Military driving energy innovation


The U.S. Department of Defense racks up $4 billion in annual energy expenses on buildings alone, and accounts for over 80 percent of energy consumption in the U.S. federal government. Total DOD  energy use is about $20 billion a year.

 That likely is only going to rise as more troops return from overseas and as the military continues to modernize. Add to that the fact that the military is also one of the world's largest organizations by physical infrastructure, with more than 300,000 buildings and 2 billion square feet of space, and it's no wonder the DOD is angling to become more energy independent. 

The sheer size and the criticality of the DOD mission -- not politics -- necessitate a reliable, independent source of electricity, as relying on the aging electric grid is simply becoming inadequate and too risky for such an operation.

"If we are going to meet the goals we have, in the timeframe we've set, for the cost we have available, we have to exploit advanced technology," said Jeff Marqusee, Executive Director of ESTCP, the DOD's environmental research and development program.

Creating energy market opportunity

The DOD's shift towards energy independence and its commitment to investing in next-generation technologies is a huge opportunity for emerging technologies looking to make a splash in the market.

Speaking at the recent RETECH conference, Marqusee highlighted how the military is becoming an ideal laboratory for up-and-coming energy technologies, especially for products that are beyond the research stage but lack widespread implementation. It's largely a win-win, as the DOD takes on the burden of risk, easing stress on utilities and developers, while reaping the benefits of successful projects.

The Department is making investments in three broad areas including: increasing efficiency of energy distribution and use; reducing demand; and promoting on-site generation. ______________________________

"We are [like] a person who sits on both ends of it," Marqusee noted. "We've got a real interest in trying to accelerate those technologies, which will offer us more cost-effective ways to have on-site renewable generation."

DOD efforts are also providing a significant boost to investor confidence in financing the development of new, energy-efficient technologies in a still-recovering economy.

"There is very high risk for new-to-the-world technologies," said Kelly Carnes, President and CEO of consulting firm TechVision 21, speaking at RETECH.  "There is a strong need to show that the technologies work -- that they do what they are supposed to do -- before the financing community is going to come in and back numerous projects in one of these new technologies."

Exposure by an organization as large as the DOD can be crucial to getting start-up technologies through the so-called funding "Valley of Death," a point during product development when companies often struggle to find enough funding to move projects forward.

Developing grid independence

The Department is making investments in three broad areas including: increasing efficiency of energy distribution and use; reducing demand; and promoting on-site generation. Examples include microgrids, energy storage projects, retrofitting buildings, installing intelligent building management systems, and building out on-site generation such as waste-to-energy, landfill gas and solar plants.

Because the DOD is ultimately funded by government and taxpayers, it will remain transparent and unbiased with all its projects reporting. It also partnered with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to support some of the development of these new renewable energy technologies. While the two organizations have different missions, they share the common goal of developing renewable energy technologies that can then be rolled out on a large scale.

"We have shared goals in terms of where we are trying to get to," said Stephen Gorin, Director of DOD Energy Programs at NREL.

The DOD's goal is to achieve a success rate of between 30 and 40 percent.

"For us, success is being able to test the technology that meets a DOD installation energy need and to be able to assess what its performance is, what its current and future potential cost is, and why," Marqusee concluded.

Updated 2/25/13. The original version of this article said that the U.S. DOD spends $4 billion a year on energy, but did not specifics that that figure is for fixed buildings. Total energy costs are about $20 billion.