Army deploys microgrids in Afghanistan for ‘smart’ battlefield power

By Claire Heininger Schwerin, PEO C3TJuly 1, 2011

Army deploys microgrids in Afghanistan for ‘smart’ battlefield power
To prove its readiness for a harsh Afghan summer, the 1-megawatt microgrid went through seven training rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. from August 2010 to March 2011. A microgrid consists of "smart" generators that lin... (Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- The U.S. Army, led by the Project Manager for Mobile Electric Power, or PM MEP, is installing microgrid technologies in Afghanistan as part of a groundbreaking project that could significantly lower fossil fuel consumption on the battlefield.

The effort, which kicked off at a 2,400-man Force Provider complex in June, is the first attempt by the Department of Defense to evaluate microgrid technologies in an operational environment.

A microgrid consists of “smart” generators that link with one another to intelligently manage the power supply and operate at peak efficiency. Microgrids also enable the use of alternative energy sources and energy storage.

“We know this technology can save fuel and maintenance time for our deployed forces,” said Brig. Gen. N. Lee S. Price, program executive officer for Command, Control and Communications - Tactical, or PEO C3T, the Army organization overseeing the initiative. “Through this project, we can obtain reliable data on these benefits -- and lay the groundwork for successful use of microgrids in theater.”

Among the goals of the three-month experiment are to collect data on fuel and maintenance savings, identify the microgrid technologies with the highest potential for military use, familiarize Soldiers with the equipment’s functions and obtain a baseline cost analysis to support future installations. The Army Materiel Systems Analysis Agency, or AMSAA, will take the lead in gathering system and cost data.

Reducing demand for energy on the battlefield is viewed as a key military challenge by the DoD, which recently released its first-ever Operational Energy Strategy. The strategy will increase the energy efficiency of operations; limit the risks troops face as they use, transport and store energy; and minimize the amount of defense dollars spent consuming energy, officials said.

“The department will therefore take steps to improve the efficiency of our energy use, both through technological innovation and nonmateriel changes,” said Sharon Burke, assistant secretary of defense for operational energy plans and programs, in unveiling the strategy. “This will range from more efficient engines on aircraft, ships and vehicles to lighter materials, to concepts of operation that conserve fuel. An important first step will be collecting better data and analysis on our actual energy use.”

With dozens of initiatives already underway for different operational scenarios, the microgrid project targets a “gray area” that has not yet been addressed: an expeditionary camp that quickly grows in size and power consumption, officials said.

“They kept adding module after module, and they ended up with 96 separate generator sets,” said Chris Bolton, lead engineer for PM MEP and one of the architects of the project. “The intent was to take a lot of the commercially available technology and state-of-the-art microgrid systems and apply it to that situation.”

A 1-megawatt, or MW, microgrid will replace 22 of the complex’s generator sets with just four larger sets, simplifying maintenance as well as cutting fuel consumption, Bolton said. Another 180-kilowatt, or kW, microgrid configuration will not replace any of the remaining 74 generators, but will allow up to six of them to communicate and turn on and off in response to demand.

A key benefit of the smaller system -- which is part of the Army’s Hybrid Intelligent Power, referred to as HI Power, research and development program -- is modularity and scalability to different quantities of generators as a camp expands.

“As companies come in, or battalions and then brigades come in, this will demonstrate a way to hook all those systems up and make them more efficient as things grow,” Bolton said. “This is an opportunity to advance the HI Power program and the smaller tactical side, which may be used for a command post, expeditionary camps, or things in between like hospital complexes and Force Provider complexes.”

While the microgrids are potentially capable of supporting tactical communications equipment, they will not power any mission-critical command and control systems during the three-month testing phase, Bolton said.

“It’s (supporting) kitchens, laundries, latrines and sleeping tents,” he said. “So if we do have power issues, we’re not shutting down radars or radios or anything like that.”

To prove its readiness for a harsh Afghan summer, the 1 MW microgrid went through seven training rotations at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. in recent months. For more than 2,500 hours, it functioned reliably in environments ranging from 35 degrees to 117 degrees Fahrenheit, enduring thick dust and severe windstorms.

Along with the 1 MW and 180 kW microgrid, the Army is simultaneously evaluating several HI Power technologies that are still in the developmental stage but could have major implications for tactical use.

One initiative could prevent blackouts through a combination of energy storage mechanisms and intelligent controls, said Chris Wildmann, HI Power lead for the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, or RDECOM’s, communications-electronics center, or CERDEC. A grid with these features could anticipate an overload and better manage its environmental control units, which provide temperature regulation for Soldiers and systems but are a major consumer of fuel.

“If the temperature gets too high and the air conditioner needs to come on, it would actually put in a request to the controller to say, ‘Hey, I’m going to come on. I need power. Is power available?’” Wildmann said. “And the controller would either say, ‘No, don’t come on yet,’ or it would turn on another generator set.”

In addition to increased reliability, the intelligent controls will also make future grids easier to set up than today’s power generation layouts, Wildmann said.

“They’re being designed so that a Soldier can just hook them up any way and plug things in and not have to worry about doing prior analysis of how the power grid should be laid out or what load should be placed where,” he said. “The generators automatically talk to each other, recognize each other and can control each other without Soldier intervention.”

Army researchers are also working on universal power converter boxes that would enable interoperability between power sources of all types -- a key concern in deployed environments, where troops often encounter a mix of military and commercial generators, utility power and renewable energy sources.

These capabilities await further testing and could be available for fielding by fiscal year 2013, Wildmann said. However, the microgrids now functioning in Afghanistan will provide a crucial baseline for “smart” power on the battlefield, officials said.

“The Afghanistan Microgrid Project is a key step toward reducing fossil fuel consumption in Afghanistan and for future operations,” Price said.

Related Links:

PEO C3T website

Troops explore current, future energy solutions at Mobile Electric Power event

New lab aims to save energy at base camps Science and Technology News

STAND-TO!: Army Operational Energy Strategy

DoD Operational Energy Strategy

PEO C3T Facebook page