June 15, 2009

DOD on Energy: Model FOBs to Model Cities?

Some of DOD’s most interesting advanced research and development projects have focused on incorporating various energy technologies into a fully operational system – a “Net Zero” forward operating base, as they call the one pictured here. This work showcases how DOD can serve as a national leader in innovation just by working to solve its own energy problems. More important, it showcases a recognition that the country must create a full new energy system, not just develop new energy sources in isolation from transmission, infrastructure, and other potentially vulnerable points.

But the question remains: is this as far as DOD should go? While the Department and the individual services have launched demonstration projects for forward operating bases that produce on-site all the energy they need to run, these projects represents only a fraction of the potential demand pull and technology demonstration from the Department of Defense.

It is appropriate, of course, for DOD to simply comply with efficiency and renewable energy standards set for it in legislation and by Department and service leaders, supplemented only with technological fixes to its own persistent problems, such as the vulnerability of convoys transporting energy supplies in theater. And it is not always appropriate for DOD or the services to spend time and resources to go beyond addressing mandates and critical needs, especially for the purpose of fixing the nation’s non-military domestic problems.

NetZero Forward Operating Base, Fort Irwin, CA. Source: U.S. Department of Defense.But for the U.S. energy security challenge, DOD presents perhaps the only good opportunity for the federal government to demonstrate a complete new energy system that incorporates every aspect of a low-carbon energy economy, just as the Net Zero forward operating base does.

The Department of Defense runs not only forward operating bases, of course, but also 570,000 other facilities, including stores, hospitals, living spaces, offices, and depots. It manages a roughly $23 billion military construction and family housing budget (FY2010 request) for investing in new buildings and upgrades to existing structures, including improvements for energy efficiency and alternative fuel use. More to the point, many bases operate in ways similar to cities, with facilities and energy infrastructure – from housing complexes to fueling stations – no different from towns across the country.

What does this mean? Through DOD, the federal government could potentially create something akin to a model city to really pull new technologies to commercial scale through high-volume purchasing, serve as a platform for testing high-risk, high-reward innovation, and provide a way to study which aspects of the energy system will be the most and the least difficult and expensive to change. The Fort Irwin Net Zero forward operating base is a big step in showcasing the energy ingenuity at DOD. Hopefully it is only the first act.

Photo: NetZero Forward Operating Base, Fort Irwin, CA. Courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense.