Marines get greener in Afghanistan

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Story and photo by Cpl. Bryan Nygaard

Solar panels used to collect energy emitted by the sun sit atop HESCO barriers at Patrol Base Boldak, Helmand province, Sept. 30. Boldak is an “Experimental Forward Operating Base” (ExFOB) that is used to implement the Marine Corps’ latest efficient and alternative energy technology.

PATROL BASE BOLDAK, Afghanistan – Marines consume in excess of 200,000 gallons of fuel per day in Afghanistan. Each of the more than 100 forward operating bases requires a daily minimum of 300 gallons of diesel fuel. About 60 percent of the power requirement in Afghanistan is to run diesel generators that keep command, control, and communications equipment operating.

“The amount of fuel we use at the forward edge, the tip of the spear, it’s a great deal and it requires a lot of logistic support,” said Captain Brandon Newell, the Expeditionary Energy Officer for Regional Command Southwest, and a native of St. Amant, La.

Fuel, although an essential combat enabler, has become a critical vulnerability for Marines. The price of fuel dependence on the battlefield can be measured in many ways: Number of convoys at risk on the road, improvised explosive device strikes, patrols diverted for protection, operations delayed waiting for resupply, and dollars spent per barrel. Ultimately, it must be measured in lives risked and lives lost.

During a three-month period in 2010, six Marines were killed or wounded hauling fuel and water to bases in Afghanistan during the course of 299 logistics convoys, or roughly one casualty for every 50 convoys.

However, Marines with the New England-based 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment at Patrol Base Boldak in western Helmand are taking advantage of a resource that is abundant in Afghanistan – sunlight. Boldak is home to the latest technology in the Marine Corps’ pursuit of efficient and alternative energy. This pursuit is carried out in a process called the “Experimental Forward Operating Base” (ExFOB).

“It’s essentially our way of seeing what commercial off the shelf type technologies that focus on energy efficiency and alternative power can make a difference for us here on the battlefield and throughout the Marine Corps’ mission,” said Newell.

The technology at Boldak is in line with the Expeditionary Energy Strategy, which was signed in March by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos. The strategy directs that by 2025 the Marine Corps will increase energy efficiency on the battlefield by 50 percent and, in doing so, cut the fuel consumed by Marines in half.

“We have to do demand reduction,” said Newell. “We have to train our Marines in valuing energy and fuel properly as an asset. Then we also have to provide them with capabilities that are more efficient.”

During their deployment last year, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines helped further the ExFOB program while battling insurgents in Sangin district. Some of the energy efficient technology tested by the battalion were efficient LED lights, tent insulation liners and solar energy panels and pads. These items helped lessen the Marines’ dependence on fuel and provided tactical benefits.

One item that was approved for widespread distribution during 3rd Bn., 5th Marines’ ExFOB was the Solar Portable Alternative Communication Energy System (SPACES). This technology consists of flexible solar blankets which have a controller that can recharge batteries and run radios. It all fits in a backpack and takes up less weight and less space than it would if a Marine had to pack more batteries.

Before this system was in place, Marines on patrol could typically only carry up to about three days’ worth of batteries for their radios. Once those batteries ran out of power, that patrol had to be resupplied and they often altered their missions so they could get in a location to be resupplied.

The pursuit of alternative energy continues today at Boldak with the Energy at Remote Locations Container (EARLCON) and the Direct Current Air Conditioner.

The EARLCON works like a giant electric car engine. It can power an operations center using a diesel-powered generator or energy harvested by solar panels.

“It’s our first attempt at the efficient power generation and distribution of energy for our command operations center,” said Newell. “Any time that the sun is out, we are harvesting solar energy and we’re actually storing that in the same batteries inside the system. So that will lengthen the amount of time that we go without having the generator turn on.”

Even when the EARLCON has to run on diesel fuel, it is a far more efficient platform than the existing generator-only solution.

“Whenever the generator is on, whatever is not going to power the load, the communications or the lights, the excess energy is coming from the generator and getting stored in the batteries,” said Newell. “The EARLCON keeps power from being wasted.”

While the EARLCON keeps power from being wasted, the Direct Current Air Conditioner helps lower the demand for energy need to operate. The existing air conditioners, which are typically used to cool off tents and other living areas, are inefficient because they continually use energy. The new air conditioner has an internal thermostat which shuts down the machine once it reaches a pre-set temperature.

The idea behind all of this new technology is ultimately to achieve self-sufficiency on the battlefield, reduce energy demand in platforms and systems and to reduce the overall footprint in current and future expeditionary operations.

“We’re talking about getting back to the roots of expeditionary, which means fast lethal and austere,” said Newell. “All of the capabilities that we’re pursuing are in that mindset. It is to enhance the mission capability of the Marine Corps. Not just for a reduction of fuel or a reduction of cost, but is it can we make the Marine Corps a better fighting force for its true mission and its mission out here in Afghanistan by pursuing these capabilities.”

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