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Solar Powers Missions and Saves Lives

April 1, 2012
By Max Cacas, SIGNAL Magazine
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Solar panels provide electricity to the firing system of an M777A2 lightweight howitzer during tests of the SPACES system at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California.

Marines’ next-generation technology removes the need for risky energy supply lines.

U.S. Marines fighting the war in Afghanistan have embraced solar power as a way to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on batteries and generators at the front lines. The use of solar energy and renewable energy sources is part of a plan by the Corps to cut by half its reliance on non-renewable energy sources by 2025.

Part of the impetus for the energy strategy emerged from experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, where battlefield commanders were challenged by the link between energy dependence and operations. The use of electrical generators to power forward command posts necessitated running dangerous convoys to bring diesel fuel to remote outposts. In addition, batteries for laptops and other necessary electronics make up as much as 20 percent of the weight of gear carried by the average Marine.

In issuing the U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Strategy and Implementation Plan, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos, USMC, emphasizes that tethering operations to supply lines degrades expeditionary capabilities and puts Marines at risk. “To maintain our lethal edge, we must change the way we use energy,” he says.

David Karcher, the director of Energy Systems with the Marine Corps System Command (MARCORSYSCOM) in Quantico, Virginia, says his command has been working on energy efficiency, and on renewable energy systems in particular, since 2004. “We’ve been positioning ourselves to meet the requirements as they have been coming to us,” he states.

The Office of Naval Research (ONR) was involved in the initial development of requirements for solar energy programs. The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division (NSWCC), in Bethesda, Maryland, supervised development and testing of prototypes. Because the requirement for a solar energy solution was a direct outgrowth of ongoing military operations, the initial prototype was approved and developed on an expedited basis, with the first unit field tested in July 2009.

Currently, the Marines are using two different, yet complementary, systems to support the solar energy component of the expeditionary energy program.

The first is known as the Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System, or SPACES. The Marines’ primary contractor for SPACES is Iris Technology Corporation in Irvine, California.

A hybrid system, SPACES can convert electrical energy from solar panels, or from a field vehicle battery, and distribute it in a useful form primarily to communications equipment requiring 12 volts DC of electricity.

At the heart of SPACES is the StarPower module, a lightweight, 2.6-pound power management unit in a ruggedized, waterproof case measuring 8 x 8 x 1.6 inches. The unit can be carried in a standard field pack, and it connects to as many as eight portable solar panels. Standard military or civilian vehicle batteries or fuel cells also can be plugged into the system and used as additional power sources.

Edward J. O’Rourke, Iris Technology’s president and chief operating officer, says that an added benefit of SPACES is that it is plug-and-play and can be customized easily and quickly to meet individual Marine mission requirements.

“All the customization is done in the cables,” O’Rourke explains, adding that the smart cables that attach to the solar panels, radios and tactical gear automatically sense the device to which they are attached. Software within the StarPower module makes the appropriate power conversion to give the equipment the right amount and type of electricity it needs.

To indicate the success of SPACES, O’Rourke points to the units that his company already has delivered that now are in use by Marines in Afghanistan. He explains that his company has sold more than 2,200 units to all of its clients, with more than 1,600 fielded. Iris has delivered 2,000 SPACES units to the Marines, the maximum number stipulated in the first phase of the procurement contract. The unit also has attracted the attention of other military organizations. The U.S. Army has acquired 150 SPACES units for testing, and Iris officials also are courting other potential customers, including a private firm that handles procurement and acquisition for the Swedish Defense Ministry. In addition, SPACES is available for acquisition on the General Services Administration schedule, making it available to any government entity in need of a powerful and portable energy source.

O’Rourke says that Iris had been developing the electronic management components of SPACES using private investment prior to the first solar energy request for proposal (RFP) issued by the ONR in 2006. He says that over a period of several years, the Marines have continued to change and refine their solar panel proposal.

