Clean Power from the Pentagon: The Department of Defense's Research and Innovation System Is Especially Well-Suited to Advancing Clean Energy Technologies in Both the Military and Civilian Sectors

By Robyn, Dorothy; Marqusee, Jeffrey | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

Clean Power from the Pentagon: The Department of Defense's Research and Innovation System Is Especially Well-Suited to Advancing Clean Energy Technologies in Both the Military and Civilian Sectors


Robyn, Dorothy, Marqusee, Jeffrey, Issues in Science and Technology


The Department of Defense (DOD) in 2019 will invest $1.6 billion in research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) that is directly related to energy. The magnitude of the investment reflects the importance of energy to the military mission. Everything the armed forces do requires energy, which is why DOD is the single largest energy consumer in the United States.

DOD's investment in energy RDT&E also reflects the military's characteristic pursuit of advanced technology as a force multiplier. DOD played a major role in the development of three of the most important energy innovations of the past 75 years--the nuclear reactor, the gas turbine/jet engine, and the solar photovoltaic (PV) cell--and it has been the driver for many major non-energy innovations as well, including radar, satellites, GPS, lasers, computers and semiconductors, robotics, artificial intelligence, and the internet.

Although DOD's investments in energy RDT&E are driven by military needs, they have significant potential to catalyze civilian clean energy innovation, according to our recent report for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. DOD's needs are more congruent with priorities for civilian clean energy innovation than is commonly recognized. Moreover, DOD's approach to innovation is well-suited to energy technology and even addresses gaps in the efforts of the government's prime agency for civilian energy matters, the Department of Energy (DOE).

Despite their overlapping technology priorities and complementary approaches to innovation, DOE does relatively little to leverage DOD's investments in energy or its strengths as an innovator. This is a huge missed opportunity. As the United States strives to address such diverse energy innovation challenges as combating climate change and assuring long-term energy security, Congress and the Trump administration should make the most of existing federal energy investments by encouraging greater DOD-DOE collaboration.

Defense investments in energy innovation

DOD consumes energy for two broad purposes. The first is to support operations. Operational energy refers to the fuel used to power military platforms (e.g., aircraft, large drones, ships, tanks) and to run the diesel generators that produce electricity at contingency bases in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Increasingly, it also includes nonfuel forms of energy such as the batteries that power troops' portable electronic devices.

The second use of energy is to support DOD's roughly 500 enduring military bases, or "fixed installations," in the United States and overseas. Installation energy consists largely of the electricity and natural gas used to power the 300,000 buildings located on these installations, with their two billion square feet of building space.

Because energy is essential to its combat mission, the military uses a lot of it. In fiscal year 2017, DOD consumed 708,000 billion British thermal units (Btus) of operational and installation energy, which is more than 75% of the federal government's total energy consumption and about 1% of total US energy consumption.

With the goal of "enhancing mission effectiveness and reducing operational risk," the military's energy RDT&E investments are targeting five "warfighter opportunity areas."

Soldier Power. This refers to the energy needs of individual foot soldiers and small troop units. These troops are positioned in remote areas, where conditions are harsh, and they suffer most of the combat casualties. Soldiers lug as much as 100 pounds of armor, ammunition, and water--and an increasing number of electronic devices. A soldier must carry enough batteries to power these devices for a standard 72-hour patrol, and the Army wants to extend the patrol to 144 hours. In addition to developing better batteries and wireless recharging technology, DOD is investing in the development of a broad range of other portable energy sources, including fuel cells, wearable solar PV, and devices to harvest kinetic energy created by the soldiers' own motions. …

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