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Lockheed Martin: mobile microgrid will help save troops' lives

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With a plug-and-play microgrid developed by Lockheed Martin, the Air Force will be able to integrate renewable and conventional power in a rugged environment. One of the goals: saving lives by reducing the number of fuel convoys.

When troops set up mobile bases in remote locations, conditions are far from ideal. They face an environment that is often rugged, unsafe and far from resources, yet they need efficient and reliable power.

With a $3.5 million contract from the Air Force, Lockheed Martin is developing a portable, expandable microgrid for mobile air bases. The system will integrate solar and wind energy into the existing power grid, reducing the Air Force’s reliance on fuel (by 25 percent) and the mitigating the logistical dangers that come with it.

Last week I talked with Gil Metzger, Lockheed Martin’s director of Intelligent Microgrid Solutions in Dallas. He said troops will be able to set up the portable microgrid in a day and will spend less time powering their base than they do today. “We want to keep the soldiers,” he said, “in the business of soldiering.”

What is a BEAR camp?

It’s the Air Force’s Basic Expeditionary Airfield Resource Program. It’s a modular system that is designed to provide power to remote airfields, which consist of housing for military or even civilian contractors. It might be for a few hundred people up to thousands. They hook up generators, almost entirely diesel, into a primary distribution center, and then people plug their devices into that.

As it stands now, what are some of the logistical burdens that the Air Force faces?

The logistical burden that a lot of the folks face is getting liquids out there—fuel and water—and moving it around. Moving fuel is a big deal: It’s heavy, it’s hard to move, you can’t lift it on a forklift, you have to have storage tanks and drive it around in trucks. And trucks are really big targets.

The more self-sufficient you are, the less predictable you are for the bad guys. In some of these remote places, there may only be one or two ways to get in and out. And if you’re self-sufficient, you’re able to deal with adverse conditions easier if fuel should be hung up. The danger is with the convoys. The more you can reduce the need for fuel, the more you reduce convoys, the more you reduce the IED [improvised explosive device] encounters. So the more convoys you can take off the road, the more lives you save.

How can a microgrid help alleviate some of these burdens?

There are a lot of things a microgrid can do to help. In this [BEAR] contract we’re hooking up 60 kilowatts of wind and solar to their existing system so they can become more self-sufficient. There will be solar panels and conformal solars that will be put on round tents.

We like to say that microgrids are a great source of efficient, reliable and secure power. You put multiple types of resources—landfill gas, biomass, wind, solar--in the switch panel you can hook just about anything into these. You try to maximize the use of indigenous resources. You can operate in a grid or non-grid mode, so you if you are near another type of energy, you can hook up to that, or you can operate purely on the renewable side. Before, you had generators dedicated to different areas, such as the airfield or the command center. Now, you use the generators only as you need them, which saves a lot of energy.

Where will this microgrid go?

We’re going to put it together here in Dallas and deploy the system at our tactical demonstration facility. The wind and solar will be hooked up to the smart secondary distribution center, or SDC [which transforms power to a usable voltage and provides distribution panels for end user power connections]. We’ll do all the testing, collect all the data, and our graduation exercise is to pack it all up into three ISO containers (standard shipping containers) and move it to a location of the Air Force’s choosing. We’ll take it there, redeploy it and show them it can be set up in a relatively short time.

How long will the set-up take?

The goal is to be able to do it in a day. You could have it up and running in a few hours, but if you’re talking about getting all the tie-downs done, it’s a day. Once you get in the habit of it, I imagine it’ll take less time. It’s not like the [solar] things you put on the roofs of your house where it takes days.

We’ve designed these to have very little additional training, using military standard connectors. The mounting hardware are specialized to make it easy. We’ll be providing the set-up and tear down procedures, but the operation of the electronics should be relatively straightforward.

What’s the cost of the program?

I will refrain from saying what the development cost is, but the cost of the contract is $3.5 million. It’s stimulus money.

How is it being built to withstand the elements and rugged treatment?

We’ve ruggedized it and made it user friendly. The panels are standard solar panels, easy to snap together but designed to last years and be resistant to hail and dust. You pick the right coatings and right manufacturers. The other thing is these are designed to be very safe. Even if you try, I think it would be difficult to get your fingers in any two conductive terminals simultaneously.

What is the timeline for all of this?

The wind and solar is arriving late this year, early next year. The smart SDC is arriving in the first quarter. By next summer we’ll have everything put together.

Are other services experimenting with microgrids?

Essentially every service has some microgrid activity going on, because every service is extremely interested in saving fuel. Microgrid is one way of doing that, and with efficiency you get the safety and security with it.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure