A Strong Defense for Low-Carbon Innovation

This post is the first of a two-part series on low-carbon innovation in the defense industry. It looks at how the DOD is uniquely positioned to drive low-carbon innovation. The second part in the blog series looks at how businesses are working with the DOD to bring low-carbon solutions to market.

From GPS to the Internet, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has a history of driving the creation of innovative technologies now used every day by Americans. With low-carbon policies a major challenge in Washington today, many clean energy advocates are seeking leadership from the DOD, which is the single largest consumer of energy in the country, to help drive clean energy solutions. Motivated by the need to better protect troops and support its operations, the DOD is becoming more involved in low-carbon technology research, development, and deployment. As stated in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), this work will shape the future commercial potential of energy technologies, as “military installations [serve] as a test bed to demonstrate and create a market for innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.”

The recent launch of the U.S. Army’s Energy Initiatives Office (EIO) serves as an example of energy- conscious DOD leadership in action. The EIO was formed to build large-scale renewable energy projects at bases, enhancing energy security and helping the Army achieve its goal of obtaining 25 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2025. The EIO will streamline Army business practices across a wide range of critical partners, in order to, “identify and evaluate technologies, negotiate with utilities, and manage construction, operation and maintenance of large-scale renewable projects,” and to engage with private industry to foster, “strategic, technical and financial investment in Army renewable energy efforts.” These efforts will require an estimated $7.1 billion in private investment over 10 years and generate 2.1 million megawatt hours of power annually.

Troop security and government leadership are driving objectives of the DOD’s low-carbon energy push. The 2010 QDR noted that “while climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” Increased use of low-carbon technologies can enhance global security, thereby potentially decreasing the burden on civilian institutions and militaries, as well as the need for U.S. involvement in conflict. When engaged in conflict, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and other low-carbon technologies can better protect and serve U.S. troops by saving lives and enhancing fighting capabilities. Fewer convoys transporting fuel and greater fuel efficiency increases troop agility and range, thus improving fighting capabilities and decreasing risk associated with protecting vulnerable fuel supply lines. Cost-effective low-carbon technologies can reduce fuel costs and mitigate exposure to unpredictable and volatile energy prices.

DOD leadership and broader government efforts are targeting reductions in energy use and its associated risks. In 2010, for the first time the QDR addressed “energy security” as a strategic priority. Meanwhile, federal energy laws and multiple Executive Orders call for federal agencies—including the DOD—to meet a collection of low-carbon performance targets. Complementing the Army’s 2025 target, the U.S. Navy is aiming to procure 50 percent of its energy needs from renewable energy sources by 2020.

With extensive resources and scale, the DOD is uniquely positioned to drive clean energy technology development and deployment—highlighted in the Center’s recently released The Business of Innovating report as a key driver that can have lasting implications for the trajectory of technologies and industries. At more than $80 billion per year, the DOD’s R&D budget can support a wide range of research, possibly producing game-changing technologies. Its spending authority and procurement practices, with a $691 billion budget in FY 2010 and employing over 3 million people, can significantly advance both new and commercial-ready technologies. For example, as one of the largest aviation and logistics fuel users in the world, the DOD has the ability to greatly influence the development of biofuels. One demonstration of this procurement power came in 2010, when Solazyme, a leader in algal biotechnology, delivered 20,000 gallons of algal-derived fuel to the U.S. Navy, completing the world’s largest order of microbial-derived, non-alcohol advanced biofuel.

In the absence of comprehensive low-carbon policies in Washington, there exists tremendous opportunity for the DOD to play a leading role in advancing low-carbon innovations. The DOD’s energy demands coupled with its procurement capabilities can increase development and deployment of innovative low-carbon technologies. Efforts like the Army’s Energy Initiatives Office provide an avenue to capitalize on the private sector’s ability to meet the DOD’s demand for such technologies. Stay tuned for Part II of this blog post, which will focus on what leading businesses are doing to meet the DOD’s demand for low-carbon innovations.

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 the Center.