How the US Military Could Bring Solar Power to Mass Market


Photo: US Department of Defense

Yesterday, the New York Times reported that the US military was "pushing aggressively to develop, test and deploy renewable energy to decrease its need to transport fossil fuels," in order to avoid increasingly frequent attacks on supply convoys. Deploying renewable energy to power military bases has been a goal for years, and now the first battalions are hauling solar panels into Afghanistan. While this will serve to protect American troops by eliminating the need for treacherous fuel convoys, some are suggesting that there may be far wider implications. Namely, that the rapid development and production of solar equipment for the military will open up the US renewables market, and make solar better and more affordable for US consumers. That's the central thesis Slate's Fred Kaplan puts forward in his recent piece Marines Go Green. He notes that the military sees clean energy as both a way to reduce security risks and to cut costs -- hauling gasoline to the front lines in Afghanistan costs $400 a gallon. As such, it's developing a wide range of clean energy projects, from electric-powered amphibious vehicles to jets that run on a biofuel mix to lightweight solar power generators for encampments. Kaplan writes:

This is all interesting in its own right, but the decisive impact may be on the civilian energy economy.

In the last half-century, many of the United States' great technological breakthroughs have been made possible because of the demand created by large-scale government projects--which, in this country, has mainly meant military and space projects ... the military's demand for renewable-energy technologies today could create the conditions for a wide commercial market in the years ahead.

Widespread governmental investment was instrumental in making the personal computer affordable for consumers, among many other hi-tech products, and now the same may happen to solar:
Right now, there are companies that manufacture rooftop solar-power systems. But the units retail for $20,000. It would take about 20 years for the average household to amortize the savings from no longer having to pay monthly electricity bills--which is to say, it's unaffordable.

However, if the military's demand boosts production, which yields economies of scale, which lowers the price, and on and on--as happened with the microchip, the computer, and other commercial spinoffs--then the cost-benefit ratio would come down to the point where some people will buy a unit for their home, which will spur still more production and perhaps bring in other companies to compete for market share, which will lower prices further ... and all of a sudden, solar power becomes not just an environmentally and strategically desirable option but also an affordable one--which, in terms of creating a mass market for a product, is the only thing that matters.

Furthermore, Congress is infinitely more likely to approve funding for R&D; and infrastructure if the projects are military-related. Which is depressing, but true -- the one thing that no politician can get caught opposing is the safety of American troops.

In fact, the whole premise of the article is rather depressing, on point though it may be: The only way we may end up getting a competitive clean energy industry is through serious military investment, which is of course, serious government spending. Which under any other guise would be vehemently opposed by conservatives.

So we can't pass legislation that would allegedly "pick winners and losers" by making polluters responsible for their emissions, in order to level the playing field for renewable energy in the marketplace. And we can't pass a law that would address global climate change, which is already causing hundreds of thousands (if not millions) to suffer around the world. But we can dump funding into clean energy R&D; to ensure American dominance on the battlefield -- and perhaps the benefits of that investment will trickle down to American consumers, too.

More on the US Military and Clean Energy
US Military Needs to Get Off Oil by 2040: Report
Who Uses the Most Energy in the US? The Military
33 US Military Generals, Admirals: "Climate Change is Threatening National Security"

Tags: Clean Energy | Solar Power | United States