Saturday, April 16, 2011

Energy Technology Innovation and DOD

Although it is often mentioned that renewable and alternative energy resources could be a game changer I believe that the real game changer is technology. After all, it is technologies that provide us the useful energy we as end-users utilize. So, not energy resources but energy technologies that are the game changers in energy equation. If we need to invent our energy future we first need to invent our future energy technologies.

This is my first critique of a recent study released by The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in March 2011. The study is called Lean, Mean and Clean: Energy Innovation and the Department of Defense. In fact, it would have made more sense if the title had replaced the word energy with technology. The length of the paper could also be easily reduced by half by cutting especially the first 6 pages. Otherwise, it is an excellent reference paper. 

It is true that the US Department of Defense (DOD) has served as a technology developer, demonstrator, early market driver, test-bed, and brought about technologies with huge commercial application by moving products from the labs to the market.

Many technologies we use today indeed grew initially out of military research. The military laid the groundwork for these technologies which later have become success. Examples include aviation technology, electronics and computing, space technology, satellites, GPS, nuclear energy. Like these technologies developed with DOD involvement, energy generation and efficiency represent dual-use technologies useful for both military and civilian purposes.

The paper’s real value is in its excellent review of DOD’s place in the innovation system. The authors list DoD innovations under three policy mechanisms: Direct R&D support, demonstration and validation, and finally procurement.

Direct R&D

• The Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC) focuses on vehicle technologies, including advanced hybrid-electric combat vehicle systems and advanced battery storage.

• DOD and DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) aims (1) to develop an advanced, modular energy storage system that can rapidly charge and discharge, (2) to accelerate development of next-generation, large-scale grid solutions for use at bases and installations including to find ways to combine onsite renewable electricity generation with microgrids.

• The Air Force and DOD are developing a software package that simulates the optimum renewable energy strategy for operating bases worldwide

Testing and Evaluation: Efficient Installations & Forward Operating Bases

• Initially developed by the Army, Power Surety Task Force aims to foster alternative energy sources in forward areas, to reduce the amount of fuel transported for power generation systems

• The Environmental Security Technology Certification Program provides a testing program for both new environmental and energy technologies on the verge of deployment, but in need of validation and demonstration.

• The Smart Power Infrastructure Demonstration for Energy Reliability and Security Program (SPIDERS) aims to demonstrate a smart microgrid that incorporates numerous combinations of clean energy sources as well as energy efficiency technologies that could be deployed in numerous environments

• Innovative solar power systems investigate combination of rechargeable batteries and solar panels to be used on high impact equipments and to reduce the number of batteries carried by troops.

• Solar Thermal Bases are expected to generate their own electricity needs

• The Army Research Laboratory’s Field Assistance in Science and Technology Center will provide on-the-ground assistance to address technology issues on the front lines, including in the energy realm (an array of energy challenges from storage to conversion to intelligent management)

Testing and Evaluation: Fuel for Vehicles, Aircraft, and Battleships

• Air Force Synthetic fuels / Biofuels programs

• Navy’s research on the effective use of alternative logistics fuels in naval power systems


• Army and Navy’s Advanced Geothermal Power

• Alternative Energy Vehicles

Looking Ahead

DOD is acting as a critical bridge in the broader clean technology innovation lifecycle, helping technologies developed in public and private laboratories. As the authors underline DOD is well-positioned to serve as this bridge, providing testing, demonstration and validation at a key point in the technology development cycle, and serving as a potential early market.

The authors come to the following conclusions:

• Continued, responsible support from Congress for DOD’s efforts should continue.

• Transparent partnership and collaboration is needed to maximize opportunities to innovate.

• Radical or revolutionary energy technologies may be developed in labs in universities, private firms, or public research institutions, but can require additional policy support post-invention at market entry and perhaps beyond to become commercially useful through cost curve reductions.

Their conclusions make sense but not complete. It gives an impression that as if all innovations come with private sector partnership . Where then should one put the NAVSEA Incentivized Energy Conservation Program? DOD is capable of innovating also without involvement of private sector. DoD has brilliant people. The question is whether DOD is or capable of fully utilizing them.

As the authors stress, DOD can both contribute to its own mission and fulfill a translational role in the technology development cycle represents a “win-win” combination for a nation in need of energy innovation. But the question is who wins more?

DOD is the first user of these technologies but at the end they become a private sector success. History has shown that DOD has spent billions of dollars for developing many technologies we use but at the end it is private companies that have reaped the benefit most in terms of money. Why does the DOD not get a share of the profit when the technology becomes fully operational and commercial?

This brings me to the procurement part of the technology innovation policy mechanisms. Why does the DOD always provide assured return on investment for private investment? Wrong choices (like the corn ethanol push) will only help wasting more money. The government should not have the luxury of being generous with tax payers money.

In his remarks on fiscal policy President Obaba said on 13 April 2011 that “We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world.” Well, then he should do something about wasted money on clean energy gadgets.



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