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Glenwood Grad’s ‘Power Pods’ Saving Lives, Money Overseas

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By Joel Stevens, Associate Editor

Eldon Prax would be the first to admit he and business partner Stan Waldrop’s business model is a bit upside down.

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Then again, Prax and Waldrop didn’t open their business of supplying mobile power systems for the military with the intent of making money.

They had loftier goals.

“We had a great desire to serve our country,” said Prax, a Pacific Junction native and 1982 Glenwood graduate. “We were looking at everything from loss of life to tax payer dollars and we alarmingly realized fuel costs were $200 per gallon (in combat zones).”

Even more chilling, Prax said, was the statistic 70 percent of all fatalities and serious injuries came through guarding and force security on fuel convoys in war zones. Forward forces consume high amounts of fuel, but vehicles are not the top fuel consumer.

“Generators are probably the No. 1 consumer of military grade fuel in theater,” Prax added. “Think about that: we’re putting the best America has on the line to guard fuel convoys to secure missions. There’s got to be a way we can do that better.”

So Prax and Waldrop put their heads together. Waldrop, on his own dime and at great risk, visited Kabul, Afghanistan. He wanted to assess with his own eyes the needs of the troops on the ground in-country.

“We were sitting around one day talking about how we could help the effort over seas with Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom and we both realized the key might be, as a civilian, to effectuate not just the safer movement of materials and fuel but also more cost effective means,” Prax said.

The biggest question Prax and Waldrop had to answer was how to make their idea, of large-scale mobile power, modular enough and tough enough to fit a combat need.

“When you start thinking about powering a communications center or a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) you’re talking about a lot of power,” Prax said. “There are other units out there, but they’re very small. The Marines have a small solar system for powering radios on the backs of infantry radio man. The pod fills the gap that’s there. This answers the question of how
to move big power assets in to fulfill the mission.”

Shortly after, Prax and Waldrop, who are both veterans, hatched their idea of a power pod – a self-contained mobile power generator utilizing wind and solar energy in conjunction with traditional diesel power to supply energy needs in combat zones. Five years later, Prax and Waldrop and their Dallas-based company, SunDial SmartPower, have dozens of pods deployed in Afghanistan and North Africa.

The power systems are completely self-contained and can be air lifted into combat theaters. The sizes range from something that would fit in the back of a pick-up truck to 20 or 40 feet long and can weigh several tons. They are completely compatible and expandable as needed.

“It’s essentially a Conex container that can be put on board any big cargo air craft and dropped on the ground and it can power an Army hospital or a field hospital or a communication center,” Prax said. “In Afghanistan they’re being used to provide power to some local tribesman so children have heat in their schools.”

The units themselves use solar and wind power augmented with (diesel) generation to supply uninterrupted power with far less fuel needs of traditional generators.

“We use solar and wind predominantly and then if something should happen when the demand for power could go up in the night time hours when the batteries are depleted then the generator power kicks in,” Prax said.

With Prax’s more than 30 years experience in the telecommunications field and as the former vice president of engineering and operations at Ericsson, the pods are also equipped with a communications gateway. With a few clicks of a button on SKYPE, boots-on-the-ground users can trouble-shoot problems with Prax’s team in the U.S.

Designing and specing the pods was easy, Prax said. Convincing the military of the pod’s application and functionality in combat was another story.

The military vetting process of the pods lasted 18 months. The combat viability and functionality testing of the pods took it to the Special Operations Command in Tampa, Fla., Camp Irwin, Calif. and finally the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland where the military literally tried to break the units. The pods were tested in all weather and combat conditions.

The pod passed every test, with “zero failures,” Prax said.

“Everybody from the SEALS to Marine Recon to Army Rangers and Delta (Force) all came through and checked out the unit and they liked it,” he said.

On Christmas Eve, 2010 Prax watched his first unit loaded onto a C-17 cargo plane and flown to Dover, Delaware to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany and from there to Afghanistan.

“A lot of well connected and high ranking government officials believed in the project and that helped us through the process,” Prax said.

Dozens of the pods have been in use in combat and not one has failed. Prax estimates the pods have saved the U.S. military millions of dollars in fuel costs. There’s no way to tell how many potential causalities have been avoided with fewer dangerous fuel convoys.

“I can’t tell you how many lives we’ve saved but I know there are less fuel convoys running through ‘Indian’ country all the time and that makes me extremely happy,” Prax said.

While Prax and Waldrop’s intentions were for the pods to serve the military, with operations in Afghanistan now winding down, the long term civilian application of the pods is bright. Prax sees possibilities of the pods being used to provide power in natural disasters or for municipalities, schools or hospitals. The pods are classified as “green energy” so the federal government offers tax credits.
    “These could be pre-positioned at a school where its fed into the grid and the school actually uses the power as they need it and cut their own operating costs,” Prax said. “And in an actual time of a tornado or a disaster, that’s when it’s priceless.”
    If the pods had been deployed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy on the east coast, Prax thinks they could have been a lifesaver for first responders and communications.

“We’re trying to re-boot the company and do commercial engagement,” Prax said of his company’s future plans. “We’re probably the only company on the planet that doesn’t have a business plan that’s built on profit to do these things. We have a simple mandate: how do we help people.”

No matter the future application of the pods, Prax said his and SunDial’s goals won’t change.

“We started this business up as entrepreneurs but first and foremost as patriots,” he said. “We never really thought about monetizing it. I know that sounds crazy but I’m reminded of Jonas Salk, who invented the polio vaccine. People asked him how much he made off that. And he’d say, ‘Nothing, it’s to help my fellow man.’ We looked at this the same way.”