This Air Force base solar project is one of many solar plants being built on military land. Image: SunEdison.

"I want to urge you to redouble your efforts. The work that you're doing and purpose of this conference is crucial." -- Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, at the Energy Storage Association conference.  

With two sentences, one of the highest-ranking military leaders in the U.S. showed just how important energy innovation is. He would go on to ask important questions, such as "How do we take alternative energy and run it 24 hours a day? How do we construct a microgrid on a base? How do we store energy?"

These are important questions for the military, and they're important questions for companies developing new products and innovations in energy today. If the military's challenges can be answered, building the next generation of the grid will be a cakewalk by comparison. 

SunEdison is hoping that Solar Grid Storage will help it build a microgrid business. Image: SunEdison.

The military is pushing the envelope
One of the biggest challenges the military faces is getting energy to troops in the field. Whether it's a base in another country or a remote site operation, energy is always needed and is often hard to come by in abundance. Energy convoys have long been a target for opposition forces; if the military could rely on renewable on-site energy, there would be "no supply chain vulnerability", as Richard Kidd, deputy assistant secretary of the Army in charge of energy security, said in 2013.  

The solutions the military is looking for include microgrids and portable power. On the microgrid side, SunEdison (OTC:SUNEQ), SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWR), and First Solar (NASDAQ:FSLR) are all working on ideas that could create solutions very soon.

SunEdison bought Solar Grid Storage earlier this year in an effort to bring microgrid services to the market, and SunPower has built multiple projects for the military, although energy storage hasn't been a major component yet. So companies are moving in the direction of microgrids, but they're not there yet.

Another place where advances are necessary is in portable energy. Whether it's radios, satellite phones, heaters, or other energy needs in the field, the solar and energy storage industries could help. But they're not answering that call quite yet. 

Goal Zero's Sherpa 100 Solar Kit includes solar cells and a battery that can give you power in remote locations. Image: Goal Zero.

Portable power progressing... slowly
On the portable power side, progress is slower. Goal Zero, a company NRG Energy (NYSE:NRG) bought last year, provides some small, portable solar cells, and a battery as well. SunPower has dabbled in small chargers, but so far it hasn't made a big investment in portable power.

For the solar industry, this could be the biggest opportunity in the next five years. It's proven that stationary energy production using the sun is possible; now that technology needs to be made portable if the military is going to use it on a larger scale.

The military is asking for more innovation... and that's a good thing
What's encouraging for the solar and energy storage industries is that the military is demanding more innovation from renewable energy partners. Where there is a will, and money, companies can find a way.

Microgrids are something that's possible even today, but more work has to be done on portable energy production and storage to satisfy the military's needs. But that presents a great opportunity, especially for U.S. product makers like SunPower and First Solar. Expect the military to be among their most important customers in coming years, because they'll push the envelope in ways that utilities can't yet imagine.