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Energy Strong: How DoD Leads on Clean Energy Innovation and Deployment

As we said this past summer in our “Sizing the Clean Economy” report, the U.S. energy system won’t be cleaned up without a combination of aggressive innovation to develop new technologies and widespread deployment of existing ones. The trouble is, bold action at the federal level appears imminent on neither of these issues. 

Fortunately, though, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD)--one of the largest institutional technology and energy users in the country--has demonstrated a commitment to both processes. And now two new initiatives show how the department is using its power of procurement to at once create markets and drive the deployment of both existing and new technologies.

The DoD’s Installation Energy Test Bed program shows the department serving as a demanding “first customer” for new and game-changing technologies. The program has been playing a key role in testing, evaluating, and scaling up innovative clean energy technologies to reduce energy costs at DoD installations. The DoD has 300,000 buildings on its military installations and spends $4 billion a year on the energy needed to operate them.

For FY12, the program has selected 27 new projects to demonstrate emerging innovative technologies on military installations. These projects are in partnership with private firms, universities, federal organizations, and research labs and cover the following five areas: smart microgrids and energy storage; advanced component technologies to improve building energy efficiency; advanced building energy management and control technologies; tools and processes for design, assessment, and decision-making associated with energy use; and technologies for renewable energy generation on installations.

On one project, Soladigm Inc., along with DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, will design and demonstrate dynamic windows to optimize solar heat gain and daylighting at a California Marine Corps Air Station. On another project, Morgan Solar Inc. will demonstrate an innovative, simplified, and inexpensive concentrating solar module that uses a patented light guide solar optic. Through these and other selected projects, the DoD is serving as the launching pad for many clean energy technologies that will hopefully diffuse into the civilian sector. An ITIF report provides a comprehensive review of the important innovation activities at DoD.

Yet the test bed program represents only one dimension of the department’s activism. At the same time, the DoD is playing an equally important role in clean energy deployment. A recent Pew Report has documented how the DoD is accelerating the deployment of clean energy technologies, especially in areas of vehicle efficiency, advanced biofuels, and energy efficiency and renewables at military bases. Now, the department is moving forward again with the announcement that Project SolarStrong--a major new foray into clean energy deployment--will move ahead. This is especially good news. Not long ago SolarStrong appeared to be dead after it failed to secure a needed DOE loan guarantee. However, with the DoD undeterred, SolarStrong is happening anyway because the project was able to secure financial assistance from Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch. This project will nearly double the number of solar panels on residential rooftops, with SolarCity installing, owning, and operating rooftop solar panels on 120,000 privatized military residences across 33 states and scores of metropolitan areas.

This, in short, is one way technology transformation occurs, even as the country drifts. Note, after all, that DoD has long served as a catalytic force for innovation and advancement of technologies like the Internet and GPS that later became integral parts of civilian society. Now, it has the potential and the drive to fulfill a similar role in clean energy.