Blog Post

The military: where the future of cleantech lies

The future of cleantech may depend more on the work of our military than any climate change talk. The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on Wednesday that showed the U.S. Defense Department’s cleantech investment – from biofuel to solar – has ballooned 300 percent between 2006 and 2009 to reach $1.2 billion. The defense department’s spending on clean energy will likely reach $10 billion per year by 2030.

That is a lot of money and money that the military is able to secure in the name of energy independence and winning wars. Thanks to its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense department has become particularly keen on reducing the enormous risks involved in sourcing and transporting various sources of energy on the battlefield. Fuel shipment makes up 80 percent of supply convoys, the report said, and “as many as one in 46 convoys suffered a casualty in fiscal 2010.”

Aside from the dangers of transporting fuels, the military also wants to hedge against rising prices of oil and other forms of energy. The defense department consumes 80 percent of the energy used by the federal government, and its military branches have set various renewable goals.

“We in the Navy, the Marine Corp. and the entire United States military view fuel as a matter of national security,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said during a press conference last month to announce a $510 million investment in biofuels that will come from the Navy, the Energy Department and the Agriculture Department. The Navy aims to replace half of the fossil fuel-derived energy with domestic fuels. That goal will require 8 million barrels of biofuel per year by 2020, Mabus said.

No doubt some people would rather not believe that it takes wars and homeland defense to help spur clean energy innovations and deployment. But the military is playing a big role in cleantech that will likely benefit consumers in the long run. It’s certainly a familiar role: a lot of information and telecom technologies that we use today grew out of research and other projects at the military.

All four branches of the military are investing heavily in cleantech, and not just in technology for fighting battles (here is our snapshot of their projects). They also are drawing up and executing plans for installing solar, energy efficiency and other projects at military bases throughout the country. It’s no wonder that the Energy Department has established an alliance with the military in promoting cleantech development. In addition to the $510 million joint biofuel project, the DOE also recently agreed to guarantee part of a $344 million loan to put solar panels on military family housing.

The Pew report included some interesting data on the defense department’s investments in three areas: vehicle efficiency, biofuels, energy efficiency/renewable energy. For example, the defense department spent $11 billion each year, or one-third of its $15 billion energy bill, on liquid petroleum fuels. The defense department expects to increase its investment in energy-efficient vehicles (for air, land and sea) to reach $2.25 billion each year by 2015. The Navy, for one, wants to reduce its ships’ fuel use by 15 percent from 2010 and 2020, so it’s using and trying technologies including hybrid-electric engines.

The report pointed out that the defense department operates more than 500,000 buildings at about 500 sites around the world (that’s three times the square footage of all Wal-Mart stores). The department uses insulation materials for its bases to reduce its energy use and install solar arrays and projects at bases so that the bases can produce the same amount of energy it consumes.