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Solar Power To Save Marine Lives In Afghanistan

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Aired 4/12/11

Making fuel runs through enemy territory is dangerous and expensive. The Marine Corps wants to switch to solar.

One Marine was wounded for every 50 runs for fuel through enemy territory in Afghanistan, according to a Marine Corps study conducted during a three-month period last year.

It takes more than 200,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day to power the U.S military’s forward operating bases in Afghanistan.

“People here are complaining about $4 a gallon of gas. The military’s problem is that it’s so expensive to get fuel to the frontlines, it can cost them as much as $400 a gallon,” said Mike Elconin, a business advisor at the Center for Commercialization of Advanced Technology (CCAT) attached to San Diego State University.

The center is a business accelerator funded by several defense agencies including the Office of Naval Research. It bridges the gap between laboratory technology and the marketplace, finding and helping develop technologies that match the military’s needs.

Elconin said making fuel runs through enemy territory is not just costly, it’s also risky.

“The fuel has to be delivered in trucks on dangerous highways. So these drivers are sitting ducks in these big fat fuel tanks, driving down Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.”

Trucking contractors pay local warlords millions of dollars to protect their convoys when they transport fuel supplies, mostly from Pakistan, to the U.S bases. The Marines then transport it to their outposts.

So the Marine Corps hopes switching to solar will save lives and costs by reducing the need for fuel.

It has experimented with solar tarps that fit over tents and quietly power lights, instead of noisy diesel generators that tip off insurgents. But solar power can only reduce fuel consumption in theater, not replace it completely.

The Corps is also looking to the sun to power up gadgets such as radios and laptops, since the batteries needed for the range of devices Marines carry add to the weight of their packs.

On a three-to-five day mission, Marines typically carry 80 pound-packs. Elconin said the batteries alone can weigh up to 20 pounds.

“The modern soldier has radios, sensors, gun scopes, night vision goggles. All of them run on batteries. They also have to carry weapons, ammo, food, water, so every pound of battery requires a trade-off with some other essential,” he said.

Elconin has conducted solicitations through CCAT for the military, seeking companies that have suitable products. He said that so far the center has not granted any awards for solar powered gadgets, since it has yet to find a technology that matches the military’s needs.

The Marine Corps has very specific requirements – it is looking for solar technology that is light weight but highly efficient, which can withstand battlefield conditions.

It plans to spend $9 million to equip Marines with portable solar panels by 2012.

The Corps currently has nine solar-powered generators in Afghanistan. It wants to have 300 by the end of next year.

With oil prices soaring, Corps officials hope the Obama Administration will secure the funding it needs from Congress, which amounts to $41 million for next year and a proposal for $322 million by 2016.

In a couple of years, Elconin said he expects most soldiers in theater will use some form of solar power.

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