As energy use by the U.S. military grows — the Department of Defense (DoD) uses 300,000 barrels of oil every day — the conversation about how the military can consume cleaner power continues to grow, too. At the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit earlier this year, it was one of the key topics. An op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this year called for a U.S. shift to renewables, noting that more than 1,000 troops have been killed on fuel-related missions in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The U.S. military is the No. 1 consumer of oil in the entire world and also the biggest spender. The organization has initiated a goal to consume 25 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2025. Pike Research projects that renewable energy spending will grow from $1.8 billion a year today to $26.8 billion in 2030, and recently the U.S. military established the Energy Initiatives Office Task Force, specifically for large-scale renewable energy projects, which will invest an estimated $7.1 billion over the next ten years.
This comes at a time when renewable energy is at a crossroads. The popular Treasury Grant could expire this year, and many statewide incentives are drying up. On top of that, the economy is looking unpredictable at best, and with massive cuts to government spending likely to hit all federal agencies, the DOD may suddenly become the most important agency to renewable energy adoption.
Where does solar fit in?
The military is inking deals across the entire cleantech industry. One obvious technology is biofuels, which the Air Force and Navy are developing for their fleets. The army is also adopting solid state lighting and next-generation batteries.
Domestically, military bases are working to test wind and solar. The technology they use may ultimately replace trucking drums of fuel to military bases in the Middle East, the aforementioned cause of many casualties. Although wind may prove tactically insecure, solar could be a perfect fit for many military bases.
At Skyline Solar we believe concentrating photovoltaics (CPV) are the best fit for military bases in the American Southwest. CPV utilizes sun-tracking technology and mirrors to concentrate the sunlight, which when combined take advantage of the strong sun throughout the day and can be built in projects from a few hundred kilowatts to multiple megawatts. These military bases not only have flat, open land perfect for midsize solar installations but also provide a good test site for similar bases established in the Middle East.
Other types of solar technology, while not without their advantages, have issues that may be detrimental to military bases. Concentrating solar thermal (CST) technology, which uses concentrated sunlight to heat a fluid and spin a conventional turbine, requires more than 100 times more water per watt than CPV, which is not realistic for desert settings.
Furthermore, CST plants are only economical on a large scale and usually take years to build. In contrast, CPV can be built in modular pieces of a plant quickly. Smaller plants distributed in various areas — also known as distributed generation (DG) — are more secure for the military’s purposes and also less financially risky. On the other hand, standard silicon PV has seen reduced costs and has the longest track record, but it doesn’t provide the same cost per watt that CPV can deliver in desert environments.
There are still some considerations for solar to work for the military. Storage will need to advance and become cheaper and more powerful to make solar viable without backup sources of power. The U.S. DoD is working on this, but it is still something the CPV industry will look to solve. Furthermore, the military adheres to the Buy American Clause, so any solar panel manufacturer must be delivering a product manufactured in the U.S. for consideration.
The military’s continuing advocacy for renewable energy is a boon for the entire industry and could potentially save thousands of lives in future combat scenarios. Smart solar pros are already learning how their technology can work for the military, to fight for a greener and more secure tomorrow.
Bob MacDonald is the Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer for Skyline Solar. MacDonald has a proven track record of driving revenue growth, building market focus and optimizing operational efficiencies with emerging high-tech ventures. He led the product marketing program at SolFocus; prior to SolFocus he co-founded and served as VP of Sales and Marketing for Onetta, a leading optical amplifier company. During his tenure, he secured funding from Sequoia Capital and Matrix Partners. Earlier in his career, MacDonald started the telecom components division of New Focus, a division of Newport Corporation, a leader in photonics development and manufacturing, which enabled the company’s successful IPO and secondary offerings. He holds a BSEE from Brown University, MSEE from Stanford University, and MS and Ph.D. in Physics from Brown University.