New U.S. military energy goals offer numerous opportunities for clean tech companies and investors. That’s according to Sharon E. Burke, the assistant secretary of defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs. She spoke to industry players and congressional leaders at the American Council on Renewable Energy’s National Renewable Energy Policy Forum on February 6.
Pike Research reported that expenditures on renewable energy by the Department of Defense (DoD) are expected to reach $1.8 billion by 2025, growing from $163 million in 2013.
The urgency to make the military clean and green, despite expected cuts to the DoD budget, is because it is the single largest consumer of fuel in the country, if not the world. Last year, the DoD used 4.3 billion gallons of petroleum and spent about $20 billion on fuel. An average of 45 million gallons of fuel is consumed each month in Afghanistan, Burke said.
“Consider this ability to disperse, to maneuver, to operate over long distances in remote locations,” where people will try to prevent those movements, she said. “That’s a fuel challenge, and it’s a fuel logistics challenge, and we have to get our arms around it.”
Burke said the Defense Department is “energy agnostic” and willing to look at a variety of energy efficiencies and renewable energy sources for military systems. However, she highlighted several areas where “big money” would be available for willing private partners and investors.
Since heating and cooling is one of the biggest power users on the battlefield, Burke said developing smaller and more efficient generators that can provide warmth or air conditioning to combat outposts, forward operating bases and even non-insulated structures, like tents, is a priority.
The department is also looking at ways to string together several efficient generators to create “microgrids.” According to Pike Research, 40 DoD military bases have currently operating or planned microgrids, or have conducted studies or demonstrations of microgrid technologies. The firm forecasts that the total capacity of U.S. military microgrids for stationary bases will reach 54.8 megawatts by 2018.
Alan Gotcher, CEO of Xtreme Power, has one project with the DoD but expressed skepticism about isolating the power structures of military structures during a panel at the Agrion Energy Summit on February 20.
“If the base is on the mainland or on a mainland in a different continent rather than on an island, the grid is big and stable, and the electricity is cheap. So there’s going to be a tradeoff between what security is worth and what is the cost to implement,” he said.
A second technology area of interest is energy storage. “We’re interested in a whole range of battery technologies,” she said, “from Nano batteries for sensing, to more efficient lightweight batteries, to power equipment for the troops, to large-scale energy storage.”
According to one Army estimate, soldiers walking a three-day foot patrol in Afghanistan may be carrying anywhere from 10 to 18 pounds of batteries. “We want to look at how we can power that particular system — the human system — better,” Burke told the audience.
Richard Kidd, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, echoed Burke’s call for more efficient battery technology during a Cleantech Group conference panel last October. He said the Army is looking for ways a soldier can power his or her equipment on a single battery during foot patrols. Right now, batteries are getting wasted because soldiers don’t get accurate information on charge levels and end up throwing usable batteries away, he said.
Solar energy is also being put to some promising uses, Burke said. At the troop level, flexible solar rechargers are already on the battlefield. “We’re also interested in ruggedized solar that can generate power at forward bases,” she said. Brigade combat teams can charge batteries on collapsible solar panels, for instance, as well as generators, and any Army equipment through universal plugs and adaptors, according to Kidd.
Other technological developments the department is looking into include waste-to-energy and fuel cells for troops on the move and for unmanned systems.
“We’re seeing a lot of unmanned systems come into the force in all domains — underwater, on the ground, in the air — and those radically change how much energy you consume, and they also give you a lot of flexibility for the kind of energy you consume.” The military has already started testing unmanned aerial systems that use solar power. In one such test, she said, the aircraft was aloft for two straight weeks without refueling.
In fact, unmanned systems are one of the fastest growing areas for defense contractors, according to a report from Pike Research published last month. U.S. drone inventory is expected to reach 1,400 by 2015, thanks to years of R&D and investment. The military spent more than $2 billion on unmanned aircraft system programs in 2005 alone, according to the research.
Finally, Burke talked about propulsion improvements in the military’s big movers, such as ships, aircraft, and ground vehicles. “There is a lot of investment in this right now,” she said.
Stephen Marlin, manager of Advanced Technology Demonstration Programs at General Motors, said most of the research support and money they get for vehicle research in fact comes from the military. “There’s a strong desire, if the grid gets knocked out because of a natural disaster or other reason, that they have power, and they are looking at vehicles to do that,” he said. “That’s driving innovation on our side.” Marlin made those comments at the Columbia Energy Symposium in December.
With the promise that a military contract can hold for innovative energy companies comes frustration. Acknowledging that it can be hard for small businesses to compete with bigger players in these areas, Burke said that ultimately green energy is the long-term target of the DoD’s investment dollars.
It’s not just finding the capital to compete with major technological innovations the army can use that is a challenge for entrepreneurs, said Burke. It’s the military itself. “I know we can be difficult at times, but we urge you to be patient because the outcome is national security, and you are directly helping men and women in uniform,” she said.
According to Xtreme’s Gotcher, the biggest risk in doing business with the government is its unpredictable nature.
“The Defense Department can exit any program at their whim; it makes it very difficult, as a business, to commit to working with the DoD,” he said. “We’ll gear up and we have no problem in delivering. But when they can back out of any contract at their sole discretion, that’s a hard business move.”
However, John Stanton, vice president, Government Affairs of SolarCity, offered some advice to companies seeking military contracts during the Cleantech Group panel. “When working with the armed forces, you need to understand that every branch is different and has its own culture,” he said during a panel conference. Moreover, working with the government often requires hiring veterans, buying American-made products and paying prevailing wage, he said. SolarCity has an aggressive veteran-hiring program that includes contractors and installers.
Understanding and incorporating these ideas has paid off for SolarCity. It received $350 million in funding from BofA Merrill Lynch for privatization project initiatives related to military housing. SolarCity’s $1 billion military project, Solar Strong, distributes solar and electric power to 100,000 military homes on more than 100 bases located in 25 to 30 states. The project should save between 10 and 20 percent on annual electricity bills.