The U.S. Military and Energy Innovation
Did you know that America’s largest installed solar power plant is located on Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada? The 14-megawatt solar array (shown at left) went live in late 2007 and remains the largest solar power plant in the United States.
While First Solar’s recent announcement of two 250-megawatt solar power plants in California dwarfs the military’s solar array, the fact remains that for a considerable amount of time the military will have operated the largest solar array in the United States. Why would the military take this step? The answer is energy security.
In late September, the National Defense University (NDU) hosted an energy security conference on its campus in Washington, D.C., located at Fort McNair and under the operation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the conference, one recurring theme was the importance of distributed energy for military operations such as the solar array at Nellis Air Force Base. This includes operations on bases worldwide and deployed forces actively engaged in conflict.
The future of the military presents a considerable opportunity to push innovation in energy development and deployment. When it comes to ingenuity, discipline, and dedication, it is hard to find a more effective body than the U.S. military.
As one speaker at the conference put it, “When it comes to the military, you undertake your actions in order to save lives.” That incentive easily trumps the mighty dollar. The U.S. military could prove to be the perfect proving ground for distributed generation applications including support for a smart grid. At the conference, most suggested initiating projects at permanent bases in order to prove concepts in a more controlled environment.
The leaders in the national defense arena have acknowledged the threat of climate change and they understand the vulnerability that exists with traditional energy sources. CNA Analysis & Solutions, an expert on national defense, recently released a report on energy and the risks to national security.
Furthermore, the next Quadrennial Defense Review will incorporate the risk of climate change in determining the future threats for national security. As the military and research institutions that focus on national defense begin to develop and implement policy changes related to energy use, it will be critical that the following factors are at the core of the strategy:
- Security and Reliability: Reliable access to energy is pivotal for national defense. This means distributed power for bases both overseas and in the United States to reduce the dependence on commercial utilities and large-scale liquid fuel transport convoys for mission critical applications.
- Cost Effectiveness: While you cannot put a price on the safety of soldiers, the budget is not a bottomless well. In this context, the right incentives could encourage savings on energy. One example would be allowing a percentage of the savings to go directly to other programs at the discretion of the group that implemented the energy saving policy.
- Climate Change: The military is the nation’s single largest energy consumer (0.8% in 2006). The military understands the threat to national security from climate threat; it should act in all possible ways to mitigate that danger.
In the 1960s, the Department of Defense developed a system for use in case of a nuclear attack; this system required groundbreaking ingenuity and became the foundation of today’s Internet. In a similar fashion, energy security is a new opportunity to unlock the innovation in the military.
[photo credit: Nellis Air Force Base]
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