveness.

Col. Charette says the commandant has watched the exponential growth in power needs and power generators over the last decade or so. As those requirements grew, so did the risks to troops who have to haul the fuel. To get their arms around the problem, Marines stood up the Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office and then the ExFOB initiative. The moves also partly address the improvised explosive device threat—estimated to account for more than 70 percent of battlefield casualties—by reducing the number of Marines on the road for refueling purposes. Col. Charette says Marines have learned many lessons during the war in Afghanistan, explaining they can now perform tasks on the battlefield that were unimaginable even five years ago. “There’s no greater change agent than war,” he states.

When Marines are spending less time on the roads, not only does it protect life and limb, it also increases the time they can spend on other facets of missions, such as helping allies and battling enemies. Another benefit of renewable energy is its potential to help local populaces in areas with minimal infrastructure. Many of the places where U.S. forces end up fighting are undergoverned at least. “They’re not hospitable places,” Col. Charette says, and the people living there often lack power and clean water. A less-discussed aspect of the ExFOB and similar initiatives is the effort to figure out how to take the technologies U.S. troops are using to help build renewable systems in these communities.

Funding is one concern for such civilian-assistance projects, because Title X money is designated for other uses, but work already has started in some places. Col. Charette shares that Marines are in the early stages of looking at small projects in Helmand Province.

Along with the many current and potential benefits of the ExFOB come several downsides, especially for those operating the systems in dangerous locations. For one, almost all the deployed solar technologies are commercial off the shelf; nothing is very hardened, and program officials are unsure how they will hold up to the elements. “We’re worried about consecutive days of bad weather,” Col. Charette says.

The Company I warfighters also carry the concern that ExFOB is only an 80 percent solution and has never been tested in combat before. Decision makers know the capability is not the complete answer to Marine Corps issues, and Col. Charette is unsure how comfortable Marines will be with the technology in a shooting match. System officials tried to help mitigate risks through training, including with vendors, and by sending along traditional power sources on the deployment in case the renewable technologies fall short. Because whether on the road or in battle, saving lives is a top priority. “At the end of the day, we told them if it doesn’t work, to throw it in the Helmand River,” Col. Charette says.

WEB RESOURCES
GREENS: www.onr.navy.mil/Media-Center/Fact-Sheets/Greens-Solar-Energy-Battery.aspx
Twentynine Palms: www.marines.mil/unit/29palms
Marine Corps Forces Pacific: www.usmc.mil/unit/marforpac/Pages/welcome.aspx