“I was involved in the planning for OIF-1 [Operation Iraqi Freedom-1], going across the berm into Iraq,” said Lieutenant General Raymond Mason, the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff for logistics. “There were a number of decision points. Two decision points that the CENTCOM [U.S. Central Command] commander had were:  he wanted to make sure that he had 60 days of fuel on the ground before he crossed the berm … and  he wanted to have a 60-day supply of batteries. The four-star commander was worried about fuel and batteries. I would prefer he doesn’t have to worry about [either] in the future.”
Toward that end, and now more than ever, the U.S. military is committed to funding and deploying disruptive energy technologies.
“The U.S. military, across the board, has decided that energy is a strategic issue that affects their operations and budget in profound ways,” said former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry. “When oil goes from $60 to $100 a barrel, the amount that the Air Force and the Navy have to spend on fuel goes up dramatically. [...] A spike in the price of oil means fewer airplanes they can buy." He added, "From an operational point of view, getting fuel to a site in Afghanistan is very expensive.”
In the interest of national security, the military is pursuing advanced batteries and novel biofuels for the battlefield and energy-efficient buildings and energy-independent bases for the home front. The Armed Forces are investing and enabling green technologies independently, through its own research (e.g., DARPA) and procurement (e.g., the Army’s new Energy Initiatives Office) processes, as well is in cooperation with the Department of Energy.
“We in Defense must innovate to protect the country. Our technology is second only to the quality of the people we have in uniform in what makes our military the best in the world,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. “We’re all in with the Department of Energy (DOE). It makes sense and it is good for the taxpayer. We’re all in with ARPA-E. We look forward to working with [the DOE] well into the future. Just like DARPA has been around for 50 years, I dare say ARPA-E will be around for decades as well.”
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the military’s pressing need for more efficient batteries for hand-held electronics.
“When I was a young lieutenant, the only batteries I had to worry about were the ones in my flashlight. If I had two AA batteries, I was good to go,” said Mason. “But if you look at what we put on a soldier today, the amount of batteries is absolutely incredible because of the power needed for the GPS, headset displays, weapons systems, radios and on and on.”
“We are very cost-insensitive when it comes to high-energy density batteries,” said Carter. “We don’t like to burden a trooper with a lot of batteries and weight to power all the equipment that a soldier now carries around the battlefield.”
The military also wants -- and is well positioned to research and purchase -- higher-performance batteries for electric vehicles.
“We need lighter, more efficient batteries for electric-drive vehicles,” said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who represents Silicon Valley communities and startups and who spent eight years on the House Intelligence Committee. “Our military is in a unique and powerful position to advance renewable energy technologies. We all know that the internet was created through DARPA. Military R&D investments can usher in significant innovations for [clean] energy technologies.”
“The military ought to stand ready as improvements occur to purchase, in trial amounts … a different type of lithium-ion batteries that have three or four times the energy density of what’s in your cell phone,” said Jim Woolsey, the former CIA director who currently serves as a venture partner at Lux Capital. “They ought to stand ready to purchase [better batteries] early on, so that they can help producers get up the learning curve and make production more efficient.”
“The Navy is pursuing alternative sources of jet fuel. In particular, they are buying bio-jet fuel … to decrease their dependence on foreign oil,” said Perry. “People like myself don’t have to encourage the military to [pursue biofuels]; they are doing it on their own initiative because they recognize the importance of it.”
Importantly, there is not only an economic and strategic rationale, but also a human cost, to the military’s dependence on fossil fuels.
“Our troops are often attacked when they are transporting liquid fuels to the battlefield,” said Eshoo. “Ray Maybus, the Secretary of the Navy, has said, ‘For every 50 convoys of gasoline we bring in, we lose a Marine. We lose a Marine -- killed or wounded. That is too high a price to pay for fuel.’”
Last August, the Navy, the DOE and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a $510 million commitment for the development and scale-up of advanced biofuels. The initiative’s goal is to construct or retrofit advanced biofuel plants to produce drop-in aviation and marine biofuels. In December, the Navy also contracted with algae-based biofuels producer Solazyme for 450,000 gallons of renewable fuels.
