The Emerging Battle for Energy Security

To some, it may seem like the United States military employs a blank check approach to its military operations at home and abroad. The reality, though, is that the Department of Defense is undergoing a fundamental shift in how it operates, and central to this new thinking is its energy strategy.

Leaders at the highest levels of the Pentagon are looking for new sources that will cut down on the amount of oil they need to source from hostile areas in places like the Middle East. And they’re exploring new energy solutions that will reduce bills at home and give troops a tactical advantage along the front lines. Fuel convoys remain the most deadly part of a military mission, and requiring less fuel at forward operating bases powered by solar, wind and other renewable energy sources is expected to translate into fewer casualties of war.

At the recent Renewable Energy World North America conference in Long Beach, Calif., several experts within the renewable energy field participated in a panel discussion about the growing partnership between the United States military and the private sector that continues to reshape the rules of engagement.  Below is an excerpt from the discussion.

Among those who participated in the panel were: Peter Asmus, a Pike Research senior analyst who has documented the role microgrids can play on bases and in the field; Carl Steen, a partner with Fulbright & Jaworski, who helped bring together a 6-MW solar project at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado; Morgan Adam, a project development engineer with SunPower, who worked with Steen on the USAFA project and whose company is also installing a 13-MW project at the Naval Air Weapons Station in China Lake, Calif.; Brad Hancock, director of federal programs for FlexEnergy, which recently installed a landfill gas to electricity system at Fort Benning in Georgia; Paul Reep, a senior vice president with Origin Oil, whose company is among those working to eventually meet the DoD’s growing appetite for advanced biofuels; and Tim Keating, a vice president with Skyline Solar, which recently installed concentrating photovoltaic projects at Edwards Air Force Base in California and Fort Bliss in Texas.

REW: According to Pike Research, in 2010, the Department of Defense invested $1.8 billion in renewable energy projects. By 2030, the DoD is projected to invest up to $27 billion annually. What effects will that level of spending have on renewable energy industries and what are the major obstacles?

Reep: “The major question is how does that [DoD investment] dovetail with private sector financing. One of the things we’re challenged with in the biofuels industry is there’s considerable growth in the technological area, there’s a lot of innovation and innovative people. What’s important for the private sector to recognize is that there are tremendous assets the federal government does have, and utilizing those entities to help validate new technologies coming forward is essential. It’s good placement of federal dollars to do things the industry doesn’t have the capability yet to do on its own. The industry is nascent enough that the infrastructure hasn’t been built up sufficiently to support validation. So there’s a real role for how to create real partnerships between the federal government and the private sector.”

Asmus: “With the budget situation in the U.S. and the current political dynamics in Washington, how will it impact this [potential investment]? Will it slow down? What I’ve heard from the people I’ve spoken with is that they expect the DoD to plow forward. The issue is creative financing. They’re looking to the private sector to come with the money.”

Hancock: “The DoD is leaning pretty heavily on the private sector to do those research projects. They look at it from the perspective that their mission is fighting and winning wars and not doing research so there are a few instances where they will key on research like small microgrids for forward operating bases. No one else is going to do that kind of research because nobody else has that problem. They’ll spend their research money on places where it’s only applicable to them. In cases where it’s applicable to everybody in the renewable energy industry, they’ll look to others to fund those projects.”

REW: From the military’s perspective, how has the landscape changed on renewable energy?

Hancock: “Clearly, renewable energy has a larger role than it did more than 20 years ago [when Hancock was in the early part of a two-decade career in the Navy]. Most of the regulations have been created in the last five years. Personally, I view a lot of them today as stretch goals. I think 25 percent by 2025 is going to be exceedingly difficult to get to. I look at a lot of those goals as not being backed up by money. It’s easy for someone to create those goals, but it’s more difficult to put funding and resources behind it.”

REW: Is the DoD requiring that projects benefit the local economy?

Steen: “In the case of the Colorado project, there was a large emphasis on job creation and we asked SunPower, ‘What is this going to do to create jobs in the local economy and what is this going to do to help businesses locally?’ In SunPower’s case, that favored them because they were able to contribute.”

Adam: “The federal government has a lot of buying provisions with their projects. Modules for the Air Force project were compliant and the entire project for China Lake was compliant. It sounds more simple than it is. We spent a lot of time working to determine what that means. [Requiring local benefits] is certainly one thing that the government is doing.”

REW: Can the DoD act as a de facto energy policy and perhaps create a bridge to a real policy?

Keating: “Some of our presidents in our history wanted to drive policy where there wasn’t any. That happened on Civil Rights. They used their ability to be the boss of the military to help drive that. Using the buying power of the executive branch and the power of the president — by the way, not just this one — I think is an excellent start when there is no will for a federal policy from anywhere else.”

Steen: “We don’t have a federal policy and in this political environment, prospects of comprehensive national energy legislation that will provide that structure is unlikely. There is a real opportunity through the DoD initiatives — especially as the branches compete with each other to have the best green program — to develop something to create a framework. It’d be the closest we’d get to some federal policy in the next couple of years.”

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