US Army looks to renewables

Elizabeth Block

While the US continues to drag its feet on climate change in terms of national emissions legislation, its armed forces have been investing in renewable energy – on a very large scale.

This article is taken from the May/June issue of Renewable Energy Focus magazine. To register to receive a digital copy click here.

According to Pike Research, part of Navigant's Energy Practice, the total capacity of US Department of Defense (DOD) renewable energy installations will quadruple by 2025 – from 80MW in 2013 to more than 3200MW by 2025.

“US military spending on renewable energy programmes, including conservation measures, will reach almost $1.8 billion in 2025,” says research analyst Dexter Gauntlett. “This effort has the potential to not only transform the production, consumption, and transport of fuel and energy within the military; it will likely make the DOD one of the most important drivers of cleantech in the US.”

Or, as Pike puts it in a new report: “As the largest single consumer of energy in the world, the US Department of Defense (DoD) is one of the most important drivers for the cleantech market today.”

In fact, this is not a new development. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service energy specialist Anthony Andrews, Congress began mandating reductions in energy use by federal agencies back in the early 1970s. This was to be achieved by improving building efficiency and reducing fossil fuel use.

This was followed by President Obama's Executive Order of 2009 – mandating a 30% reduction in energy usage and other measures by federal agencies. Later, Net Zero, a 2010 policy introduced by the Army Energy Programme, decreed that on-site operations should use energy produced on-site, leading to use of solar at forward bases in Afghanistan, for example. In a related defence development, the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) has been looking into renewable jet fuel.

And in the 2011 documentary Carbon Nation, Colonel Dan Nolan, US Army (Ret) said: “Climate change in fact is a national security issue. This is no longer the purview of Birkenstock-wearing tree huggers. Not that there's anything wrong with that.”

Net Zero, similar to other military policies, is driven not by concern about climate change or green jobs but by the need for energy security – and fuel economy. While Net Zero is an army initiative, the other service branches, the US Air Force, Navy and Marines all have their own programmes and targets.

As the Army says: “Today the Army faces significant threats to our energy and water supply requirements both home and abroad. Addressing energy security and sustainability is operationally necessary, financially prudent, and essential to mission accomplishment. The goal is to manage our installations not only on a net zero energy basis, but net zero water and waste as well.”

In fact, military involvement in renewables should be seen as two separate but connected strands: efforts directly funded by government, usually via contracts with defence contractors, and independent efforts by the defence and aerospace industries, which depend on the armed forces' procurement offices.

The future

As Chuck Hagel, the new US Secretary of Defense, is known for his opposition to Kyoto, a question was put to the DoD about continuity. Sharon Burke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for US Operational Energy Plans and Programmes, said: “Our commitment to giving our troops the best energy options remains unchanged. DoD missions require a significant and steady supply of energy, which is increasingly a requirement that can be exploited by our adversaries as a vulnerability. That's why DoD's investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy, including new investments in the FY14 budget, are focused on enhanced military capabilities, more mission success, and lower costs.”

Meantime, and very importantly for our sector, it is not just defence industries. Some solar firms are in the picture, such as Solar City, which lists “military” among customer categories on its website, along with building companies and utilities. For example, late last year the US Army launched a major solar project for up to 4,7000 military homes at Fort Bliss, Texas, and the nearby White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, with Solar City and Balfour Beatty Communities LLC, part of Balfour Beatty plc, as partners.

This is a 13.2MW project, part of Solar Strong, Solar City's five-year plan for more than $1bn in solar projects for up to 120,000 military homes throughout the US. Local utility El Paso Electric is currently in discussions on the Fort Bliss and White Sands projects.

Importantly, the various US directives have stimulated innovation. For example, the US has a Defense Innovation Marketplace – and this should not come as a surprise. We all know that we owe the internet to early US military efforts. Given the large sums involved, US military commitment to low carbon could be very good news for our sector.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

About: Elizabeth Block is a London-based writer specialising in renewable energy. A native of New York in the US, she has a background as a financial journalist, specialising in institutional investment.

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