A House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on March 22, 2012 in Washington, DC.

The U.S. military can jump-start commercialization of energy innovations by serving as a test bed for new ideas, top Department of Defense officials say.

Dorothy Robyn, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Installations and Environment, told the Edison Foundation’s Powering the People 2.0 conference in Washington March 22 that DOD manages over 300,000 buildings – “three times as many as Walmart” – on 28 million acres.

New buildings are constructed to be highly energy efficient, but many buildings are aging and planned for renovation. With so many facilities, she said, the military can try out innovations that aren’t yet commercial, and can become a large customer for ideas that produce results.

“Test Driving” Energy Efficient Technologies

Robyn cited two innovations now being tested: microturbines and electrochromic windows.

FlexEnergy’s microturbines are being tested at an old landfill at Ft. Benning, GA, Robyn said. The military has long used the methane generated by landfills for power, but the heat value of methane drops off as landfills age, and eventually their gas can’t be used by conventional turbines. The microturbines have a thermal oxidizer that can utilize the low-quality gas.

If it works economically, Robyn said, the military has “dozens” more landfills.

The electrochromic windows have a thin film that blocks heat from summer sun so buildings can use smaller air-conditioning units, a technology development supported by the Department of Energy, Robyn said. The windows are more expensive than standard ones, and engineers for private buildings don’t want to risk using new technology, she said, but the military can try it on a building and measure results.

Richard Kidd, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army, Energy and Sustainability, said at Ft. Carson, CO, the Army is working with DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to design a microgrid supporting electric vehicle recharging. The results, he said, “will inform broader electrification of vehicles.”

Susan Story, President and CEO, Southern Company Services, said her company has been working with the military, as well as major ports and airports, to convert diesel vehicles like cranes and forklifts to electricity, which is both cheaper and cleaner. Military facilities use lots of those “off-road” vehicles, she said.

The Military is a Unique Customer

Asked whether trying out innovations means the military pays too much, Kidd said he thinks not. For instance, the military is fostering renewables by making land available on some bases for renewable generating facilities, such as solar panels. The Army is able to offer the land for a new project and a long-term power purchase agreement, “up to 30 years,” said Kidd, which virtually no other potential customer can do, keeping the power price down.

Story said Southern is in talks with 10 of the 30 military installations in Southern’s service territory about siting renewables, solar or biomass, on the bases.

Robyn said the military is also working with utilities, grid operators and other federal agencies on shared issues like cybersecurity and “smart grid” upgrading.

The Army established the Energy Initiatives Office Task Force in August 2011 as the newest part of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment. Read the full Breaking Energy story: Securing The Energy Initiative, here.

Smart grid control technologies can enable microgrids, and Kidd said the military is investing in microgrids so military bases, in an emergency, have on-base generating sources. But, he stressed, the military doesn’t want to operate generation, and doesn’t want to be isolated from the civilian grid except in an emergency.

For building efficiencies, the military is turning heavily to “performance contracting,” under which private companies upgrade buildings and earn their profits from the savings. President Obama ordered government agencies in December to use more performance contracting, and Kidd said the Army already has over $900 million in savings “in the pipeline.”