ORLANDO, Fla., May 2, 2011 -- As the military works to shrink its operational energy footprint, experts in solar power, microgrids and "smart" generators recently took that technology to a crucial jury: the troops.

Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who deal hands-on with battlefield power converged at the fourth annual Power User Conference held by the Department of Defense's Project Manager, Mobile Electric Power, or PM MEP, where they participated in small-group discussion sessions, attended system demonstrations and provided key 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 Soldiers are going through, because this is of paramount importance for us," said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Leonardo Bereton, who oversaw power equipment as part of his duties when deployed to Iraq in 2008-09. "This equipment (was) running through sandstorms and rain and cold and hot weather. They are so valuable to our fight."

The conference took place April 12-14, 2011, in Orlando, Fla.

Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Joe Leija said he connected with experts "for every type of gear" whom he previously had only talked to via email from Afghanistan.

"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 Leija's recommendations: 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 like 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 PM MEP, which supplies tactical electric power solutions, training and support to the different service branches.

The organization is also developing a 1-megawatt microgrid - to be deployed in Afghanistan later this year - composed of four larger generator sets and supporting power distribution equipment. It would intelligently manage the power supply to meet demand, reducing fuel consumption and maintenance costs.

"There's more interest in operational energy than at any time in the last 40 years or so," Michael Padden, project manager for MEP, told the more than 270 conference attendees on the first day of the mid-April event. "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 standardized military generators produced by PM MEP are also evolving. The next generation, known as the Advanced Medium Mobile Power Sources, or AMMPS, 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 Air Force Master Sergeant Vince DiLoreto, who used the current Tactical Quiet Generator, or TQG, models while deployed. DiLoreto said the standardization between AMMPS units of different sizes would simplify maintenance, and the extra cooling fans would reduce wet-stacking, a condition that impairs diesel engines.

As an "old-school guy," DiLoreto said his only concern with the transition from TQGs to AMMPS is that the newer generators use digital control screens in place of dials. But he said 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.

Along with AMMPS, TQGs and the Solar Stik, systems on display included a variety of other small and large power sources provided by PM MEP - including the Deployable Power Generation & Distribution System, or DPGDS, a 30,000 pound trailer-mounted system supplying 840 kilowatts of power to forward operating bases as well as natural disaster sites inside the United States.

"We respond to floods, ice storms and hurricanes," said Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Norris of the 249th Engineer Battalion, which relies on the DPGDS. "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. The Marine Corps 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 equipment demonstrations anchored the three-day conference, which also included the presentation of the "Power Professional Awards" to recognize outstanding achievements across the DoD.

The winners were: Sergeant Victoria Wellman, U.S. Marine Corps; Petty Officer Timothy Duvall, U.S. Navy; Staff Sergeant Silvia Stephens, U.S. Marine Corps; Staff Sergeant Marcial Grinolds, U.S. Air Force; Staff Sergeant Michael Kelly, U.S. Army; and Technical Sergeant Brandon McCoy, U.S. Air Force.

Grinolds won for saving the DoD $75,000 in vendor courses by developing a "robust 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," he said, "until the power goes out."

Related Links:

PEO C3T website

Army operational energy aiming high

Army.mil: Science and Technology News

STAND-TO!: Army Energy Security

Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment - ASA(IE&E;)

Conference photos on PEO C3T Facebook page