What with half a billion dollars in federal cash flushed down the California toilets of the Solyndra solar panel company, the nation has been presented with a nearly irresistible opportunity to scoff at government investment in alternative energy.
If you must, scoff at the means — not the end. It can be done right, and in fact is being done right. Here in Georgia, among other places.
Two days before Solyndra executives were forced to make a perp walk into a U.S. House committee room, where they took their Fifth Amendment pledges of silence, Pew Charitable Trusts issued a detailed report on the Pentagon’s effort to wean U.S. forces from foreign oil.
The paper shows us a Department of Defense that is already one of the largest sources of venture capital in the world when it comes to solar energy, wind, geothermal and biomass fuel. As of last year, the Pentagon was the sponsor of 450 separate projects. The U.S. Army alone plans to spend $7.1 billion on energy development and conservation in the next decade.
There is a certain practicality of purpose behind the drive — apart from any sense of thrift or idealistic dedication to the environment. A military that is 80 percent dependent on oil from people who don’t wish us well is a highly vulnerable force.
The modern American soldier soaks up, on average, 22 gallons of fuel per day — a 175 percent increase over Vietnam days. From 2003 to 2007, in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. forces endured 3,000 casualties — uniformed and civilian — associated with fuel delivery, according to the Pew report.
An overseas soldier with a 90-pound pack is slowed by roughly 18 pounds of batteries. Even military bases within the United States are often at the mercy of civilian power providers.
One of the highlights of the Pentagon’s efforts, announced in August, is a $510 million investment pool — about the same as the Solyndra investment — created by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture. The military cash will fund a three-year effort, with help of private contractors, to build refineries capable of producing “significant quantities of advance biofuels.”
“[Tuesday], I visited with a group of industrialists who are building plants in southeast Georgia and utilizing the multitude of pine trees — in that area to produce a product that can be inserted in existing coal-fired plants on military bases,” said former Navy secretary and U.S. senator John Warner, who headed up the Pew project. “I’m intending to refer them to the [Pentagon] under this program.”
Bill Wilson, a spokesman for Swedish-owned BMC in Savannah, confirmed that company executives had met with Warner to discuss the wood pellets the company makes at a newly opened Waycross facility. Currently, most are shipped to European power plants.
But a larger player in the Pentagon’s biomass energy hunt will be the University of Georgia. “We have a new project with the [Department of Defense] through the Army, collaboration with the University of Puerto Rico, to look at algae fuel,” said Ryan Adolphson, director of faculty at UGA’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.
The armed forces are looking for a “drop-in” replacement for petroleum products that by 2020 will be cost-competitive with stuff from the ground. Adolphson says whether that’s realistic is hard to say.
“Biodiesel is relatively close. But biodiesel is really not an acceptable fuel for a lot of these weapons platform vehicles,” he said. “Logically, the DOD and Army and all of the branches want to move toward a single fuel. They don’t want to have all these different kinds of fuel.”
And the jobs? Dave McNeil is president and CEO of Hannah Solar Government Services — sister company to Hannah Solar of Atlanta. Since January, McNeil’s start-up company has placed $60 million in bids at military and other federal facilities.
“The military is more aggressive than the other parts of the federal government. They have been really pushing it — Marines and Navy, especially,” said McNeil, a retired colonel and former base commander at Fort Dix in New Jersey.
His firm intends to specialize in the installation of solar units on the ground, on roofs — and on canopies over parking lots. “That’s very big now,” McNeil said. “No. 1, you’re generating electricity. No. 2, you’re shading anything underneath it, whether vehicles or equipment, from the sun. The paint, the rubber, the grommets, the hoses — you’re going to get extra life span from the vehicle.”
The point is that, when it comes to alternative energy, the Pentagon is making large and small investments. Large bets are vetted; performance goals are clearly stated. So far, no half-billion dollar bets have been made on the success of a single technology or company.
“Like anything else they do, it’s very methodical and very thought out, and very deliberate. Nothing against our other branches of government — that’s just the way the military operates,” McNeil said.
- By Jim Galloway, Political Insider