Powering Energy Innovation


Clean Power From the Pentagon
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In “Clean Power From the Pentagon” (Issues, Summer 2019), Dorothy Robyn and Jeffrey Marqusee cogently make the case for using the pull of military energy needs to both advance more rapid development of low-carbon energy technologies and meet military mission needs for more energy efficient, lighter, and advanced power for the battlefield. The authors have decades of Pentagon experience—Marqusee worked for me running the Department of Defense (DOD) environment and facility energy technology programs (SERDP and ESTCP) in the 1990s. Robyn led DOD’s energy and environmental programs during the Obama administration, a position comparable to the one I held in the Clinton administration.

The Department of Energy (DOE) is charged with funding and conducting energy research for the nation. DOD is the nation’s single-largest energy user, and thus, even though it accounts for only about 1% of total US energy use, it has the ability to advance market demand for new energy technologies.

Leaders at both DOD and DOE have recognized the value of deeper collaboration on energy technology, and have signed a Memorandum of Agreement to advance this collaboration. Unfortunately, the stovepipes of the individual DOD and DOE labs, combined with the rigid bureaucratic structures through which each agency reports, have in many ways held back what could be even more productive collaborations in the nation’s interest to advance energy technologies.

The most compelling story the authors tell is about opportunities to advance battery technology for military power needs, and the enormous boost “next gen” batteries will enable in commercial energy storage for renewables. DOD’s demands for better batteries, for everything from lighter loads for soldier power to advanced drones and other autonomous systems, are enormous.

The key for DOE is that the collaboration recognize and target DOD end users as an early adoption market. In my own experience, DOE labs are increasingly interested and open to supporting military needs through their research, especially when encouraged by DOE headquarters to do so. DOD, for its part, needs to ensure that it has good channels for conveying its military energy needs across the DOE enterprise of labs and senior scientists.

Equally valuable would be collaborative R&D planning at an early enough stage that DOE research resources can meaningfully be devoted to defense needs. Such collaborative planning takes effort at the headquarters and program manager level, but can have meaningful payoff to improve the military’s readiness to power the next battle.

Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security)
Founder of the CNA Military Advisory Board on Energy, Climate Change, and National Security
Senior Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

Robyn and Marqusee envision DOD as a partner of DOE in research, development, and early implementation of new energy technologies to meet both defense and commercial needs. They highlight specific opportunities for collaboration in cutting-edge energy technologies, note how DOD can be a lead customer for advanced technologies that may be too expensive or insufficiently proven for immediate commercial applications, and argue that the two departments are failing to take advantage of each other’s strengths to pursue shared goals for developing new energy technologies.

In essence the authors have restated the arguments for dual-use technologies, but have done so in the context of explicit cooperation between the federal government’s largest funder of energy R&D and its largest user of energy.

I found one aspect of their argument especially compelling. They note that “a partnership [of DOE] with DOD in areas where the military’s needs are aligned with those of commercial users would introduce much-needed demand-pull into DOE’s R&D process” (emphasis added). They list several reasons that the demand for new energy technologies in general is attenuated, although it is notable that they do not address why the demand for new energy technologies from DOE is not particularly strong. DOD is accustomed to using R&D and innovation to meet specific demanding mission needs in a way that commercial energy markets are not. As a “customer” for DOE-generated energy technology, DOD could provide a ready market for new high-performance or clean energy technologies, or both.

DOD is accustomed to using R&D and innovation to meet specific demanding mission needs in a way that commercial energy markets are not.

One shouldn’t underestimate the bureaucratic and cultural challenges of DOD/DOE partnerships. Each department has constituencies in Congress, in the Office of Management and Budget, and among interested publics that may not welcome such interactions. National security classification is of paramount concern in DOD, whereas it may be of little or no concern to the parts of DOE of interest to this argument. Priority-setting mechanisms and processes in the two departments are unlikely to be compatible. Even DARPA and ARPA-E, the departments’ advanced R&D agencies that are arguably the most similar, follow different protocols for identifying project priorities, selecting and evaluating performers, and putting results into practice.

Robyn and Marqusee argue successfully, I believe, for the potential value of energy R&D and implementation cooperation between DOD and DOE. They are largely silent, however, on how such cooperation might actually be accomplished. One approach would be for the agencies, under the watchful eye of Congress, to sign on to a high-level, high-stakes, “all-in” commitment to work together across a broad range of energy R&D and innovation—to create an “umbrella agreement” under which cooperation could be endorsed and enabled. A second approach would be for the two departments, acting through DARPA and ARPA-E, to experiment by engaging in several ad hoc joint projects or programs both to develop new advanced energy technologies and to “learn by doing” how to resolve the inevitable issues that will arise in their collaborations. My vote is for the second approach.

Professor Emeritus, George Mason University
Partner, Technology Policy International

Cite this Article

“Powering Energy Innovation.” Issues in Science and Technology 36, no. 1 (Fall 2019).

Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, Fall 2019