2:00am

Mon October 24, 2011
National Security

U.S. Military Boosts Clean Energy, With Startup Help

Originally published on Mon October 24, 2011 4:03 pm

With a bill of about $15 billion a year the U.S. military is the largest energy user in the country by far, so the Defense Department has been finding alternative ways to meet its energy needs with help from Silicon Valley.

But this partnership between the military and clean tech companies is taking some heat in the midst of discussions about Solyndra, the failed solar panel manufacturer, and the riskiness of green startups.

From a military standpoint, oil is not only expensive and hard to transport; it's also a liability. Last year there were more than 1,000 attacks on U.S. fuel convoys in war zones, and that's a strategic vulnerability for the military.

"We looked at vulnerabilities for the Navy and Marine Corps, and one of the ones that rose right to the top was our dependence on fossil fuels," U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus says.

"Every time the price of oil goes up a dollar a barrel it costs the Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs," he says.

Green Military Contracts

According to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust, over the last four years the military has tripled its investment in technologies like biofuels, solar panels and electric vehicles. The Defense Department spends $1.2 billion a year on alternative energy.

That's great news for people like Bob MacDonald, chief technology officer of Skyline Solar, which makes solar arrays. The company's product is relatively low-tech; the components are off-the-shelf and easy to assemble.

A few years ago, MacDonald saw that the military was looking for clean-tech companies like his to partner with. He flew to Washington to present Skyline's product. It was a new kind of crowd for him.

"There's a lot of brass, literally a lot of stripes and shoulder adornments and things around the table," MacDonald says. "So I kept it simple — 'Sir, yes sir.' "

MacDonald left with a $1.5 million contract to try out his panels on two U.S. military bases, one in Texas and one in Southern California. Now he's eying remote bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The two worlds of alternative energy and the military may seem like cultural opposites but they have much in common, says Jon Gensler, an Iraq war veteran who now works for San Diego-based Borrego Solar.

"There's so much that you don't know when you're starting a business and there's so much that you don't know when you're out on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's the ability to operate comfortably with the unknown," Gensler says.

Powering Up Startups

The hope of many clean-tech entrepreneurs is that the cachet and the enormous buying power of the military can transform their companies, attract more investors, add jobs and change them from scrappy startups into real players.

"Eight years ago we were five people with a completely delusional dream," says Jonathan Wolfson, CEO of Solazyme, which sells algae-based fuel to the U.S. Navy.

"So to go from that to having an entity like the military, which is very, very disciplined and demands tremendous discipline out of its suppliers, it does really good things to help a company like Solazyme," Wolfson says.

But clean energy technology does have its opponents. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa from Southern California criticized the emphasis on green energy at a hearing earlier this month focused on the bankruptcy of Solyndra. The company received and lost half a billion dollars in federal loans.

"The Obama administration has systematically waged a war on carbon-based energy in pursuit of new green energy," Issa said.

Issa and other Republicans have argued that clean tech is just too risky for government investment, despite a law Congress passed in 2007 encouraging clean energy.

It puts Navy Secretary Mabus in the curious position of being one of clean technology's last defenders in Washington. "To lower carbon emissions, to lower greenhouse gas — that's a good thing to have happen," he says.

But those environmental benefits are secondary, Mabus says.

"We're doing this to become a better military, to make us better war fighters. We're doing this as a matter of security," he says.

Mabus says his goal is that by the year 2020, the Navy and Marine Corps will get at least half their fuel from alternative sources.

Copyright 2013 KQED. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And, the largest user of energy in this country is by far the U.S. military. Its energy bill runs around $15 billion a year. The Pentagon is looking for alternative ways to meet its energy needs, and that's led to a surprising alliance between the military and clean technology companies. This comes at a time when renewable energy producers are not too popular in Washington. Amy Standen of member station KQED has this report.

