The U.S. Army this month established an Energy Initiatives Office (EIO) Task Force, which could have a significant effect on the growth of the solar energy industry.
I first studied solar energy in junior high school in the mid-1960s (the Bell Labs “From Sun to Sound” kit pictured here is similar to the one we built). Inquiring minds wanted to know at the time whether solar energy could ever replace oil and coal (yes, we thought about that stuff even back then, especially we science fiction fans and radio club geeks). ‘Too expensive now,’ was the response, ‘but if the military starts using these technologies, that will drive down the cost and make solar energy affordable in the commercial market.’
Initiatives now underway by branches of the military could help accelerate that decrease in costs and continued expansion for the growing solar industry.
An announcement Aug. 10, 2011, from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) says that the new EIO Task Force will be operational by Sept. 15, 2011, and “will serve as the central managing office for the development of large-scale Army renewable energy projects.” John M. McHugh, secretary of the Army, is quoted as saying,
The Energy Initiatives Office Task Force will help the Army build resilience through renewable energy while streamlining our business practices so developers can invest in and build an economically viable, large-scale renewable energy infrastructure.
McHugh says the Army is reaching for “a goal of 25 percent renewable energy by 2025.” Citing “energy security” as its motivation, the announcement says the Army expects to invest as much as $7.1 billion in renewable energy over the next 10 years. The Army is already constructing a 500-MW solar power plant the size of Manhattan at its Fort Irwin base in California. An outreach officer for the EIO says the Army has “the land and the demand” for large solar projects.
The new EIO Task Force is designed to provide the Army with the internal expertise it needs for this large-scale investment and to work with the private sector “to foster strategic and financial collaboration in support of the Army’s installation energy needs.”
Army’s Renewable Energy Targets
According to the Army Energy Program, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (APAct 2005) requires certain minimum contributions of renewable energy to any given installation’s electricity consumption of 5 percent through 2012, then 7.5 percent beginning in fiscal year 2013. Beyond that, the DoD has set its own voluntary goal of 25 percent by 2025.
The Army’s focus on renewables fits with its ‘Net Zero vision’:
The Army’s vision is to appropriately manage our natural resources with a goal of net zero installations. Today the Army faces significant threats to our energy and water supply requirements both home and abroad. Addressing energy security and sustainability is operationally necessary, financially prudent, and essential to mission accomplishment. The goal is to manage our installations not only on a net zero energy basis, but net zero water and waste as well. We are creating a culture that recognizes the value of sustainability measured not just in terms of financial benefits, but benefits to maintaining mission capability, quality of life, relationships with local communities, and the preservation of options for the Army’s future.
Development of a Net Zero and renewables strategy makes sense especially in view of the Army’s need to operate in remote areas under difficult security conditions. Dennis K. Bohannon of the office of Installations, Energy, and Environment writes:
The Army’s operational energy logistical tail is a handicap. In fiscal year 2010 the Army’s fuel costs topped $2.7 billion, 70 percent of which was for theater operations. In Afghanistan, the military is enduring one casualty for every 24 ground resupply convoys. Between 70 to 80 percent of the resupply weight for those logistical convoys is composed of fuel and water.
Even at home, says Bohannon, “soldiers live and train on installations dependent on vulnerable commercial power grids.” The goal, he says, is “greater operational effectiveness, measured in terms of endurance, agility, flexibility, resilience, and force protection.”
Military Procurement, Innovation, and Market Expansion
According to researchers from the Breakthrough Institute (see “Where Good Technologies Come From”), the needs and great purchasing power of the U.S. military and other branches of government have often stimulated innovation and brought new technologies to a scale at which they can transfer to the commercial market:
Interchangeable parts were developed at public armories, originally for rifles. One hundred and fifty years later, microchips, computing, and the Internet were created to guide rockets and communicate during nuclear war; today those technologies power our laptops and smartphones.
Microchips, they write, “owe their emergence to the U.S. military and space programs, which constituted almost the entire early market for the breakthrough technology in the 1960s, buying enough of the initially costly chips to drive down their price by a factor of 50 in a few short years.”:
The government has also routinely helped develop new industries by acting as an early and demanding customer for innovative, high-risk technologies that the private sector was unable or unwilling to fund.
The report says that NASA’s demand for microchips in the 1960s drove manufacturers to improve production processes, bringing the price down from $1,000 per unit to $20-$30.
The first silicon solar photovoltaic cells were developed in 1954 by Bell Labs. Because of low efficiency, those first PV cells made electricity at a prohibitive $300 per watt, “more than one hundred times more expensive than typical utility electricity rates at that time” and “far too expensive for wide-scale commercial adoption.”
However, in the late 1950s, NASA began using solar panels in satellites, with almost a million deployed by 1965. This adoption drove down the cost of the technology so that from 1956 to 1973 the price went down from $300 to $20 per watt.
Efficiencies in PV solar technologies are continuing to increase steadily, and costs are continuing to decrease. Solar costs are still higher than coal and gas, but government incentives and renewable targets are driving expansion of the U.S. solar industry. Military demand could accelerate that expansion.
In another report, the Breakthrough Institute says that
The U.S. military today uses more oil than Sweden and more electricity than Denmark. Every $10 increase in the price of oil costs the DOD more than $1 billion dollars, sapping money that should be used to equip our troops for critical missions at home and abroad.
The CNA Military Advisory Board concurs with this view of the military’s potential to spur innovation and market adoption of renewable energy. In its 2010 report, “Powering America’s Economy: Energy Innovation at the Crossroads of National Security Challenges,” the board writes,
Because of its size, the considerable amount of energy it consumes, and its extensive experience in technological innovation, DoD is uniquely positioned to spur clean energy innovation.
The Department of Energy chart shown here from the department’s solar energy technologies program projects a continuing decline in the cost of PV energy and a continuing increase in market penetration. Could the use of solar energy by the U.S. Army and other branches of the military help drive those trends and make solar cost-competitive with conventional power over the next two decades?