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Gunnery Sgt. Andrew Suthers, the operations chief for the Infantry Officer Course out of Quantico, Va., lays out the solar panels that power a Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System at the Combat Center Dec. 13, 2010.

Photo by Sgt. Heather Golden

‘Going green’ with SPACES could save lives

17 Dec 2010 | Sgt. Heather Golden

A new portable, solar energy converter designed to tactically charge batteries and run communications equipment could soon help save lives in combat zones.

The Solar Portable Alternative Communications Energy System consists of several foldable solar panels, a multitude of output and input cables and adapters, and a small box no bigger than the average game console.

In theory, by using the SPACES, troops deployed to remote areas like Afghanistan would be able to power everything from AN/PRC-119F SINCGARS radios and combat operations centers to humvees. This would greatly reduce the need for resupply missions for generator fuel and expose fewer Marines to dangerous enemy attacks, said Maj. Carlos Barela, the director of the Infantry Officer Course out of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

“It lessens the likelihood of Marines being killed for a resupply that, in the future, may not have had to go,” said the Albuquerque, N.M., native.

The IOC was in the Delta/Prospect Training Areas last week conducting the day and night attacks that serve as the students’ culminating training event. They have been taking the $7,485 system on trial runs during their field training operations to see what works and what needs improvement.

The “results varied” in the heavily-shaded areas of the Virginia base, as interference from the tree line made powering up difficult, said Capt. Andrew Eckert, an instructor for IOC Class 1-11. Variables that affected the system included time of day, where the kit was set up and cloud cover.

When the class traveled to the Combat Center, they brought the SPACES along for the ride to get a better idea of its capabilities in an environment similar to what Marines may face during combat deployments, Barela said.

As hoped, the system proved to work better in a desert environment.

“There was more of an effect here; we were able to get longer sustained exposure,” said Capt. Charles Nash, the Class 1-11 class advisor.

Now that the Marines have seen how effective the SPACES will be in Afghanistan, they said the system shows potential, but there are still a few things they would like to change before relying on it as an alternative power source away from supply lines, said Eckert, who is from New Glarus, Wis.

An eight-hour charge for a single AN/PRC-119F SINCGARS radio battery took between three to four hours, which makes this an unrealistic option for Marines on the move, said Sgt. Taylor Clark, a communications instructor with The Basic School in Quantico.

“If you’re on a patrol, you are not able to stop and set up for four hours; it’s not very ‘recon friendly,’” explained the Metairie, La., native.

Clark mentioned that in order to keep the SPACES charging at optimal levels, it had to be continually rotated to keep it in direct contact with the sun as the day progressed. It also had to be kept completely free and clear of sand, which can be time consuming and tedious when in a desert, he said.

However, Barela and Clark both said there are many redeeming qualities to the SPACES as well, including how well it stood up to the harsh Marine lifestyle of deployments.

“It’s very flexible,” Barela said. “You can roll it up, stick it in a pack, step on it … It will not break,” he said.

“It’s very durable, very light [and] user-friendly,” Clark added. “Any ‘joe-shmoe’ can set it up.”

Clark said another quality he and the other communications Marines found “surprising” was that they could use their equipment as it was charging.

While the system is not perfect, the Marines said discovering its flaws was the reason they brought it here, and they left the Combat Center with high hopes for the system and its potential.

“Like any piece of equipment, it will continue to be refined,” Barela said.

“I’m impressed, but it will take a few more trials before I am able to say this is the system we want,” Eckert added.

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