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Harvesting the wind
Wind turbines, such as these on Ascension Island, could be part of the energy-source mix for the massive radars to be built and operated under the Space Fence program being managed by the Electronic Systems Center. (Courtesy photo).
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Clean, low-energy solutions sought for mammoth program

Posted 11/18/2010   Updated 11/18/2010 Email story   Print story


by Chuck Paone
66th Air Base Group Public Affairs

11/18/2010 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- Ongoing technical and cost analyses could lead program officials to seek a mixture of alternative energy sources to fuel the next generation of massive ground-based radars that will track space objects and debris.

Last month, the Electronic Systems Center released a Request for Proposal announcement for the Space Fence program. Valued at more than $3.5 billion, the program is expected to deliver a system of geographically dispersed ground-based sensors to provide timely assessment of space events.

In this upcoming phase, ESC will award up to two preliminary design review contracts worth up to a total of $214 million. Regardless of the ultimate design, however, officials already know the huge S-band radars that will track mass of objects in space will require a lot of energy.

"That's why it's so important to look at various options for producing that required energy," Ms. Haines said. "If there are ways to save money while also lowering our carbon footprint, we have to examine them."

It's too early in the process to know exactly what options will be available. There are simply too many variables, some of which will depend on where the radars are sited. The current plan requires a minimum of two, and a maximum of three Space Fence sites, with potential locations in Australia, Kwajalein Atoll and Ascension Island.

"The unique characteristics of each potential location play into the possible mix of energy options," said Chris Moulton, MIT Lincoln Laboratory's Space Fence task leader and a member of the lab's committee studying alternative energy solutions for the Defense Department.

On Ascension Island, for instance, persistent trade winds might make wind power a particularly attractive option. The island, which was used in the 1960s as a staging ground for the impending lunar landings, also has certain characteristics that would make geothermal energy harvesting worthy of consideration.

In other areas, geography makes some alternative energy sources more problematic. Another potential site, Exmouth Island just off the western coast of Australia, lies in what's known as "cyclone alley."

The exposure to these potentially devastating storms means that heavy dependence on wind farms, for instance, would be impractical. However, even there, retractable wind-collecting units could be part of the energy solution, as could sea-water air conditioning.

"Some potentially promising technologies need further development but could be added in the future to a hybrid plant designed to incorporate what we call intermittent renewable with smart grid technology," said Ted Bloomstein, PhD, a member of the MIT/LL Alternative Energy Committee and research lead for Space Fence alternative energy analyses.

Aside from the environmental benefits that would derive, using renewable energy sources could save a lot of money - over time - according to Ms. Haines

"While we could incur some relatively small upfront additional investment costs, we see potential annual savings over our diesel fuel baseline of $25 million to $40 million a year, or total lifecycle cost savings of $500 million to $1 billion, with the right mix."

This is primarily driven by reducing or eliminating recurring fuel costs. Another important benefit of renewable technologies is predictable future energy-costs and improved energy surety, according to Mr. Moulton.

All of this analysis fits perfectly with the Defense Department's charge to reduce energy consumption. In 2008, the Defense Science Board Task Force on DoD Energy Strategy issued a report titled "More Fight - Less Fuel." In that and other documents, the services have been urged to look harder at fossil fuel alternatives and to make smarter energy choices wherever possible.

The Air Force has even mandated that most energy-reduction projects with a payback period of 10 years or less should be implemented.

"Most of our projections show that we could easily recapture any additional cost we'd take on within 10 years of operation," Ms. Haines said. "In fact, our analyses tend to show cost savings that greatly exceed the initial investment."

She emphasizes that no particular solution is being mandated; however, program officials are considering mechanisms with the acquisition process that would provide incentives for smart, energy-conscious designs.

"I can tell you that we are very serious about doing this in the most environmentally and cost-efficient way possible," Ms. Haines said.

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