It’s been noted before that war drives innovation. From cling film to aerosols, digital cameras to cold medicine and GM foods to Google, many of the gadgets and conveniences enjoyed today can be traced back to conflict. It’s therefore encouraging to learn that the US military has recently announced that it aims to use 50% renewable energy within ten years – a move that could well bring solar power to the masses.
Even as Congress has struggled to pass an energy bill and many states have put renewable energy on hold because of the recession, the military has pushed rapidly forward. Senior commanders have come to see dependence on fossil fuel as a big liability, and renewable technologies as providing a potential answer.
“There are a lot of profound reasons for doing this, but for us at the core it’s practical,” said Ray Mabus, the Navy secretary and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, who has said he wants 50 percent of the power for the Navy and Marines to come from renewable energy sources by 2020. That figure includes energy for bases as well as fuel for cars and ships.
“Fossil fuel is the No. 1 thing we import to Afghanistan,” Mr. Mabus said, “and guarding that fuel is keeping the troops from doing what they were sent there to do, to fight or engage local people.”
This is all interesting in its own right, but the decisive impact may be on the global energy economy. In the last 50 years, many of the United States’ great technological breakthroughs have been made possible because of the demand created by large-scale military and space projects, and the military’s demand for solar technologies today could create the conditions for a broad commercial market in the years ahead.
As we know, there are dozens of companies that manufacture rooftop PV systems, but the units retail for around Euros 20,000. It takes around 15 years for the average household to enjoy the benefits of the free electricity that these systems provide, but if the military’s demand boosts production, it will yield an enviable economy of scale.
This economy of scale will lower the price and begin a self-perpetuating cycle of cost savings – which happened with the microchip, the computer, and other commercial spinoffs. The cost-benefit ratio would come down to the point where more consumers will buy a unit for their home, which will spur still more production and possibly bring in other companies to compete for market share, which will lower prices further.
And then, all of a sudden, solar power becomes not just an environmentally and strategically desirable option, but also an affordable one in mass market - and for PV producers, that’s the Holy Grail.
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Simeon de la Torre
Editor, Power and Energy Solutions