Taking the Fight to Clean Energy: What the Military’s Investment in Energy Innovation for the Warfighter Means for the Rest of Us
The Department of Defense invests $1.6 billion a year in research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) to meet the energy needs of the U.S. warfighter, which are growing steadily as information technology increasingly permeates the battlefield. Because the DOD’s investments are highly mission-driven, many analysts have argued they are not relevant to clean energy innovation beyond the defense sector. But is that really the case?
On March 5, 2019, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation held an event to launch a comprehensive new report on the DOD’s energy innovation effort. Following the report’s authors’ presentations, a panel of experts discussed ways civilian agencies and other organizations might better build on the DOD’s investments.
Dorothy Robyn, the report’s coauthor and a senior fellow at the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy, emphasized that the report is not a critique of the DOD’s energy RDT&E effort, but rather its recommendations are directed at civilian entities—particularly the Department of Energy (DOE).
The DOD invests in energy RTD&E for two key reasons. First, the DOD is the largest energy consumer in the United States, and possibly the entire world. Second, energy is a source of vulnerability for the military; for example, fuel convoys were the most vulnerable targets in Iraq and Afghanistan. As with other priorities, the department seeks to address its challenges by stimulating technological innovation. The DOD’s energy innovation efforts focus on a set of “warfighter opportunity areas,” which range from dismounted soldiers and small tactical units to unmanned underwater, surface, and air vehicles.
Robyn then detailed ways through which military R&D and procurement influence civilian innovation. The DOD invests in foundational science, technology and engineering, and pursues technologies of early interest to the military. Military R&D has been used to leverage and advance commercial technology, and shared infrastructures and platforms have been used as test beds for commercial technologies as well. Lastly, the military has adopted and procured commercial technologies—such as wide bandgap semiconductors for power electronics—early on.
The report’s coauthor, Jeffrey Marqusee, senior research adviser at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, then shared four case studies where the DOD has been a successful innovator. These cases covered solar energy and photovoltaics (PV), energy storage, microgrids, and wide bandgap semiconductors.
Marqusee also gave general recommendations for how civilian agencies can improve their ability to capitalize on DOD’s energy innovation. First, the DOE and DOD should collaborate more. Marqusee argued that collaboration with the DOD would make the DOE a stronger innovator, since it can provide the opportunity to “learn by doing” through demonstration and “learn by using” through early adoption, which are critical factors in product development and keeping manufacturing costs down, respectively.
Following Marqusee’s remarks, Conner Prochaska, chief commercialization officer and director of the office of technology transitions at DOE, spoke about the department’s efforts to encourage technology transfer. He emphasized how essential it is to ensure that partnerships and collaboration between the DOE and DOD are purposeful, as opposed to merely coincidental. He also discussed the DOE’s annual Laboratory Performance Report Cards, which measure how well national labs are doing at technology transition and maturation. Prochaska noted that it is imperative not to distort the research agenda by trying to commercialize everything; however, there are some areas where commercialization is an important goal.
Lee Buchanan, venture partner at Paladin Capital Group, expressed doubts that the DOD and DOE can collaborate successfully. In his opinion, the two agencies have fundamentally different cultures. The DOD works towards achievable requirements, which leaves little room for vision in his view. On the other hand, the DOE largely defines its own mission, allowing for more vision. Adding industry as a third party to this collaboration creates further challenges. Marqusee and Robyn contested Buchanan’s assessment, emphasizing that the agencies’ differences in culture and directions—particularly how the DOD focuses on technology translation and the DOE on technology development—can complement each other.
Overall, the military relies on energy for everything it does, and therefore pursues innovation in order to achieve mission success. In doing so, DOD creates knowledge and technologies that are of potentially great value to DOE and the energy industry, which should take note of DOD RDT&E and try to increase collaboration.