Thursday, December 2, 2010

Making It Routine: The Space Fence on Renewables

In 1958 the U.S. Navy began the design and construction of a system intended to monitor satellites tracking U.S. ship movement. In 2004 the program was transferred to the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force Space Surveillance Fence (or Space Fence) is part of the Space Surveillance Network (SSN). The system will employ continuous wave radar to tracks objects in low and medium Earth orbit (LEO and MEO). The Space Fence will be capable of detecting basketball‐sized objects as far away as 15,000 nautical miles (approximately 30,000 kilometers) and collects an average of 5 million individual observations every month.

The huge S-band radars will require enormous amounts of energy and the Air Force is looking at the long term cost of supplying that energy at remote locations. Typically, large diesel generators would be the standard solution to this problem. Cheap, non intermittent, assured, onsite power always makes military guys feel better. Yet the USAF is taking a different tact.

According to a news release out of Hanscom Air Force Base, the long term cost to support the Fence makes the use of alternative and renewable energy cost effective and the smart choice. The total anticipated cost of the system is expected to be $3.5 billion. The USAF Electronic Systems Center released an RFP for two preliminary design review contracts for up to $214 million. Program manager, Linda Haines wants to lower operational costs AND the carbon footprint.

"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," said Haines.

The significance of this event is the almost routine incorporation of alternative energy into such a major program. There is no discussion of the fully burdened cost of fuel or energy as a key performance parameter. It just makes good business sense. It is about reducing recurring fuel costs. Each site will have its own characteristics and potential sources of energy. They will be excellent platforms for demonstrating hybrid mixes of energy production, storage and smart grid technologies.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory is a key player in this effort and is advising the USAF in the program. Among the major defense firms bidding on this project, Lockheed Martin has submitted their response. There is no mention of alternative energy in LM’s press release, but one must assume that the big defense firms will be getting the message. Incorporation of alternative energy, energy storage and smart grid technologies should and will become routine and just another “MilSpec”. We hope that day has come. Good on you, Air Force!

Space Fence, image courtesy of NASA

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