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Troops explore emerging energy solutions

  • Published
  • By Claire Heininger
  • Program Executive Office Command, Control and Communications-Tactical
As officials work to shrink the military's operational energy footprint, experts in solar power, microgrids and "smart" generators recently took that technology to a crucial jury: the troops.

Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who deal hands-on with battlefield power converged here April 12 through 15 for the fourth annual Power User Conference held by officials from the Defense Department's mobile electric power project manager's office. They participated in small-group discussions, attended demonstrations and provided feedback on current and next-generation equipment.

"This is a way to get very deep inside the combat (experience) and understand the issues and concerns that (service members) are going through, because this is of paramount importance for us," said Army Chief Warrant Officer Leonardo Bereton, who oversaw power equipment as part of his duties when deployed to Iraq in 2008 and 2009. "This equipment (was) running through sandstorms and rain and cold and hot weather. ... They are so valuable to our fight."

Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joe Leija said he connected with experts via email from Afghanistan "for every type of gear."

"But now, putting a name with a face and being able to ask those hard questions, I think it will help out the Marine Corps," he said.

Among Sergeant Leija's recommendations are minor changes to the Solar Stik, a hybrid energy system consisting of a lightweight tripod with a pair of 50-watt rigid-panel solar arrays, batteries and a military generator.

Overall, he said, the system could be a valuable alternative to traditional energy sources for powering items with small loads, such as computers and batteries.

"I think it has potential," he said. "Environment is going to determine whether it's usable."

Harnessing the potential of alternative energies so they meet the demands of a military environment is a major focus for members of the mobile electric power project manager's office, which supplies tactical electric power solutions, training and support to the services. The organization also is developing a microgrid composed of four larger generator sets and supporting power distribution equipment to be deployed in Afghanistan later this year. 

They would intelligently manage the power supply to meet demand, reducing fuel consumption and maintenance costs, officials said.

"There's more interest in operational energy than at any time in the last 40 years or so," project manager Michael Padden said. "What can we do to improve efficiencies on the battlefield? What other equipment can we get out there? How can we take tankers off the battlefields and reduce casualties? The answers are in this room."

The office's standardized military generators also are evolving. The next generation, known as the Advanced Medium Mobile Power Sources family, is 21 percent more fuel-efficient than current systems, while reducing size and weight. While AMMPS fielding is expected to begin later this year, several models were on display at the conference for warfighters to explore.

"I'm impressed with the AMMPS from what I've seen so far," said Master Sgt. Vince DiLoreto, who used the current generator models while deployed. Sergeant DiLoreto said the standardization between AMMPS units of different sizes would simplify maintenance, and the extra cooling fans would reduce a condition that impairs diesel engines.

As an "old-school guy," Sergeant DiLoreto said, his only concern with the transition is that the newer generators use digital control screens in place of dials. But he acknowledged that a younger generation of warfighters might prefer that.

"It will probably be easier for them to use a computer than it would be a dial," he said.

Other systems on display included a variety of other small and large power sources, including the Deployable Power Generation and Distribution System, a 30,000-pound trailer-mounted system supplying 840 kilowatts of power to forward operating bases and to natural disaster sites in the United States.

"We respond to floods, ice storms and hurricanes," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Norris of the 249th Engineer Battalion, which relies on the system. "We have generators stationed across the country."

Nearby, a new 60,000-British-thermal-units-per-hour Improved environmental control unit rapidly cooled the interior of a tent, demonstrating its capability to protect key tactical communications equipment from harsh desert temperatures. Marines also demonstrated a HUMVEE with an in-line generator coupled to the transmission that provides 30 kilowatts of exportable power when stationary and 10 kilowatts when on the move.

The demonstrations anchored the conference, which also included presentation of the "Power Professional Awards" to recognize outstanding achievements across the DOD. The winners were Marine Sgt. Victoria Wellman, Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Timothy Duvall, Marine Staff Sgt. Silvia Stephens, Staff Sgt. Marcial Grinolds, Army Staff Sgt. Michael Kelly and Tech. Sgt. Brandon McCoy.

Sergeant Grinolds won for saving the DOD $75,000 in vendor courses by developing a training curriculum for power generation specialists. He said standardized training ensures troops will have "the same level of expertise" to provide continuous support for equipment on the front lines.

"You never know about the power guy," Sergeant Grinolds said, "until the power goes out."