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Jon Gensler

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The Military and Clean Tech: The Importance of Speed When Fighting for Energy Reform

Posted: 10/20/11 07:28 PM ET

In the military, you can find examples everywhere of the importance of speed in battle. Whether it's an anti-tank SABOT round leaving the main gun of an M1A1 Abrams Main Battle Tank at nearly a mile a second, or the F-22 Raptor, which easily exceeds the speed of sound on its missions for the U.S. Air Force, these tools give American service-members the speed needed for unquestionable dominance in combat.

I experienced this first-hand as I led first my 16 soldier tank platoon in Kuwait, and then a 30 soldier mortar infantry platoon in Iraq. In modern warfare, speed and accuracy on the battlefield are everything.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) must embrace this concept as it takes on a different but equally important mission -- the cleaning up of its energy supply and deployment of renewables into its energy portfolio, operationally and here at home. The Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus has done a great job explaining why the military is doing this. But how, exactly, the military will do this remains unclear. To actually get this done, they will need to undertake and innovate around a new type of speed, one that we in the private sector understand as "project velocity."

Project velocity defines the speed at which you can push, pull, or coerce a large scale project through contracting, design, negotiations, procurement and the various other hurdles that underpin any large scale opportunity. When dealing with the federal government, one might think more of swimming in molasses rather than a fighter jet breaking the sound barrier, but procurement and operation managers must find a way to move and work quickly when pursuing, evaluating and deploying clean technologies. The Army is falling well behind its mandates and goals to be at 25 percent renewables for its electricity needs by 2025. This year it will be lucky if it hits three percent, when it should be tracking at more than twice that.

So how can the military speed up the process of fitting out its millions of acres of land with renewable energy generation, while not impacting its mission to train and prepare for the world's next fight?

As a solar developer with experience in federal markets such as the military, I can say there are a few key factors at a granular level that can help projects move quickly and effectively. Although technology is easily the least of the challenges facing the DoD in this mission, as much of the technology has already been proven, it seems to consume the media storm surrounding clean energy. The truth is that traditional solar photovoltaics have proven their reliability through decades of successful field data. But certainly PV will not fit the whole bill. Given the scope of what is needed, a broad range of technologies will be likely implemented, chosen based on each site's available resources and needs.

Instead of focusing on technology, the military should focus on the following key hurdles to project completion:

  • Site procurement -- Anyone who has worked in the federal space for long understands the challenges facing a developer when building on federal land. Each branch of the service has a different legal opinion on the Federal Acquisition Regulation and Real Estate law, and at a granular level, each installation seems to interpret it on their own as well. In order to overcome the plethora of programs that result from such complexity, from UESCs to ESPCs to EULs to everything else, at a high level we require more standardization. In its current state, the process isn't straightforward enough to entice the level of commitment from the private sector that is needed.
  • Decision makers -- The military is among the most respected institutions in our nation, and produces some of the most capable and inspiring leaders in our country. And in this mission as well, we are beginning to see real leaders emerge at the highest levels, and even at some bases. But this must become more systematic -- each service (or indeed the DoD itself) needs to clarify the roles of the utility providers, real estate property managers, energy managers, and base commanders in this process, provide them with standard tools that have been proven to work at other bases, and empower them to act.
  • Financing -- The Army estimates that it will require over7B dollars of private capital to finance its mandated goal of 2.1 Million MWh of annual renewable electricity generation, and this is where the biggest challenges of all arise. In order to do this effectively, the military must embrace, on a large scale, the financial innovations that have enabled broad deployment in the commercial and residential sectors. Primarily, I mean use of the privately financed Power Purchase Agreement (PPA). There are boundaries to be negotiated upon, and the final value of each deal will be different, but the structure itself is sound, and allows for significant up-front savings on the part of the government. Not only does the developer pay for the system costs up front, but the private sector experts also maintain the operational risk of the systems throughout the life of the contract, which is no small value in itself.

On a more macro level, the military is certainly taking a much needed step by setting up a task force to create and implement a plan. This is the impetus behind its newly launched Energy Initiatives Task Force. Though announced months ago, the effectiveness and ultimate success of this task force remains to be seen. Is it nimble and quick enough to get the job done?
This enormous undertaking will make for a huge market, but also a huge challenge, that will require creativity, scale, and focus not seen since WWII.

I have no doubt that our industry can rise to the occasion -- the question is: who will show up from the DoD? The high-speed, mission driven infantryman, or the molasses lap swimmer in the basement of the Pentagon? As the EITF's outreach director Jon Powers likes to say, 'we've got the land and the demand", but my question is -- Do they have the speed?
Additional information on EI Task Force can be found at: www.armyeio.com