“Everything the Navy pursues as part of its overarching energy program is about improving combat capability for the warfighter. There are real vulnerabilities associated with using lots of fuel,” said John Quinn, the Deputy Director of the Navy’s Energy and Environmental Readiness Division. “We have seen that play out on the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is equally true at sea and in the air. Operating more efficiently provides a direct benefit to combat capability by reducing those vulnerabilities.”
“Efficiency also reduces the lifecycle costs of our systems, because high and volatile petroleum prices put pressure on the Navy budget,” continued Quinn. “Similarly, diversifying our energy sources can provide both operational forces and installations with a reliable, secure energy supply that ensures the Navy can perform its mission under any circumstances. This is why we are working to draw at least half of the energy we consume from alternative sources by 2020. [...] With industry's help, I think we can do it.”
“We are the largest property owner and operator in the world,” said DOD’s Carter. “We have 300,000 buildings [and] 5,000 installations in the United States alone. We are very interested in energy-efficient buildings. Because we are in this game for a long time, we are prepared to make investments that will not pay off in the short term, but in the long term. In so doing, we may be early adopters of [technology] that later in time will pay off in shorter timescales.”
The military’s interest in green buildings offers significant opportunities for DOD-DOE cooperation.
“The Department of Defense has over two million square feet under its roof,” said Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman. “This creates an incredible opportunity to test-bed energy efficiency technologies and at the same time to develop market pull." He continued, "That is why the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense have worked so hard in the last couple of years to step up their cooperation. We have worked together to increase energy reliability and efficiency on DOD bases.”
Not every effort at interagency energy cooperation will bear fruit. SolarStrong, an effort to install solar on military roofs, initially planned for a DOE loan guarantee. But after the DOE delayed its support, the program, though able to proceed with private funds, was forced to scale back.
Nonetheless, the national security drivers for solar- and self-powered bases with significant energy storage capabilities remain.
“There is only one military base in the US, China Lake in California, that has its own energy power supply for electricity. It is a geothermal plant. All the other military bases are on the grid,” said Woolsey. “If the electric grid goes down, either from attacks on transformers by terrorists or hacking into the control systems, a large number of which operate across the web, the military [will be] hungry and thirsty just like the rest of us. So one of the things that I think is extremely interesting to [the military] is to be able to operate military bases as much as possible with electricity that is generated on site.”
“Now that would emphasize the importance of solar, but solar has gotten a lot more efficient and a lot cheaper. It is getting down close to grid parity… That is not the problem,” continued Woolsey. “The problem is storage, because you can’t just operate a military base in daylight. You need to be able to store -- let’s say you are generating [energy] with solar on all the rooftops in the base and some of the land -- you’ve got to be able to store it enough to deal with nighttime requirements.”
A Long-Term Commitment, Insulated From Politics
The DOD is committed to greentech for the long term. Unlike venture capitalists, the military doesn’t invest from 10-year funds. Unlike the DOE, the Armed Forces are relatively insulated from changing political winds.
“We, unlike many in the economy, take the long view,” said Carter. “National defense is going to be around for a long time. We are prepared to make investments that are sure to pay off, but won’t pay off for 10 years, whereas [investors] in the economy with high discount rates can’t afford to place those kinds of bets. But we’re prepared [to do so because] it is in the national interest, the taxpayers’ interest and the interest of national defense.”
But what if Republicans take control of the White House or both houses of Congress? Might the military’s interest in green technology be politicized, much as the Obama administration’s investments and loan guarantees have come under fire?
“I would hope that [because of] the considerable clout that the military and the Pentagon carry with the Congress -- regardless of [its] composition -- that [a Republican] Congress and White House would pay attention to [the military],” said Eshoo. “Would I be concerned that policies would move in another direction? Sure, I’d be concerned. [But] at the end of the day, I would count on the leadership of the Pentagon to continue building on the progress that it is being made now.”
“The military has bought in to alternative energy. It is their idea now. That makes a big difference,” said Perry. “It was my experience when I was Secretary [of Defense] that whenever you get military buy-in, you have a much greater chance to [accomplish] whatever it was you were trying to do. That has happened now in the case of alternative energy and the military. I don’t think it is dependent on an administration. I think it is going to be there for a long-time to come.”
