There might be a debate in the political world about the value of solar energy and energy storage for the grid, businesses, and homeowners. But there doesn't seem to be any disagreement in the military over the value of solar energy, both in the field and at bases in the U.S.
Solar and energy storage could increase security for thousands of troops across the country, and in the next decade the military could be a huge source of growth for the industry.
Where solar and energy storage provides value
According to a recent piece by Joshua Pearce, a professor at Michigan Tech University who also receives research funding from the DOE and military, there are three types of threats to energy the military is worried about at domestic bases: natural disasters, crime or terrorism, and cyber threats.
Since the military normally relies on the "civilian grid" for electricity, it's susceptible to the same forces that have left millions of Americans without power over the last two months because of hurricanes. Attacks of some sort and cyber threats, which are a growing concern for grid operators, would be major concerns for the military by proxy.
Renewable energy installations or microgrids on military bases could help answer some of that challenge. SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR) has built solar projects at the U.S. Army's Redstone Arsenal in Alabama, Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California, and the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It even added a 1-megawatt (MW) energy storage system at Redstone Arsenal earlier this year to reduce peak power demand at the base. First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) recently supplied 120 MW of solar modules to a military base installation in Florida.
Generating electricity on-site and storing it on-site would ensure military bases could operate even when the broader grid goes down, something they're already prepared for with fossil fuels. The DOE's Quadrennial Energy Review put the backup power needs like this:
Onsite backup generation is DOD's primary method for sustaining operations during grid outages. According to DOD in 2011, most facilities use diesel generators to support operations and critical missions, with enough fuel to sustain basic functions for 3–7 days or more at many installations.
You could imagine that sufficiently large wind or solar installations combined with energy storage could make a base sustainable indefinitely without the broader grid. Large sections of the report also highlight how vulnerable the electric grid is and how solar and energy storage could increase security.
Field power needs in battle zones are arguably more critical to the military but present more difficult solutions. Solar and storage don't have the energy density of gasoline or diesel, making a solar array hard to justify unless a base will be in place for a long time. That could prevent solar and energy storage from being a key solution for the military in the field, for now.
The opportunity for solar and storage in the military is massive
So far, the military sees the value of solar and energy storage but is tiptoeing into building capacity. But Congress has directed military facilities to get 25% of their energy from renewable sources by 2025, which could drive 17 GW of domestic renewable demand with even more demand at bases overseas, according to "U.S. strategic solar photovoltaic-powered microgrid deployment for enhanced national security."
Military demand for solar and energy storage could be a booming demand driver over the next decade, and the two U.S. manufacturing leaders, SunPower and First Solar, are in the driver's seat for providing the technology needed to build capacity. As the political storm around renewable energy brews in Washington D.C., the military could be a forgotten tailwind behind solar energy in coming years.