Like a crouching tiger, the hidden dragon of the US renewable energy industry has spent four years waiting for a staunch ally to occupy the Oval Office again, so hold on to your hats. President-elect Joe Biden will take up the position of Commander-in-Chief on January 20 with an ambitious plan for climate action, and the US Department of Defense is here to help.
Renewable Energy: Call Out The National Guard!
Before we get to the US Department of Defense, let’s pause for a moment and take stock of the fallout from last week’s failed insurrection. No, really. An armed insurrection actually just took place in the US, targeting Vice President Mike Pence and innumerable members of Congress. Can you believe it? Well, it did.
The full consequences have yet to unspool, but a growing number of top US businesses have already stated that they will stop donating to 147-odd members of Congress who abetted the murderous plot when they pledged to object to the Electoral College vote. If and when our favorite clean tech firms go public on the matter, we’ll be sure to give them a shout-out.
Meanwhile, with thousands of National Guard bunking out in the very halls of Congress to make sure that American democracy lives — literally — to see another day, now would be a good time to take stock of the role of the US Department of Defense in the renewable energy revolution.
CleanTechnica first caught wind of the connection between the DOD and renewable energy during the Obama administration. The DOD was entranced by the idea of scavenging energy on-the-go instead of paying to ship it in. Back in 2011, for example, the Kansas National Guard tested a solar-equipped tent in Africa. That was just the tip of the iceberg. A flurry of activity burst forth all throughout the Obama administration — and then it kept right on going all throughout the Trump administration.
To cite just one prescient example, Trump’s first year in office saw the Indiana National Guard hook up with Duke Energy for a 5-megawatt solar power project at its Camp Atterbury training center, located in the south-central part of the state.
This was not just about solar power. The Atterbury project was intended to demonstrate how solar power, energy storage, and microgrid technology could support a key national defense facility. That’s a huge deal because the renewables-plus-microgrid approach dovetails with a broader Energy Department grid modernization initiative that ditches large, centralized fossil power plants in favor of renewable energy and distributed energy resources, aka DERS.
In a further sign of things to come, in 2019 the 123rd Airlift Wing of the Kentucky Air National Guard launched a rooftop solar power project at Louisville International Airport. Though relatively small in size, the project helped to raise the profile of the solar industry in a state previously defined by coal.
More (Distributed) Renewable Energy For The USA
Meanwhile, the DERS trend is catching on like wildfire and a new partnership between the DOD and the Department of Energy aims at bringing next-generation microgrid tech to the nation’s sprawling array of military facilities.
With that in mind, let’s zero in on a company called Switched Source. The Energy Department’s cutting-edge tech funding office ARPA-E just included the firm in a new $47 million round of funding under the banner of “Commercial Scaling of Transformational Energy Projects.”
Switched Source spun off from Michigan State University just a few years ago, and it has already tucked millions in Energy Department support under its belt. Here’s a quick summary from MSU:
“Developed by MSU Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor Dr. Fang Peng, Switched Source’s unified power flow controller (UPFC) technology cost-effectively integrates more renewable electricity into the existing power grid. It enhances the grid’s efficiency and reliability, improving its resiliency to possible disruptions, generating potential cost savings of up to 40 percent.”
US Dept. Of Defense Hearts New Energy Technology
You caught that thing about “effectively integrates more renewable energy,” right? Well, so did the DOD.
Last March, the DOD hooked up with ARPA-E to launch a new initiative called “Enhancing Energy Security Through Defense Partnerships.”
“One of the pillars of our mission here at ARPA-E is to enhance the economic and energy security of the United States. We do this by supporting the development of energy technologies that could potentially reduce energy imports from foreign sources, decrease energy-related emissions, and improve the energy efficiency of our nation’s economic sectors,” explained ARPA-E, by way of introducing the idea that part of the plan is to engage in strategic partnerships that scoot new technology out of the lab and onto the shelves of your local hardware store.
“The technologies we are helping to develop can help DoD to operate U.S. forces more effectively and increase their energy efficiency and resilience. And since ARPA-E is modeled on DoD’s popular Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, you could say that partnering with DoD on energy innovation is in our DNA,” they enthuse.
The new initiative recruits something called the DOD Environmental Security Technology Certification Program to demonstrate and validate technologies that come through the ARPA-E pipeline, and the Switched Source is among the first cohort of four projects to kick off the program.
More Renewables For National Defense
Under the wing of the DOD, Switched Source received an ARPA-E grant of $725,850 for a project called “Increased Distribution System Connectivity through the Application of the Tie Controller.”
Think of the Tie Controller as an Internet router for your power sources, and you’re on the right track. It’s an automated control system that feeds different power sources across a network, with the aim of improving performance while decreasing the chance or disruptions.
“One circuit can “borrow” capacity from another, enabling better load balancing, fuller use of intermittent and distributed energy resources, and built-in redundancy to minimize outages,” explains ARPA-E.
There they go with those DERS again. Check out the handy YouTube video from Switched Source to see how the Tie Connector operates in a microgrid.
That thing about “intermittent” also indicates a strong emphasis on renewable energy, much to the surprise of no-one. The Defense Department has been all over climate change as a national security threat since at least 2013, and it will take more than a failed reality show host and his allies to turn that ship around.
The Energy Department and the DOD have spent the last 10 years laying the groundwork for decarbonizing the US economy, and if anything their activity ramped up during the Trump administration, not down.
Come to think of it, there was a real flurry of activity on the part of both agencies in the weeks leading up to Election Day 2020.
The Energy Department unleashed a slew of news between October and on Election Day, November 3, including a green hydrogen partnership with the Netherlands and support for a a new multinational pumped storage hydropower collaboration.
The Energy Department also helped launch the new multinational Global Power System Transformation Consortium, with the mission of coordinating EV adoption, renewables, and other clean tech in developing markets and elsewhere.
Other big Energy Department news in 2020 included a new energy storage initiative, a renewed push for affordable solar power, and foundational research on emerging fields like solid state EV batteries and low cost perovskite solar cells.
Not to be outdone, in October the The US Air Force issued a new crowd-sourcing challenge for decarbonizing the entire DOD.
Do you think they were trying to tell us something?
Hold on to your hats. The Atterbury project was still active as of 2019 and CleanTechnica is reaching out to Duke for an update.
Follow me on Twitter.
Image (screenshot): Tie Controller for more wind and solar power integration by Switched Source via YouTube.