“Whether you have a Republican or a Democratic administration, people tend to recognize that it is better for a Marine at the front not to have to carry 30 pounds of batteries and better for [soldiers] to be able to produce a major share of the helicopter fuel they need at their base,” said Woolsey, a veteran of the Carter, Reagan, Bush (41), and Clinton administrations. “Regardless of what anybody thinks about global warming, cap-and-trade, or pollution, [and] no matter what political party you are part of, people respect the military’s need to operate safely and effectively in a dangerous environment.”
Of course, the military won’t support just any green technology.
“What the military is doing is distinct from the rest of the government,” said Woolsey. “Would the military spend much time and effort on very large wind turbines? Probably not. They’re difficult to maintain and interfere with the radars on military bases. Would they want to spend a lot of time and effort on reworking large hydroelectric dams to make them more efficient? Probably not. There are lots of perfectly fine things to do in cleantech that satisfy civilian needs … but that are not the sort of things [on which] the military is going to spend its precious resources.”
Advice for Greentech Startups
For all the military’s interest, it is the private sector that will ultimately have to deliver energy innovation.
“The Navy can test and certify advanced biofuels for our ships and aircraft to signal it is capable of procuring such product,” said Quinn. “[But] ultimately it is private industry that must develop the capacity to supply Navy, DOD and the nation with sufficient quantities of alternative energy at competitive prices.”
What should greentech startups know when applying to work with the military?
“Companies in the [greentech] area can look to the government for support, [first] in R&D and second in [having the] government be a very solid long-term customer,” said Perry.
First, the military has an established network through which it pursues and evaluates new technologies.
“The intelligence community [already] goes shopping in Silicon Valley,” said Eshoo, a veteran of the House Intelligence Committee. “There are many, many [military] partnerships with small companies, medium-sized companies and some larger companies. [The military] would not be starting from scratch.”
Second, the Armed Forces are easier customers to deal with than the utilities to which many greentech companies sell.
“There are two reasons why it is easier to work with the military than [with] utilities,” said Woolsey. “One is that the military takes security seriously. They don’t duck the issue. If they are at risk because hackers might attack the electric grid or because terrorists might blow away key transformers, they are used to thinking about [worst-case scenarios] and dealing with them, whereas utilities tend to assume that everything is going to be [ok].”
The other big difference, argued Woolsey, is that the military sees distributed generation as contributing to national defense, while utilities are concerned about distributed solar and storage reducing their business and revenues.
Firms seeking to partner with the military on green technology projects should demonstrate proven technology and a strong business case.
“From the Navy's perspective, the most important thing for [biofuel companies] to demonstrate is that their company has a clear path to reach commercial scale and develop a ‘drop-in’ replacement for petroleum that can ultimately be price competitive with petroleum,” said Quinn. “While the Navy has paid a premium to obtain biofuels for testing and certification purposes, we cannot and will not pay a premium to obtain fuel for operational use.”
“For companies with renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, the Navy needs to see a solid business case. There must be a clear benefit to the warfighter in the form of enhanced capabilities or reduced lifecycle costs,” added Quinn.
“When the military looks at the company, they want to satisfy themselves that the technology has been well developed and has been demonstrated,” said Perry. “It needs to be more than viewgraphs.”
In addition, a greentech company needs to appeal to the appropriate military program. For example, by working with the Army’s Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center [CERDEC], a company was able to have its solar-powered battery charging system, the Rucksack Enhanced Portable Power System [REPPS], deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We work closely with CERDEC, which had already done work in this area, in terms of flexible photovoltaic technology that soldiers could use,” said Vic Ramdass, the Director of the Army’s Logistics Innovation Agency. “[REPPS] now has a national stock number. Any soldier in any unit can order it. It is relatively inexpensive.”
“It was a good success story of a small company coming up with a configuration and offer[ing] it to the Army while it was looking for this kind of solution,” said Colonel Paul Roege, Chief of the Army’s Operational Energy Office. “We bought it and are scaling up production.”
Yoni Cohen has worked for greentech venture capital firms DBL Investors and Israel Cleantech Ventures and reported about environmental innovation for numerous publications. Follow Yoni on twitter@Cohen_Yoni.