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U.S. Department of Defense takes aggressive lead as early adopters of solar energy

By Rebecca "Becky" Halstead, Brigadier General (retired)

Rebecca "Becky" Halstead

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has a long-standing tradition of accelerating technological innovation, serving as early adopters and impacting the broader commercial market in such areas as aviation, computing and global positioning systems (GPS).

For the past several years, the DoD has been playing this same role in the renewable energy space. In fact, the Pew Charitable Trusts reports that DoD clean energy investments increased 300 percent between 2006 and 2009, from $400 million to $1.2 billion. Projections for 2030 are set to eclipse $10 billion annually, with an overall target of obtaining 25 percent of the DoD's energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Driven by climate change and the need for energy security, the DoD's plans are designed to strategically maximize effectiveness during military, disaster relief and humanitarian engagements. As initiatives unfold, the DoD will serve as a huge laboratory, laying the groundwork for widespread adoption of new ideas for optimizing efficiency and creating "zero energy" environments -- consuming only as much energy as they generate.

Efficiencies gained from a greater reliance on solar energy technologies have the potential to create energy independ­ence, shrink risks for military personnel in the field, reduce the DoD's carbon footprint and drive clean energy innovation for the entire nation. As this large-scale mission unfolds, the DoD will have a direct influence on national security and the health of the U.S. economy, with strategies shaped around overcoming two critical challenges: energy usage and strategic vulnerability.

Energy Usage

The DoD is a massive energy spender, with Deloitte reporting a 175 percent increase in gallons of fuel consumed per U.S. soldier per day since the Vietnam conflict. With 300,000 buildings on its installations, covering 2.2 billion square feet of space, the DoD spends nearly $4 billion a year on the energy needed to power them.

The DoD's energy portfolio includes the energy used at military installations around the world and energy used by military forces executing their operational responsibilities, such as fueling ships, ground vehicles and airplanes. It costs significant amounts of money to acquire, manage, transport, protect and consume fuel at this level. The true cost of fuel use ranges from $10 to almost $400 per gallon depending on distance and delivery method.

This level of dependence threatens energy security and inhibits the ability for military personnel to move freely, which puts constraints on strategic decision-making. In fact, an overwhelming percent of ground supply chain movements for current U.S. military operations are dedicated to moving fuel -- a tremendous logistical burden and major vulnerability for attack.

At its current pace of consumption, the DoD is paying too great a cost in lives, expense and compromised capability in response to climate change, oil dependence and heavy reliance on an increasingly fragile electricity grid.


Strategic Vulnerability

Climate Change -- The Pentagon leadership has ranked global warming as a destabilizing force, and has advised military strategists to stay abreast of climate science and factor global warming into their long-term planning. Heat waves and catastrophic storms put more pressure on the military to respond to humanitarian crises or natural disaster, and a number of U.S. bases are threatened by rising sea levels. In particular, bases located on the East Coast are especially vulnerable to frequent and powerful hurricanes. If sea levels were to rise by one meter, Norfolk, Virginia, an important base of the U.S. Navy, would be flooded. While climate change alone is not likely to lead to future conflict, it may be an influencing force. Climate change is affecting, and will continue to affect, U.S. military installations and access to natural resources worldwide.

Oil Dependence -- In 2011, the Center for Naval Analysis' Military Advisory Board called for "immediate, swift and aggressive action" over the next decade to reduce U.S. oil consumption 30 percent in the next 10 years, stating that U.S. dependence on oil constitutes a significant threat to the economy, global leadership position, environment and military. Even a small interruption of the daily oil supply impacts the nation's economic engine, but a sustained disruption has the potential to alter essential economic elements, from food costs and distribution to manufacturing goods and services, and freedom of movement.

Instability of the global oil supply also plays an important role, with the need for fuel-independence becoming more imperative every year. The Energy Information Administration predicts the percentage of total imported oil consumed by the U.S. will decline minimally in the next two decades -- to 53 percent in 2020 and 56 percent by 2030. As the worldwide demand for oil increases, competition for these supplies will increase.

Fragile Electricity Grid -- The DoD faces the same reliability and fuel issues as the civilian sector: aging infrastructure and grids that are susceptible to terrorist attacks and natural disasters. In the event of a large-scale power disruption, fuel resupply on military installations could be seriously compromised because of competing demand for fuel distribution.

DoD Solar Initiatives

The DoD's Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) is comprised of 27 "test bed" projects designed to test, evaluate and scale up new and innovative energy technology to reduce the $4 billion cost of powering its facilities and to improve security. The programs main areas include:

  • smart microgrids and energy storage at installations
  • advanced component technologies to improve building energy efficiency
  • advanced building energy management and control technologies
  • tools and process for design, assessment and decision-making associated with energy use and management

The DoD's fundamental investment strategy seeks to:  1) reduce demand for traditional energy through conservation and energy efficiency; and 2) increase supply of renewable and other alternative energy sources. Investments that curb demand are the most cost-effective way to improve an installation's energy profile. For the solar energy world, the DoD's energy conservation investment program adds tremendous credibility to the conversation and helps the military increase power reliability, lessen its need for diesel fuel and reduce its carbon footprint.

About the Author
Brigadier General (Ret) Becky Halstead is currently CEO/Founder of STEADFAST Leadership, a leader consultancy company. Becky is an inspirational speaker, consultant and advisor. She served in the U.S. Army for 27 years, leading over 20,000 Soldiers and 5,000 civilians in Iraq, and commanding eight out of her last 11 years in the Army. She provides logistics and leadership expertise to the Principal Solar team.