From airplanes to computers to satellites, the technologies that define life in the 21st century overwhelmingly have one thing in common -- early support from the Department of Defense. Now, there is a growing push by businesses, researchers and defense officials to add energy technologies to the list.
In recent years, DOD has awoken to not only the financial cost of its tremendous reliance on oil -- for every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil, DOD's annual fuel budget goes up about $130 million -- but also the strategic and human costs. Fuel convoys have become targets for enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one study found that the military sustains one casualty for every 24 convoys it runs.
As the goals of reducing fuel use and switching to new power sources have climbed the list of priorities within DOD, officials are looking at ways of leveraging the department's history of successfully shepherding new technologies for energy payoffs.
"We're a huge consumer of energy and we can make significant improvements with existing technology, but to make a dramatic improvement, we want to draw on new technology that's coming out," said Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Dorothy Robyn, who oversees the department's 300,000 buildings and 30 million acres of land.
Those buildings and acres can be valuable testbeds for nascent technologies, she said, pointing to a DOD program that has funded 40 projects at military installations around the country, including one that tests building-integrated photovoltaics. Not only will that project prove the technology so that, should it prove successful, the Army Corps of Engineers could incorporate it into future buildings, but it is also feeding valuable data back to the company, she said.
Offering up its installations as testbeds is just one way DOD can help carry new technologies across the valley of death, says a new report by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.
The department also has a well-funded and well-coordinated research and development program, and its enormous purchasing power can provide early markets for new technologies.
But even though many technologies DOD has supported in the past have eventually made their way to the public, the department is not just any other investor. It tends to focus on areas where its needs -- like powering heavy tanks or flying stealth aircraft -- are very different from that of the commercial sector.
These military needs, called "requirements" in DOD parlance, are at the heart of what DOD will be investing in.
"We need to be able to say, 'This is what we need to be able to do,' and then let the innovation come to us," said Sharon Burke, who serves as the department's first assistant secretary for operational energy.
Her office is establishing an "innovations fund" to help marry these military requirements with energy innovations, she said today.
Click here to read the report.