most alternative energy advocates and critics focus their attention on
macro-solar power -- vast
fields of panels or collecting dishes -- there has also been a lot of
recent growth in micro-solar power (using solar cells to recharge portable
The U.S. Marines has
just completed a test of new solar-powered gear in the field in Afghanistan.
The new equipment was trialed by India Company, a component of 3rd
Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. The test lasted three weeks and took the
company through Sangin, one of the deadliest regions in southern Afghanistan.
I. A Deadly Dependency
Today the U.S. military is unmatched in terms of destructive power and killing
efficiency. But the technology involved giving that kind of performance
mandates lengthy (and vulnerable) supply chains and overburdened troops.
Batteries alone take up 20 percent of the 100-pound load the average Marine
carries in the field. And fuel also accounts for a significant amount of
the load. Soldiers use a portable generator to power their laptops and
other electronics in the field. A soldier today uses four times the fuel
they did in the early 1990s.
The high fuel demand from deployed troops requires a constant supply train of
fuel trucks. It is estimated that 30 percent of all fuel transported into
Afghanistan goes to powering the U.S. military. And many of the military
fatalities have arisen from fuel trucks hit by the improvised explosive devices
(IEDs) used by local militants.
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus testified to
Congress last year that a soldier is wounded or killed for every 24 fuel
convoys in Iraq or Afghanistan. Over the years of deployment in Iraq and
Afghanistan, those casualties have added up, not only in a number of dead
soldiers, but also in soldiers returning with debilitating conditions.
II. A Truly Modern Warrior
Secretary Mabus has vowed to improve the situation in the field for his troops.
He has called on Navy scientists to design cutting edge gear for the
armed forces that reduces the reliance on fossil fuel supplies and batteries.
The new gear pack, just tested, includes a roll-up solar panel of thin film
solar cells. The panel provides enough juice under the hot south-Asian
sun to power GPS units, radios, laptops, and other devices.
The results are 10 years in the making.
The armed forces first began considering solar gear in 2001. But interest
picked up when in 2006 Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, then commander of the
1st Marine Expeditionary Force, called for solar gear to support forward bases
in the war-torn Anbar province, west of Baghdad, Iraq.
In an interview with The
Wall Street Journal, Gen. Zilmer states, "We used to joke that there
was a generator for every man, woman and child in Iraq. And we did not have any
material solutions to the issues we had out there."
Gen. Zilmer's request fell on deaf ears and more casualties piled up. But
a similar request in 2008 spurred the Navy to
action and this time the Marines came
onboard as well. Col. Bob Charette, a former F-18 pilot, opened the
Marine Expeditionary Energy Office to transfer Navy energy technology to Marine
gear. Col. Charette states, "The Marine commandant made it
clear—he'd rather have an 80% solution today than a 100% solution somewhere
down the road."
III. Mission Success
Like MacGyver, the Navy and Marines worked to do the best with what they had.
Within 9 months they'd created a heavy solar/battery combo pack capable
of being loaded onto Humvees, which included jury-rigged power meters,
purchased from the Home Depot, Inc. (HD). This heavy pack would
power more demanding field gear. Each soldier was also issued a rollable
solar mat to power small electronics.
The first test of the gear just wrapped up and the results appear very
promising. The solar-equipped warriors required dramatically less battery
resupply (typically delivered by helicopters in the field) and fewer fuel
trucks. As they carried less weight, they were able to carry extra ammo
-- potentially life-saving in an intense firefight.
Col. Charette cheered that the trial deployment "has surpassed our
Maj. Sean Sadlier, the Marine expeditionary energy liaison officer at Camp
Leatherneck in Afghanistan says that for platoons at remote outposts, solar
power can be the only source of energy in some cases. The latest test
shows that replacing battery and fuel stocks with solar makes sense even at
marginally suppliable locations.
The next real test will be to develop larger solar rechargers capable of
servicing a large formation, like India Company's parent battalion.
Officers say that device could see completion and deployment by the