Marines bring solar energy to the battlefield

Portable system plugs gap in power generation for field equipment

Developing renewable energy systems has become a major focus for the Navy, which has introduced a new system to bolster the Marine Corps’ ability to power computers and communications in the field.

The Ground Renewable Expeditionary Energy System (Greens) uses arrays of solar panels and rechargeable batteries to provide an average continuous output of 300 watts, enough to power most of the essential communications and targeting electronics that Marine forces would need in remote locations. It can provide as much as 1,000 watts of power.

The goal is to start procuring these portable systems in the first quarter of this year, Navy officials said. The contract solicitation was still in process at press time.

“This fills the gap between what a large power generator and a battery provides,” said Marine Col. Thomas Williams, military deputy for the Office of Naval Research’s expeditionary maneuver warfare and combating terrorism department. “We traditionally have not been good in the middle.”

Greens also comes with a software-based toolkit that allows Marines to enter their mission profile into a computer, which will then tell them which components, such as turbines, cables and batteries, they will need to take with them to provide the power required.

Taking more equipment than you need only increases the risks of the mission, Williams said.

The new system is an important addition for Marine units who operate in irregular warfare, particularly in environments such as Afghanistan and Iraq. One good thing about those places is that they usually have plenty of sun during the day, which makes them ideal for employing the Greens photovoltaic technology. However, the bad news is warfighters in those locations must use small generator power systems that must be constantly restocked with gasoline, which has to be trucked to the unit’s location by fuel convoys. That is a hazardous business and can be costly.

Transporting fuel in Afghanistan and Iraq along some of the riskier routes can raise fuel costs from a regular price of $1 per gallon to about $400, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway told a recent Navy energy forum. If an airlift is necessary, the price can reach $1,000.

“Logistically, around two-thirds of convoys is for carrying water, and the other one-third is for fuel,” Williams said. “Anything we can do to chip away at that will be a tremendous help to our geographically dispersed forces.”

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus recently announced five goals that will drive Navy and Marine Corps energy use during the next decade, and most involve reducing the use of fossil fuels and increasing the use of biofuels and renewable energy.

By 2020, at least 40 percent of the Navy’s total energy consumption should be from alternative sources, he said.

With that in mind, the Navy signed a memorandum of understanding Jan. 21 with the Agriculture Department to jointly work on the development of advanced biofuels and other renewable energy systems to complement programs that the two organizations are already implementing separately.

“Greens opens up the door to the military as far as ideas" for this new energy push, Williams said. “It’s really a whole new direction for renewables.”

It’s also an example of the Office of Naval Research's Future Naval Capabilities in action. The initiative aims to quickly close perceived technology gaps.

Marine Corps units in Iraq made the first request for an expeditionary renewable power system in 2008, and the Office of Naval Research began exploring possibilities in the fall of that year. The first test of a Greens unit at the Naval Service Warfare Center at Carderock, Md., was in July 2009. A few weeks later at the Naval Air Systems Command at China Lake, Calif., the unit was tested in the kind of temperatures it would face in the field.

Those tests proved that Greens was capable of providing 85 percent of the 300 watts of continuous power even in temperatures hotter than 116 degrees Fahrenheit. The goal during the next two years is to get that to 100 percent.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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