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Pentagon could be a global model for clean energy innovation

March 28, 2012

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2012 – As the heated national debate continues over how best to create cleaner and cheaper energy technology, a new report, for the first time, goes deep inside the U.S. Department of Defense to look for real-world lessons.  Conducted by the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University and the Clean Air Task Force, the report determined that just as the Pentagon’s post-World War II innovation system has in the past produced many “dual-use” technologies that have had major impacts on energy development, as well as in other sectors of the economy, it could do so again in some advanced energy areas.

However, the report by lead author John Alic, a 15-year veteran of the former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, also warns against viewing the Pentagon as an all-purpose energy innovation hub.  He notes that direct defense-related energy innovation will likely be sustainable only where it measurably improves the nation’s fighting capabilities.

“This report represents a deeply insightful analysis of the Defense Department’s historic role as an engine of technological innovation, and presents a realistic assessment of the ability of DoD, the country’s largest energy consumer, to play a similar role in energy innovation,” said Dr. Dorothy Robyn, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment.

“This study also shows how a variant of DoD’s traditional innovation model has already developed and deployed environmental technologies that are currently saving the Pentagon billions of dollars and why that same model can potentially speed the deployment and commercialization of clean energy technologies,” added Dr. Robyn.

The report, entitled “Energy Innovation at the Department of Defense: Assessing the Opportunities,” documents the key drivers behind the Pentagon’s success in fostering new technology and how it could be applied to any civilian energy innovation as well as future defense-related energy efforts, including:

·      The Pentagon is the ultimate customer and end-user for the new technology it helps create.  The Department’s annual technology innovation budget includes not only $70-plus billion for research, development, testing and evaluation; the Pentagon spends over $100 billion each year to buy the technologies that emerge, and more still to operate and maintain these systems.  By contrast, the U.S. Department of Energy, with its $5 billion per year energy research budget, does not purchase or use the resulting technology;

·      The Pentagon’s role as both innovator and customer allows it to support multi-year, billion-dollar “end-to-end” innovation efforts that produce technology that is continuously tested, deployed and refined in the field, providing real world feedback that spurs increases in performance and reduces costs.  By contrast, most of the federal government’s civilian energy innovation efforts involve research that is largely unconnected to the few commercialization efforts that it supports;

·      As a result of this end-to-end process, and integration with ultimate use, DoD and its contractors know how to bring together multiple innovations to achieve system-level advances leading to big performance gains (examples range from nuclear submarines to unmanned aircraft to large-scale information systems).  This systems approach is precisely what is needed to advance clean energy technologies;

·      The Pentagon’s scope and budget has allowed it to experiment with new and creative innovation tools such as the famously nimble Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), and the highly effective Environmental Security Technology Certification Program for testing and certifying new environmental and energy technologies for use on military bases;

·      As both technological innovator and customer, DoD is unique among government and private sector organizations as a demonstration test-bed.  Smart-grid technologies and advanced energy management systems for buildings are already poised to benefit from this aspect of the DoD innovation system;

·      DoD has collaborated effectively with other federal agencies, including the Department of Energy and its predecessors (for example, to advance nuclear energy technologies).  Continuing competition and cooperation between DoD and DoE will spur energy innovation.

The report also notes that the Pentagon could apply, and is applying, many of these tools to energy innovation challenges that have clear mission-related applications but also may have civilian use, such as energy efficiency and smart- and micro-grid technologies at military bases; lighter and more powerful batteries for battlefield equipment; and possibly advanced biofuels for military vehicles.  However, the report also notes that other key energy technologies relevant to solving global environmental problems, such as large, low-carbon central electricity generation, may be harder to square with the Pentagon’s national security mission.

This point was underscored by Sharon E. Burke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs: “By accelerating energy innovation for our warfighters, we give our troops more capability through increased range and endurance on the battlefield.  In doing so, we can better fulfill our mission - to protect and defend the nation."

Dr. Robyn went on to comment: “The report correctly illustrates how military installations, with their 300,000 buildings and thousands of acres of solar-compatible land, can be a significant platform for innovation, through the demonstration and validation of new technologies that may not yet be ready for the commercial market.”

“The U.S. Department of Defense is the most effective technology innovation engine the world has ever known, and is a good model for the kind of energy revolutions we’d like to see,” noted lead author John Alic.  “But its success stems from unique factors that will be challenging to apply broadly to the energy problem.  There’s no quick fix here that the armed services can implement, but much learning that DoD and the rest of government can apply to the energy problem.”

Nevertheless, the general innovation potential of the DoD should not be understated: “Some of the most important innovations impacting today’s consumer world trace their origin to work at the Department of Defense and particularly to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,” said Norm Augustine, former Undersecretary of the Army and member of the American Energy Innovation Council.  “These range from the internet to GPS to advanced medical devices.  A fundamental characteristic of research and innovation is that it often impacts fields well beyond those being targeted and frequently does so in important and unexpected ways.”

The report was jointly funded by the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Nathan Cummings Foundation, and was directed by the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, and the Clean Air Task Force.

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Clean Air Task Force is a non-profit environmental organization with offices throughout the United States and in China that works to protect the earth’s atmosphere by improving air quality and reducing global climate change through scientific research, public advocacy, technological innovation and private sector collaboration. For more information please visit

The Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University is an interdisciplinary intellectual network aimed at enhancing the contribution of science and technology to society's pursuit of equality, justice, freedom and overall quality of life.  CSPO creates knowledge and methods, educates students, cultivates public discourse and fosters policies to help decision makers and institutions grapple with the immense power and importance of science and technology as society charts a course for the future. For more information about CSPO, visit online at