 

Lance Cpl. Dakota Hicks, USMC, a member of India Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, connects a radio battery for recharging to a group of building-mounted SPACES solar panels at a forward command base in the Sangin District of Afghanistan in December 2010. The Marines report they were able to significantly reduce their dependence on a diesel generator normally used to operate and recharge their electronic gear.

“Every year, they got a little smarter. The requirements got a little more comprehensive with each RFP cycle. In 2008, they felt they had it right, and we felt we had our technology right. We submitted a proposal and won the program at that point.”

One of the Marines’ design tenets for SPACES specifies that it be a platform for growth and that the concept behind the system calls for it to remain relevant for 10 years. O’Rourke explains that the StarPower module is a software-based device that addresses this need. “It can be re-programmed anytime, as new batteries or solar panels come out that are better and more efficient.”

In late February, the Marines issued a solicitation for what is being called SPACES Generation 2, or SPACES 2. The new solicitation could translate into 5,000 additional solar energy units for the Marines once the formal procurement process is complete.

The other solar energy solution now in use by the Marines, the Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (GREENS), combines a panel of solar arrays with rechargeable batteries to provide 1,600 watts of continuous electricity in remote locations. This system was built by UEC Electronics in Charleston, South Carolina.

The GREENS unit can be combined in multiple clusters to provide a maximum of 4,000 watts of both AC and DC electricity and is capable of powering communications, and targeting and computing devices typically used by Marines in forward operations.

While the SPACES units are designed primarily to provide portable solar energy to smaller, individual electronic devices, the GREENS units can power entire forward combat headquarters. Karcher says the GREENS system is capable of providing a minimum of 300-500 watts of electricity under normal conditions, with a maximum of 1,000 watts when needed.

He says that the first seven custom-made prototypes of the GREENS system were provided for testing in 2010 to the 3rdBattalion, 5th Marine Regiment, during training exercises at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California, prior to the battalion’s deployment to Afghanistan.

The Marines were so enthusiastic about the GREENS system, Karcher relates, that they took all seven units to Afghanistan. That battalion’s India Company went on to power a company-sized command post successfully in an especially dangerous part of Afghanistan, with multiple GREENS units, and it did not have to rely on the 3-kilowatt diesel generator normally used to power such a facility.

“Prior to this, it was very difficult for a Marine squad or platoon to use rechargeable batteries because they have to move those batteries back to battalion headquarters, where larger generators are available,” Karcher explains. “Now, they can recharge batteries at the company or platoon level with the GREENS system.”

When the battalion returned home, MARCORSYSCOM and the NSWCC took their recommendations based on use in the field and wrote updated system requirements that defined the eventual procurement of 270 GREENS units from UEC. Karcher says 180 of those units now are in use by the Marines in Afghanistan.

Maj. Jesse Hardin, USMC, Energy Systems branch head with the Systems Integration Office at MARCORSYSCOM, says GREENS and SPACES are just a first step in the development of solar and renewable-energy sources for the Marines. “They were very successful systems; the Marines like them; and they’ve proven useful.”

Karcher says that, as with the SPACES program, the Marines have issued a solicitation for GREENS Generation Two. He adds that efforts also are underway to develop solar energy systems capable of producing more electrical power, including joint development programs with the Army and the Navy to power larger facilities in the future.

Web Resources
U.S. Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Strategy and Implementation Plan: www.marines.mil/unit/hqmc/cmc/Documents/USMC%20Expeditionary%20Energy%20Strategy.pdf
Marine Corps Expeditionary Energy Office (E2O): www.marines.mil/community/Pages/ExpeditionaryEnergy.aspx
Iris Technology Corporation: www.iristechnology.com
Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System (SPACES): www.iristechnology.com/ec/Details.cfm?ProdID=53&category=8ww
Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (GREENS): www.onr.navy.mil/Media-Center/Fact-Sheets/Greens-Solar-Energy-Battery.aspx
UEC Electronics: www.uec-electronics.com