AMY STANDEN, BYLINE: From a military standpoint, oil isn't just expensive and hard to transport. It's a liability.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This burned-out tanker exploded in Pakistan, killing at least 16 people.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: NATO oil tankers on fire, and flames and smoke climbing high into the sky.

STANDEN: Last year, there were more than a thousand attacks on U.S. fuel convoys. From a military perspective, that is what's known as a strategic vulnerability.

SECRETARY RAY MABUS: We looked at vulnerabilities for the Navy and the Marine Corps, and one of the ones that rose right to the top was our dependence on fossil fuels.

STANDEN: Ray Mabus is Secretary of the U.S. Navy. He says fossil fuels can also require doing business with countries that are in turmoil, and instability is expensive.

MABUS: Every time the price of oil goes up a dollar a barrel, it costs the Navy $31 million in extra fuel costs.

STANDEN: According to a recent report by the Pew Charitable Trust, the military has tripled its investment in technologies like biofuels, solar panels and electric vehicles over the last four years. Today, the Defense Department spends $1.2 billion a year on alternative energy. And that is great news for people like Bob MacDonald in Mountain View, California.

BOB MACDONALD: Let's go out and take a look at the system.

STANDEN: MacDonald is the chief technology officer of Skyline Solar, which makes solar arrays. It's relatively low-tech stuff. The components are off-the-shelf, easy to assemble.

MACDONALD: And when it gets into place...

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAPPING)

MACDONALD: ...it just snaps down.

STANDEN: A few years ago, MacDonald saw that the military was looking for clean-tech companies like his to partner with. He flew to Washington to present Skyline's product. It was kind of a new crowd for him.

MACDONALD: Wow, there's a lot of brass, you know, literally a lot of stripes and shoulder adornments and things around the table.

STANDEN: Colonels, corporals, sergeants.

MACDONALD: I just kept it pretty simple. Sir, yes sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STANDEN: MacDonald left with a one-and-a-half million dollar contract to try out his panels on two U.S. military bases, one in Texas, one in Southern California. Now he's eying remote bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. These two worlds - alternative energy and the military - may seem like cultural opposites. But there's a lot they have in common, says Jon Gensler. He's a veteran of the war in Iraq who now works for Borrego Solar, based in San Diego.

JON GENSLER: There's so much that you don't know when you're starting a business, and there's so much that you don't know when you're out on patrol in Iraq or Afghanistan. It's the ability to operate comfortably with the unknown.

STANDEN: The hope of many clean-tech entrepreneurs is that the cachet - not to mention the enormous buying power of the military - can transform their companies, attract more investors, add jobs, change them from scrappy start-ups into real players.

JONATHAN WOLFSON: I mean, eight years ago we were five people with a completely delusional dream.

STANDEN: Jonathan Wolfson is CEO of Solazyme, which sells algae-based fuel to the U.S. Navy.

WOLFSON: And so you go from that to having an entity like the military, which is very, very disciplined and demands tremendous discipline out of its suppliers, it does really good things to help a company like Solazyme.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: The Obama Administration has systematically waged a war on carbon-based energy in pursuit of new green energy.

STANDEN: That's Republican Congressman Darrell Issa from Southern California at a hearing earlier this month focused on the bankruptcy of solar panel maker Solyndra. The company had received - and lost - half a billion dollars in federal loans. Issa and other Republicans have argued that clean tech is just too risky for government investment. That's despite a law Congress passed in 2007 encouraging clean energy, which puts Navy Secretary Mabus in the curious position of being one of clean technology's last defenders in Washington.

MABUS: To lower carbon emissions, to lower greenhouse gas, that's a good thing to have happen.

STANDEN: But those environmental benefits, he says, are secondary.

MABUS: We're doing this to become a better military, to make us better war fighters. We're doing this as a matter of security.

STANDEN: Mabus says his goal is that by the year 2020, the Navy and Marine Corps will get at least half their fuel from alternative sources. For NPR News, I'm Amy Standen, in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.