Marines test battlefield energy technologies under Mojave sun

Correction appended.

TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- The Marines prepare for Afghanistan at their sprawling base in the Mojave Desert.

They practice foot patrols at a mock Afghan village whose residents are actors speaking Pashto. They fire live artillery guaranteed to kill anyone within 100 meters. And last week, military brass used the desert setting to assess energy technologies that could make life better for Marines on the battlefield.

Aiming to free Marines from the weight of extra batteries, the time for resupplying fuel and the noise of diesel generators, the Marine Corps has already tested solar and energy efficiency technologies in Afghanistan. Those that passed the test -- portable solar blankets, larger sets of ground-based solar panels, LED lighting and tent liners -- are now being rush-ordered to Marines in Afghanistan's Helmand province (Greenwire, Jan. 19).

Now the Marine Corps is looking for more technologies to make its operations more energy efficient and reduce the trucking of fuel along dangerous roads to far-flung camps.

Col. Robert "Brutus" Charette, who was tapped in 2009 to establish the Marines' new Expeditionary Energy Office, said in recent years the military has become able to set up operations in places they couldn't before, to hit targets that are further away, to monitor the enemy in ways previously unimaginable. But those capabilities, he said, have also increased weight and more fuel use.

"Technology has really enabled us, but it's also given us some downsides," Charette said in a tent cooled by a simple geothermal system that his team had built with duct tape and materials bought at Home Depot. Outside the tent, the morning desert heat was quickly climbing above 100 degrees.

"How do you find common-sense solutions to maintain the lethality of the Marine Corps but do it in a way that is more efficient so Marines aren't at risk hauling around fuel and water?" he asked.

Last week's demonstration, called an Experimental Forward Operating Base, was Charette's team's answer to that question.


His office invited a dozen companies, ranging from tiny startups to commercial-scale vendors, to bring their wares to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center here for demonstrations.

"It's one thing when you get a vendor's brochure at a conference in D.C.; it's another thing when you get outside and can see it," Charette said.

The Marines weren't just looking, though. They rigged meters so they could measure how much energy the systems were producing and how much electricity they were drinking along the way.

Never known for being gentle with equipment, the Marines were also poking and prodding to get a sense of whether a system could take the beating it would face in Afghanistan. Wires come loose when equipment is being transported, things get stepped on and gear gets rocked by explosions.

"Those are things that you may not think about from the outset, but you'll figure it out, probably at the worst time possible," said Maj. Sean Sadlier, who worked in Afghanistan last year with the Marine company that first used some now widely deployed solar technology.

'Double opportunity'

Solar power tends to be well-suited to Afghanistan, where the sun beats down long and hard. This year the Marines are looking to get more energy out of solar units.

"What we really want is to be able to collect a lot more energy in a smaller area and let less energy go to waste," said Lt. Col. Rick Schilke of the Marine Corps' Expeditionary Energy Office.

Preston Roper came here from Mountainview, Calif., with a technology he says fits that bill: an 860-watt solar co-generation unit he said gets almost six times that electrical output in heated water.

Roper's device features a mirrored trough that concentrates the sun's rays onto photovoltaic cells. The cells cannot capture all of the sun's energy, and the excess comes off as heat.

The system cools the cells with water that Marines can use for showers and laundry. That would present significant savings for the Marines since they normally heat water using inefficient diesel generators.

The military represents a major market for Roper's young company, Cogenra, which is backed by the famed clean-energy venture capitalist Vinod Khosla.

"We're in our second year and are focused on establishing a presence in key [markets], the military being one of the top ones," Roper said.

Being able to say the U.S. military is one of your customers is a strong selling point in the commercial market, said Ron Helfan, general manager of Essence Solar Solutions, an Israeli company.

"We see this as a double opportunity," Helfan said. "The military market is a significant market, of course. In addition, if we get to introduce something like this with a military operation and then we come to utility companies and we say, '[concentrated photovoltaic technology] is reliable, it is out there, we have a track record,' it will be easier to introduce technologies in the commercial market."

Essence's unit, a panel of concentrated photovoltaic cells topped with a sun-tracking sensor mounted on a standard Marine Corps trailer, was the most military-ready of the systems on display, Schilke said.

The large PV panel is made up of smaller rectangular modules, which can be popped out and easily replaced. And one broken module doesn't take down the whole system, an important factor given the bullets that fly through military outposts in Afghanistan.

"We tried to keep it very simple to deploy," Helfan said. "As Israelis, we understand what it is to be out there and to deploy something while they're shooting at you."

Mobility matters

The Marine Corps' other main goal last week was to find ways of drawing electricity from vehicles more efficiently since guards in villages and at checkpoints often run lights, computers and other gear off vehicles' idling engines.

The result: lousy fuel efficiency.

For example, Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), which are weighted with thick steel designed to withstand roadside bomb blasts, get 4 miles per gallon.

"We're charging batteries on vehicles right now, idling them, and that's burning a lot of fuel for something that's a very small demand." Schilke said. "When you're on the move and have to stop, that's where we think we can gain a lot of savings if we can find a way to get off the prime mover -- the vehicle."

Systems currently being used by commercial truckers to run air conditioners in their cabs without using the entire truck engine could be good solutions for the Marines, experts say.

And Tom Lederle, a self-described "tinkerer" whose alternative energy company has been working with the military since 2008, invented another possible solution -- a box called the Vehicle Integrated Power Unit Regulator, or VIPUR, that gives the Marines a flexible way of managing their energy.

Instead of running directly from the engine, which produces far more power than lights need, VIPUR allows the lights to run on battery power. Only when the battery's charge drops below a certain point does the vehicle's engine turn on.

VIPUR also has outlets to plug in renewable power units and diesel generators, both of which are far more efficient than an idling vehicle.

"This gives the flexibility to operate in a hostile environment with limited fuel resupply and be able to really know where you are energy-wise," Lederle said. "What we've found working with the Marines is that if you give them information, they will figure out how to use it."

Just by improving the management of vehicle power, the VIPUR doubles the time that a unit can go without fuel resupply, according to Lederle.

His company, Nest Energy Services, is a mom-and-pop shop run by Lederle and his wife. While conceding that they are not "military kind of people," Lederle said he and his wife could not ignore the fact that American lives were being risked for fuel.

"There's nobody dying in Tucson because the fuel costs $3.50 a gallon," he said. "There's people dying in Afghanistan because of fuel. So our mission was to do what we can do for the people that are risking their lives for us first."

Correction: The Cogenra solar co-generation unit produces 860 watts. An earlier version gave an incorrect unit of measurement.

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