Last month, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and Department of Energy (DOE) signed a Memorandum of Understanding to “identify a framework for cooperation and partnership” for developing and testing sustainable energy technologies. At a July 29 briefing on Capitol Hill hosted by the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, representatives of the two departments highlighted the opportunities for collaboration and the unique role that the military could play in accelerating the development and deployment of innovative energy solutions. The briefing coincided with the release of a report on the same issues by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Military Advisory Board, titled Powering America’s Economy: Energy Innovation at the Crossroad of National Security Challenges.
At the briefing, Brigadier General Gerald E. Galloway, a member of the CNA report team, observed that the U.S. military has a long history of technological innovation, including helping to develop the Internet and engaging in military research that served as the basis for the civilian nuclear power industry. The DOD also recently conducted a series of renewable energy analyses for its facilities, including an assessment of the six most promising solar technologies and the development of models to determine economically viable solar projects for military bases.
As the nation’s largest energy consumer, the DOD is in a natural position to take the lead in developing and implementing renewable energy systems. Among notable successes so far are the 140-acre solar photovoltaic array at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada (the largest in the country, producing about 30 million kilowatt hours per year) and the 270-megawatt geothermal power plant at the China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in California, which has powered the entire base since the 1980s.
Dorothy Robyn, DOD’s Deputy Under Secretary for Installations and Environment, promoted the idea of using military installations as test beds for sustainable energy systems to ensure the reliable procurement, cost, and performance of equipment. These installations often function as fully operational towns, meaning that lessons learned and approaches could be applied more broadly in civilian towns and cities. The DOD’s purchasing power alone could go a long way toward achieving the economies of scale still required to bring down the costs of some renewable technologies. These investments would benefit the military as well, given that the DOD spends $4 billion annually to power and cool installations, and that its missions are often put at risk from fragile grid systems and the need to transport fuel through dangerous territory.
Briefing panelists also described opportunities for synergies that would capitalize on the strengths of both federal departments. DOE has long had the capacity and mission to generate new energy technology innovations, but has lacked a major customer that could implement these technologies on a sufficient scale. The DOD can play the customer role as a first adopter and provide the market to advance innovative energy solutions to the broader population.
At a time when federal climate and energy legislation has been deferred to the unforeseeable future, the DOD’s commitment to promoting sustainable energy development and its partnership with the DOE to seek out, fund, and support new solutions is a small but promising step forward for the United States. Even the panelists made clear, however, that a strong national policy is needed to create a broader market for renewable energy technologies, and that the lack of political initiative is a missed opportunity. While the United States spends over $340 billion each year to buy foreign oil, billions of dollars in clean energy investment are sidestepping the country and are instead being spent abroad in countries like China, which have fostered a more positive investment climate for renewable energy.