Low-Carbon Innovation for a Strong Defense

As discussed in the first part of this blog series A Strong Defense for Low-Carbon Innovation, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has both the demand for and procurement capabilities to advance the development and deployment of innovative low-carbon technologies. This post highlights a variety of leading businesses innovating and creating new opportunities in response to the U.S. Department of Defense efforts, and some of the challenges businesses encounter along the way.

Strategic public-private partnerships are key to helping the DOD meet its energy goals and present significant low-carbon business opportunities. Employing the expertise of companies, such as those specializing in electricity generation or computer technology, gives the DOD access to specialty skills and knowledge needed to advance innovative low-carbon technologies. Businesses, in turn, have the potential to enhance their competencies through government-funded research and development, or provide new technologies for commercial markets after large-scale demonstration through the DOD.

Lockheed Martin, a Business Environmental Leadership Council (BELC) member and global security company with products and services that have defense, civil, and commercial applications, is advancing low-carbon innovations across many technologies and practices. One such example is Lockheed Martin’s demonstration of the efficiency, reliability, and energy security of an intelligent microgrid solution at Fort Bliss, one of the Army’s largest fixed installations, located in southwest Texas. The company provides both deployable microgrids for remote operations and stationary microgrids for fixed installations. A microgrid is a scalable electrical power system with the ability to generate electric power, distribute and regulate electricity from a variety of power sources, and manage electrical loads. Microgrids are of great interest to the U.S. military for use at forward operating bases because of their ability to decrease fuel costs and energy-related vulnerabilities by intelligently managing distributed diesel generators and electrical loads, as well as integrating renewable sources, such as solar and wind power. Dorothy Robyn, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment, has stated that microgrids provide a ‘triple play’ for DOD fixed installations due to their ability to reduce demand for traditional energy, increase the military’s utilization of renewable energy, and improve the energy security of DOD installations.

Numerous companies have developed a variety of low-carbon innovations in partnership with the DOD. From renewable power generation, such as advanced solar powered battery chargers, to reducing computer power consumption, these innovations hold future commercial market potential in addition to their usefulness for the DOD:

  • In partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), DuPont is co-leading a consortium to develop portable battery chargers based on ultra-high efficiency solar cells. In addition, funded by a $1 million prize from the DOD, DuPont is helping develop the M-25 fuel cell, which can extend soldier mission times to 72 hours or more and is 80 percent lighter than conventional batteries carried by soldiers.
  • At the world’s largest Marine Corps base in Twentynine Palms, California, General Electric is demonstrating a microgrid energy management system that promotes on-site power generation, including solar and wind power, energy storage, and efficiency.
  • Intel is collaborating with DARPA in a $49 million initiative to decrease computer power consumption by two to three orders of magnitude by 2018. Such an advance will increase the DOD’s capacity for Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR), Electronic Warfare (EW), Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD), battle management and planning, and cyber security.

To take advantage of these business opportunities, companies must overcome a variety of barriers. One of the biggest risks of low-carbon innovation is financial uncertainty. For example, there is significant financial uncertainty for a technology untested at a commercial scale and still needing the large, initial capital investment required to reach that level of production. Technical barriers affect the financial viability of projects as well, as has often been seen with the high cost of solar panels impeding their purchase at a utility scale. In addition, historically the DOD had not been set up to easily accommodate low-carbon technologies. The Army created the Energy Initiatives Office with the understanding that installations pursuing renewable energy “often lack needed expertise” to implement large-scale projects. Another challenge is the DOD’s acquisition process is known for being complicated, which can slow the adoption of new technologies. Despite these challenges, the DOD is uniquely positioned  to provide financing to drive innovation and reduce costs, and is working to streamline acquisition processes and reduce bureaucratic inefficiencies, such as through the Army’s Energy Initiatives Office.

These examples demonstrate the relationship between the DOD’s demand for and businesses’ supply of low-carbon innovations. Under any political, military, and budgetary circumstances, both actors’ ability to work together has the potential to unlock significant advances in low-carbon innovation, while simultaneously promoting energy security, best serving American troops, and weaning the United States off of fossil fuels.

This blog post is part of the Center’s larger initiative focusing on low-carbon innovation. The Center released its low-carbon innovation report, The Business of Innovating: Bringing Low-Carbon Solutions to Market, in October.

Sam Wurzelmann is a Solutions Fellow at C2ES.