The U.S. Military’s Key Role in Advancing Clean Energy Innovation: What I Would Have Said to Bill Gates

What would you say to Bill Gates if you had the opportunity to talk to him about climate change?

  • DoD is spending $1.6 billion a year on energy RDT&E and playing a key role in the clean energy innovation ecosystem.
  • DoD can play a much-needed role as an early adopter that values performance over price.
  • DoD can be instrumental in prying open the market for solar PV.
  • DoD is on track to be one of the largest customers for advanced microgrids and large-scale storage technology.

Recently I was among a small group of energy experts fortunate enough to spend an hour with Gates discussing clean energy and climate change. After reflecting on the magnitude of the challenge relative to the fight being waged, Gates spent most of the time listening. Although the roundtable ended before I had a chance to speak, here is what I would have said.

Mr. Gates, I applaud your strong support for technological breakthroughs as a weapon in the arsenal to fight climate change. Today, a few speakers mentioned the vital research funded by the Department of Energy. But you may not be aware that the Department of Defense is spending $1.6 billion a year on energy RDT&E (research, development, test and engineering) and playing a key role in the clean energy innovation ecosystem. (Sadly, DOE does little to leverage DoD’s strengths as a clean energy innovator, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The magnitude of DoD’s investment in energy RDT&E reflects the importance of energy to the military mission: the armed forces rely on energy for everything they do, which is why they are this country’s biggest energy consumer. Realistically, future military platforms and capabilities will require more, not less, energy. DoD’s investment in energy RDT&E also reflects the military’s characteristic pursuit of advanced technology as a force multiplier. As you well know, military requirements have been the driver for countless innovations, including radar, GPS, lasers, computers and semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and the Internet.


“Energy entrepreneurs, more than most, need to demonstrate their complex technologies at scale under realistic conditions, and because opportunities for such ‘learning by using’ are rare in the energy sector, DoD represents a unique resource.”

Despite being driven by military needs, DoD’s investments in energy RDT&E can be a significant catalyst for civilian clean energy innovation. DoD and civilian needs are more congruent than is commonly recognized. For example, the military must curb its reliance on transported fuel at forward operating bases—fuel convoys were a major death trap for U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan—which is driving RDT&E on distributed generation and smart energy networks. At the same time, DoD is electrifying its ships, ground vehicles and unmanned vehicles—largely to facilitate the dramatic increase in onboard electronics—which requires advanced power electronics, long-lasting fuel cells, and vehicle-integrated solar photovoltaics.

Energy.gov: Fuel cell powered unmanned undersea vehicle.

Moreover, DoD’s innovation system is well-suited to advancing clean energy technologies. As the end-user of the technology it finances, the military supports advances across the entire technology lifecycle, from basic science to commercialization, in contrast to DOE, with its focus on laboratory science. Key to DoD’s requirements-driven approach is its rigorous testing and evaluation of new technologies. Energy entrepreneurs, more than most, need to demonstrate their complex technologies at scale under realistic conditions, and because opportunities for such “learning by using” are rare in the energy sector, DoD represents a unique resource.

DoD not only develops new technology, it procures it—often at a price premium in exchange for higher performance. As a technology matures and improves with use by the military, it becomes cost competitive. Here, again, DoD’s approach is particularly well-suited to energy innovation. Because energy is a commodity, new entrants often have to compete solely on price—a major hurdle given that the early versions of innovations often exhibit high costs and limited reliability. With its large internal market, DoD can play a much-needed role as an early adopter that values performance over price.

Solar PV:  Solar PV technology illustrates DoD’s critical role in the energy innovation ecosystem. Solar PV is a must-have for DoD to enable longer missions for foot soldiers, extend the flight duration of drones, and reduce the dependence of forward-operating bases on transported fuel. However, these and other military applications call for materials that are lightweight and flexible, whereas the dominant solar PV technology, silicon, is heavy and inflexible. Some niche and emerging technologies, including multi-junction III-V and perovskite materials, show promise, but silicon’s cost advantage represents a major barrier to entry.

DSIAC: Laser-powered drone equipped with PV cell.

DoD can be instrumental in prying open the market for solar PV and extending it to important new applications. DoD has long funded advances in III-V materials for use in space. With an eye to other applications, including space-based solar (capturing solar energy in space and transmitting it to Earth in the form of microwaves or lasers), DoD is supporting RDT&E to slash the cost to fabricate III-V materials and advance the development of perovskites, organics, quantum dots and other emerging solar PV technologies.

In addition to funding R&D, DoD will be an early adopter of promising solar PV technologies. This is nothing new: Bell Laboratories invented the silicon PV cell in 1954, but government satellites represented the major market for solar PV until the 1970s. The military’s willingness to pay a premium for higher performance can give new solar PV technologies an opportunity to grow and gain a commercial foothold, beginning with less price-sensitive applications such as device charging and building- and vehicle-integrated solar PV.

Microgrids and stationary storage:  As another example, advanced microgrids and large-scale stationary storage are a game-changer for the military: together with on-site energy generation, they give DoD’s permanent military bases the ability to manage local energy supply and demand on a routine basis and maintain mission-critical loads if the commercial grid goes down. DoD has sought to further the development of a wide range of innovative energy technologies by using its bases as a test bed for the demonstration and validation of pre-commercial systems. Since 2009, DoD has funded more than 30 formal demonstrations of advanced microgrid technologies, many of which incorporate innovative storage solutions. General Electric’s microgrid controller went directly from a three-year demonstration at a Marine Corps base in California to the commercial market.


“The military’s willingness to pay a premium for higher performance can give new solar PV technologies an opportunity to grow and gain a commercial foothold.”

Beyond demonstrations, DoD will play a key role as an early adopter. And with 500 active-duty bases and hundreds of smaller National Guard bases, DoD is on track to be, in addition to one of the first, one of the largest customers for advanced microgrids and large-scale storage technology.

Other clean energy technologies likely to benefit from DoD RDT&E and procurement include portable batteries, wide bandgap semiconductors, wireless power transmission, fuel cells, fuel-efficient propulsion, building energy technologies, and even nuclear power.

QATS: DoD has devoted significant resources to advancing wide bandgap semiconductor technology for power electronics.

In sum, this country needs to use every weapon in the energy arsenal to fight climate change, and technological innovation is perhaps the most powerful. DoD’s warfighting mission, without directly intending to do so, is creating valuable new “weapons” to be used in that critical fight.

 

 

Dorothy Robyn is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Institute for Sustainable Energy. She served as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment from 2009-2012. Publications include: Robyn and Jeffrey Marqusee, “The Clean Energy Dividend: Military Investment in Energy Technology and What it Means for Civilian Energy Innovation,” Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, March 5, 2019; and Robyn and Marqusee, “Clean Power from the Pentagon,” Issues in Science & Technology, Summer 2019.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.